Get to know this real-life licensed California profession
When you hear “private investigator,” what images come to your mind? What about intriguing TV depictions like “Monk,” “Veronica Mars,” and “Magnum, P.I.”? How about memorable movie investigators, including “Chinatown’s” Jake Gittes, “The Maltese Falcon’s” Sam Spade, and John Shaft of the “Shaft” series? Then there are renowned literary sleuths like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, or even the granddaddy of all P.I. depictions, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Like much in movies, books, and TV, private investigator depictions tend to be “inspired by true events.” As often depicted in fiction, P.I.s’ lives are exciting, their worlds glamorous, and their abilities near-supernatural. But what about real private investigators? What do they do and how can you become one of the more than 8,300 P.I.s licensed in California?
A COLORFUL HISTORY
According to the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS)—California’s licensing agency for private investigators and many other professionals who help keep us safe—P.I.s actually have a very interesting nonfiction national history.
Regulation of the private security industry began in 1915, when California enacted a licensing requirement for private investigators, but the history of the U.S. industry dates back nearly another century. One of the industry’s founders was Allan Pinkerton, who immigrated to the United States in 1843. By 1850, he had founded the Chicago-based Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which would quickly become the industry’s largest private security company. Among the agency’s main customers were the railroads, which had to deal with outlaws who robbed trains and their passengers. In the mid-1800s, there were no federal authorities to chase these criminals across state and territorial lines, and local law enforcement was too poorly equipped to pursue fleeing gangs very far. So the job fell to crime victims and their hired agents.
In addition to tracking down and apprehending criminals, the early private security industry performed many other duties now associated with federal and state law enforcement: guarding interstate railroad and stagecoach shipments, investigating crimes, and providing security advice to banks and other businesses that were frequent targets of outlaws. Much of this work diminished when federal and local agencies improved their law enforcement capabilities shortly after the turn of the 20th century. But the industry had grown considerably by that time, with large numbers of people working as private guards, detectives, and other security-related jobs, many of them armed. That growth was part of the reason that regulation became necessary.
WHAT IT TAKES TO INVESTIGATE
But chasing railroad bandits and catching stagecoach scofflaws is so 1886. What do today’s modern P.I.s do, and how do they do it?
While the people, places, circumstances, and technology may have changed since Pinkerton’s day, many P.I. duties remain the same. According to BSIS, daily duties include investigating:
- People’s identities, businesses, occupations, characters, and so forth.
- Locations of lost or stolen property.
- Causes of fires, losses, accidents, damages, or injuries.
- The securing of evidence for use in court.
BSIS notes that, to be eligible to apply for licensure as a private investigator or a qualified manager, you must meet these requirements:
- Be 18 or older.
- Undergo a criminal history background check through the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
- Have at least three years (2,000 hours each year, totaling 6,000 hours) of compensated experience in investigative work; or have a law degree or completed a four-year course in police science plus two years (4,000 hours) of experience; or have an associate degree in police science, criminal law, or justice and 2 1/2 years (5,000 hours) of experience. Experience must be certified by your employer and have been received while you were employed as a sworn law enforcement officer, military police officer, insurance adjuster, employee of a licensed P.I., licensed repossessor, arson investigator for a public fire suppression agency, or an investigator for a public defender’s office. (Work as a process server, public records researcher, custodial attendant for a law enforcement agency, bailiff, agent who collects debts in writing or by phone after the debtor has been located, or person who repossesses property after it has been located is not considered qualifying experience.)
Prospective licensees must pass a two-hour multiple-choice examination covering laws and regulations, terminology, civil and criminal liability, evidence handling, undercover investigations, and surveillance.
STRONG JOB OUTLOOK
If you’re interested in becoming a licensed California P.I., you may also be interested to know that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of private investigators is projected to grow 8% from 2018 to 2028: faster than the average for all occupations. BLS says continued lawsuits, fraud and other crimes, and interpersonal mistrust create demand for investigative services, and background checks will continue to be a source of work for some investigators.
FIND OUT MORE
To learn more about private investigators, their training, and their qualifications, please visit the BSIS website at www.bsis.ca.gov, and if you’re thinking about hiring one, be sure to check the P.I.’s license at search.dca.ca.gov.