Top 5 police surveillance mistakes

1. Failure to start with a full tank of gas

a. We are all very busy we caseloads and operations. That is why detectives in plainclothes units who regularly conduct surveillance operations should never let the fuel gauge fall below half-tank. Never assume that it will be a short surveillance. Always maintain an appropriate fuel level and if possible, always fill up before a surveillance operation or as soon as possible after initiating. Depending to the type of surveillance, i.e., organized crime figure, money launderer, etc., you may be on the target for many hours over many miles – be ready. Also consider that you may have to pay for fuel from your personal funds which may or may not be reimbursed.

2. Not having a GOOD set of binoculars

a. Setting up on a target requires good positioning. Depending on the surveillance sensitivity of the target, it may not be acceptable to take that “eye” from a near vantage point. Any distance further than 100 feet or so will significantly diminish a surveillance operator’s ability to distinguish details such as colors, number of occupants, specific location entered, etc. For this reason, surveillance operator should always have a good or great set of binoculars. Make sure that the target facing lenses are of a non-reflective material. Don’t let the target see red or green eyes looking at him. Also remember to be conscious of counter-surveillance or non-target individuals who may see you using the binos – very common mistake.

3. Dressing too much like a police officer or agent

a. Experience and inexperience both result in this common mistake. Consider what type of surveillance is to be conducted and the target awareness. Always try to “match the hatch” as fisherman do to get the fish to bite. Veteran officers often time do not realize that their surveillance wardrobe is nearly as identifiable as their official police uniform. Team members and I all made this mistake as some point. It’s okay if you are working a surveillance-based take downs (SBT’s) on street corner narcotics sales with unaware targets but beware of becoming complacent in your selection of surveillance clothes. Rookie team members may not know how to dress appropriately based on the type of surveillance operation to be conducted. Veterans need to show them the way to improve officer safety and avoid taking unnecessary “burns”.

The number one identifier that will blow your cover is a gun and/or radio imprint through your shirt. This is a big problem in hot climates and a sure give away but should also be considered in cooler climates where jackets may be worn more often. Always be ready to transition into a foot surveillance by carrying your firearm in a truly concealed manner.

Try to stay away from police looking “highspeed” sunglasses – if you can wear them on the range, don’t wear them for surveillance.

Watches that have a police or military look – look at the uniform officers and you’ll see the pattern of watches they wear; baseball caps and brands that reflect a police “image” or “look”. If you’re not sure if a watch is “police looking”, ask a family member or friend that is not in police work.

Leave the black or dessert tan tactical or duty boots at home. You know which ones are being referred to. All too often, surveillance operators choose these tactical boots because they are comfortable, stable, and readily available. These boots may be acceptable for a short-term tactical surveillance requiring “jump out’s” or similar actions but remember that they yell out “POLICE” which may not be your intended goal.

4. Not having a sealable container used to urinate

a. This is self-explanatory. Whether the surveillance operator is male or female, this item should be standard issue. As a minimum, a large plastic sports drink bottle with a wide mouth should be in the surveillance vehicle. Plastic is much better than glass to avoid accidental breakage and make sure you don’t lose the cap!

5. Using a vehicle with unique color or identifiers

a. “Once is okay, twice is coincidence, three times and your being followed”. This is a common rule in surveillance detection operations and the bad guys apply this instinctively. When choosing a surveillance vehicle, if you have that luxury, get one that blends in best with the most common type, color, and characteristics of vehicles in your area. Avoid flashy colors or features, do not add noticeable stickers, window tints, antennas, etc. These will get you surveillance vehicle noticed and potentially alert your target that they are under surveillance. Some add-ons, such as dark window tints on the front windshield, may be illegal in your area which may result in a traffic stop at the worst time.