Watching popular entertainment leaves an impression that surveillance is performed by sitting in the front seats of a car parked across the street from the people being watched.
This depiction of surveillance is seen in everything from daytime cop dramas to the new generation of supposed reality shows pitting a cheating spouse and their paramour against the jilted spouse and their investigator.
From the vantage of a film director putting the actors in the front seat makes sense because the camera is able to see the surveillance team performing surveillance. That’s great for the audience, but for real investigators this is the opposite of the result they need.
For the professional behind the camera, taking video rather than appearing in one, the most crucial element of a successful surveillance is remaining unseen by the subject. The success of the investigator’s efforts to remain anonymous and invisible to the subject will largely determine the outcome of the case.
Proper surveillance starts with a specially equipped vehicle. The specifics of the equipment vary between investigators, but most begin by tinting the windows and making custom blackout curtains to fit all of the windows behind the front seats. One more curtain hangs just behind the front seats dividing the vehicle’s interior between the front and rear seats.
With this equipment in place, the investigators vehicle appears empty when he is performing stationary surveillance. From the outside, the vehicle’s empty front seats are easily visible and give the impression of an uninhabited parked car. Tinted windows and blackout curtains mask the rear seats where the investigator sits in darkness, looking out toward the home or workplace of the subject.
The investigator endeavors to find parking that puts the sun on one side of the vehicle and the area under surveillance on the other. Blackout curtains on the sun side of the vehicle, behind the front seats and across the rear window transform the interior of the investigator’s vehicle into a darkroom with the investigator looking out of a one-way mirror.
This is called a “surveillance hide,” and allows the investigator to use his vehicle to observe and video anonymously. This technique is also known as “stationary surveillance,” because the investigator and his vehicle are not moving.
Not surprisingly once the subject gets going the surveillance case becomes “moving.” Moving surveillance requires following another vehicle without being noticed and trying to get usable video or photos of the subject’s vehicle to document the route.
Most investigators following a surveillance subject will try to keep one or two other cars between them, masking the investigator from the subject. This diminishes the likelihood of the subject noticing they are being tailed.
At times, there will be no choice but to get right behind the surveillance subject, typically while they make a turn on a busy street with a traffic signal. Here, the investigator must decide how many times they can turn with the subject without being noticed?
Instead of following into the left turn lane, the investigator can pass the subject, then a U turn sends the investigator back to the same intersection where they can resume tailing the subject once they negotiate their left turn. This allows the investigator to resume following the subject a few cars back without having had to stop directly behind the subject as they turned left.
The point to moving surveillance is to remain in contact with the subject without being noticed. The investigator can watch the side mirrors of the subject’s vehicle to see how many times the subject looks directly at the investigator. More than once is bad and more than twice means the investigator has been noticed, so the emphasis for moving surveillance is remaining discrete. With this in mind, most investigators will end the surveillance if they believe the subject has become suspicious and return on another day using a different vehicle.
Once moving surveillance has successfully lead the case to the subject’s destination, the destination may be observable by the investigator from the surveillance hide but this is not always true. The investigator must always be ready to leave their surveillance vehicle and follow the subject on foot.
Similar to following another vehicle, while following a person on foot the investigator tries to keep a few others between them and the subject as a visual screen. The distance kept between the subject and the investigator depends on the investigator’s equipment. Miniature hidden covert cameras are useful for getting clear color video and photos up close to the subject with little probability they will notice the cameras.
Being up close and using covert cameras has some down sides. Remaining discrete requires some distance while good video with a covert camera typically requires getting up close.
Many investigators keep a camera in a specially prepared bag that permits taking video or photos with the camera hidden inside. The bags have either a small clear plastic window or some open mesh that allows the camera’s lens to see out.
This allows the investigator to remain further from the subject and still get good images while using available cover to mask themselves from the subject’s visual range, increasing their ability to remain in surveillance longer than an investigator who must get up close with a hidden camera.
Most investigators use both, and the decision to remain back or get up close depends on the facts of the case and the goals of the investigation.
For further information on performing surveillance, please visit my website at www.jdstoneagency.com/surveillance