Career: Detective/Private Investigator
The Raymond Chandler-spawned image of the hard-boiled detective, sipping scotch, fighting in dark alleys and being pursued by rich beautiful women gave way on the entertainment circuit twenty years ago to those more like James Garner as Jim Rockford. On The Rockford Files, a scrappy street-smart ex-con eschewed violence and ducked moral stands in favor of maintaining personal safety. For the first time, detectives were portrayed doing what they really do: “Mostly it’s just background checks and finding lost people,” said one detective from Dallas; “usually it’s between family members.” Detectives fulfill client requests for research and surveillance; over 40 percent of their work has to do with divorces. Most detectives spend a lot of time using computer searching resources. Familiarity with credit checks, Lexis/Nexis/Dow Jones searches, and Internet-searching facilities is crucial. Detectives frequently search credit reports, birth and death records, marriage licenses, tax filings, news reports, and legal filings. Involvement with legal issues and lawyers is cited as one of the most prominent features of daily life. Usually, only the final stages of searches for lost or missing people involve significant travel.
Detective work for smaller agencies involves a high quotient of solitude and isolation. A solo practitioner must have solid budgeting and client-relations skills, a strong work ethic, and an independent style. Most detectives are paid per project; there are usually limitations on the time that any fee will cover. Those who join larger agencies must be skilled at prioritizing, writing reports, using a variety of institutionalized resources, and working with teams of other detectives. Large firms sometimes have annual contracts with corporations to investigate internal problems and provide security. Maintaining contacts and personal recommendations is critical.
The skills acquired during an academic career aren’t the skills that a detective uses, so degrees are relatively unimportant. At larger firms a degree in criminal behavior, psychology, or law enforcement may be a plus on a resume, but the primary traits employers look for are experience in related fields and an appropriate temperament. Over 75 percent of all private detectives learn the investigative skills required for the profession and make contacts with other future private detectives in the military, local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, or private security firms. Others attend private detective schools, which teach students how to fingerprint, take samples, write reports and use firearms. Over 25 percent have experience as bodyguards and over 80 percent have licenses for firearms. Few use them, however: “If you want to be a gunslinger, rent a movie. Private detectives investigate and report. That’s all,” said one. Specific computer search skills are usually taught by any hiring firm.
An investigator should be able to work alone, think logically, react quickly to changing circumstances, use sound judgment, and keep a professional distance from her work. Maturity is a must. Some states require private detectives to pass certain exams and post a bond to ensure their compliance with state regulations; check with local authorities for the laws in your area.
Investigators who leave the profession often return to the law-enforcement, security work, or military setting from which they came. The uncertainty of detective work seems the most significant reason people leave; a few cite burnout as the hours are long and the pay is uneven. Detectives also often go to law school when they want to switch careers.