The Ultimate Cheat Sheet On Surveillance

Surveillance is such a sexy word. That’s what I thought until one day as a rookie detective I drew the short straw on an investigation. We really didn’t draw straws. The lead detective of any case needing some type of operational procedures such as intelligence or tactical processes usually assigned peers to duties by asking for volunteers. We worked well as a team. However, on this day my sergeant picked me for the task. He was ex-military, so he referred to it as reconnaissance. That sounds even more exciting, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

Many components make up a successful investigation and “spying” is one of many valuable tools. Basically, as a police officer when you conduct surveillance, you are observing something or someone in order to gain information. This information may be vital to a case, data needed for a search warrant, or the basis of an arrest operation. Some of it is done by working your survey angle from the street view. Although it might not be the most thrilling of all the law enforcement duties, it is useful to investigations.

My first stakeout assignment was not a risky adrenaline pumped duty like putting a GPS underneath a doper’s car while trying to avoid detection. It was the old fashioned kind sitting in a car where your best skills were x-ray vision and situational awareness. I learned fast that keeping a watchful eye was very critcial to an operation but equivalent to watching paint dry. The early lessons spawned valuable training used for future endeavors:

1. Have a full tank of gas in your g-ride. It is very possibly the most embarrassing thing to have another cop bring you a can of gasoline and make you into a powder puff detective on the wall of shame. If this does happen on a stakeout, you can use it as a cover. No one in a neighborhood would think twice about the blond girl running out of gas and crying for help.

2. You are off the grid. Modern technology can be friend or foe in surveillance. Gadgets are good if they don’t make noise or luminesce. Think of this assignment as being the covert of the covert-est. A best practice is to be offline unless you want to alert the entire neighborhood and light yourself up like a Christmas tree. Put your cell phone in your center console or put it on “spy mode” so it doesn’t give away your secret hiding place. Nothing is more embarrassing than making yourself with Candy Crush alerts or death by Facebook.

Have an encrypted talk around channel to communicate. Here you and your peers can air the loudest burps or place your bets on the feral cat fights. Cell phones get in the way and have too many lights and bells to distract you. Plus, it is inevitable the spouse will text you a grocery list and backlight you for all the neighbors to see. Once they are alerted to strangers in their residential area, they call the cops or form groups around you. Thank you, honey.

3. You are a freaking spy. People will be impressed you are 007 reincarnate. This is the time to channel your inner secret agent and as far as everyone else knows, you are in the Congo. Make sure your attire is neighborhood friendly, blends with your target atmosphere, or is black so the cloak of darkness becomes your friend. Disguises are optional, but don’t look like a cop. Do not talk into your hand or collar. That is so passe. Besides, only the FBI and Secret Service do that. Wear a big ginormous watch with lots of features including a GPS. It looks official.


Maybe a little too obvious…

When you talk about working surveillance, it is glamorous. Tell your friends you can’t discuss your operation or act hastily, explaining you are in the middle of something HUGE. Conspiracies make you look super important. Convey urgency because with this assignment, the department has you repelling down the side of a castle wall, for Pete’s sake. Not just anyone can gather intelligence. The last thing you want them to know is you are stuck in your car for hours shoving a jelly donut in your face.

4. Use cool words. You need to learn the lingo or make it up. Use hip vocabulary like “target”, “intelligence”, and make up some new codes. Metaphors are handy like “the fox is in the hen house” or “eyes on the sparrow” to describe you are in place and in line of sight of your mark. Your operations should have names like “Operation Mother Load”. Each member of your team can be assigned a code name such as “The Crime Reaper”.

5. Things to occupy your mind while your eyes do the watching can be challenging. If you are a champion multitasker and have to be busy all the time, you might need something to make the duration of the surveillance less monotonous. This describes most all cops. They get itchy. When you get itchy, you are bound to make mistakes.

When you start to fidget, recognize this critical time to start bringing in a new ball to your juggling act. Singing in your head is a good choice. Show tunes are popular. Unfortunately, you might get the music stuck in your head for several days. As an alternative pastime, cops also count feral cats or try to make out conversation between targets. Sometimes, the voice overs are more entertaining than reality.



There are also those who fall slightly short of rock star greatness and cannot handle multiple activities at once. If you are one of the one-task-oriented folks, just focus on the mark. Do not take your eyes off the prize.

6. Pack a mongo lunch. The worst thing you can do on a stakeout is starve. Believe me, I almost died once. Sure, it can be nutritional if you are into that kind of thing, but necessary items are sugar, salt, and caffeine. Preferably, food that does not make noise is best. Sun flower seeds are popular. Nothing beats challenging yourself to a solitaire game of shell distance spitting. If you have a team, make it a contest.

Swiss cake rolls also work well. Follow them up with some silent salty snacks. But don’t let your butt grow wider than your driver’s seat.

7. Park in a place where you can establish an exit plan. No one wants to acknowledge this issue. One might think it pertains to escaping the assignment undetected by bad guys or always knowing your escape routes. I am referring to an elimination plan. It may be embarrassing to talk about, but it is a real fact of nature and an everyday function. Girls need a place to squat and go. The boys can go anywhere and have been known to go in a bottle to remain invisible to the residents or citizens in the target area. As for us girls, we just can’t do it because of physical makeup and well, that is just gross.

If you have any of the other emergencies, make sure you have a Plan B. Those moments are best if a leap frog process is in place where you have a fall back established with another unit. To avoid such a crisis, eat food which backs you up and avoid apples, prunes, and cranberry juice.

Surveillance for me was fun in a team environment, but as an individual assignment it was about as sexy as painting the ceiling beige. Television makes it out to be more dramatic that it usually is. Nonetheless, it is something all cops will have to do in their career. In any event, it is good to make thorough plans before setting up at your targeted location. With technology advancing at an exponential rate, police may someday combine the old fashioned police 101 techniques with new methods such as- watching their suspects via flat screen with some popcorn like real spies. Wait. That already happens, doesn’t it?