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What's The Difference Between A PI And A Cop?

Published on 2012-11-30

Have you or someone you know ever used a private investigator? If so, you’ll be familiar with the way PIs can collect seemingly impossible to gather information and produce an entire file full of valuable info. Whether it’s to catch a cheating spouse, uncover embezzlement or simply track down a loved one, there are lots of reasons to hire a private eye.

However, private investigators have different authority than police officers. There are some things police officers can do that private investigators can’t. However, there are some advantages to hiring a PI. So what’s the difference between a PI and a cop?

The biggest difference is that a PI works for you. You’re paying the private investigator to work for you, so they’ll make your investigation a priority. Cops have a lot to do, so you won’t get as much time with them.The internet is full of information about the difference between PIs and cops, but here are some basic questions you may have.

What Legal Authority Does a Private Investigator Have?

Since private investigators are not the same thing as police officers in most places, they usually don’t have the same legal authority as cops. For example, while a private investigator could place a person under citizen’s arrest if they see a felony crime in progress, they couldn’t place a person under arrest in the same way a police officer could.

Additionally, in some areas a person needs to be professionally involved in law enforcement in order to carry a firearm. This means some private investigators won’t be able to carry a gun with them while they conduct investigations.
Finally, the police have the ability to obtain search warrants to tap phone lines, search premises and more even without the consent of the person being searched. In many cases, a PI is legally limited in what they are allowed to search and how they conduct investigations.

Does a Private Investigator Have to be a Former Cop?

You may have heard that many private eyes are former cops, and that’s true. In fact, many people retire from their careers as police detectives and go into private investigation. That’s because a career in law enforcement helps them understand the laws and procedures for conducting an investigation.
There are many benefits to having a career in law enforcement before becoming a private investigator:

  • Familiarity with local laws
  • Friends and connections in the local law enforcement agency
  • An understanding of the legal process
  • Knowledge of good detective techniques and investigation procedures
  • Access to resources normal individuals may not know about

However, though many PIs spent years working as cops, it’s not a requirement that private investigators have police experience. Any person can become licensed to act as a private investigator in most areas (though local laws may dictate otherwise).

Do Private Investigators Need to be Licensed?

Depending on local laws, private eyes may need to obtain a license before they begin conducting investigations. However, this varies by location.

In some places, anyone can begin investigating cases for others as a private investigator. There isn’t any process to becoming an “official” or government recognized PI. It’s recommended a person become very familiar with local laws and restrictions on what non-police civilians are legally allowed to do during investigations to avoid accidentally breaking laws and getting into trouble (and potentially revealing client secrets).

However, in other places, private investigators must obtain a license in order to begin practicing. The process of obtaining a license will vary by location, so check with local laws before opening up your own private investigation firm.
Finally, as previously mentioned, some local government agencies use the term private investigator and police investigator interchangeably, so calling yourself a private investigator could potentially be impersonating a law enforcement officer - pretty big crime.

Police officers, on the other hand, already have the legal authority they need to conduct investigations, so they don’t need additional licensing.

Can I Conduct My Own Private Investigation, or Do I Have to Hire Someone?

Whether or not you can conduct your own private investigation would depend on two basic factors:

  • Local laws
  • The type of methods you’ll use to investigate

Local Laws

If the laws in your city, province, state or county prevent normal citizens from conducting investigations, you’re obviously out of luck and need to hire someone. However, if there aren’t any restrictions in place, you’re free to investigate using legal methods.

Methods

The way you actually go about conducting your investigation affects whether or not you can investigate something yourself. Some forms of surveillance and information gathering are limited only to PIs. Others are restricted even from private eyes and allowed only by police officers.
Breaking into a house or building to collect information, for example, is illegal for everyday citizens. However, a police officer with the right warrant can freely enter a premises to conduct an investigation.

By  Sleuth Private Detectives