Investigations | Section 6.4

Fundamentals of Criminal Investigations

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

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Section 6.4: Surveillance

For police managers, time is money.  Every hour officers are tied up doing a particular task, means that something else isn’t getting done. When officers are on a “stake out” or conducting other types of surveillance, they often spend a great deal of time waiting and watching and not much else.  For this reason, surveillance and undercover assignments are usually employed when other methods of continuing an investigation have failed. In other words, surveillance is usually used as a last resort.

The term surveillance means “to watch over.”   In practice, it means the covert watching of people and places by officers.  Surveillance, then, is the act of keeping persons, premises, and vehicles under observation with the view towards acquiring knowledge of the identities and activities of persons, and of the use of vehicles and premises. The term “surveillance” has commonly used synonyms such as “tailing,” “shadowing,” “covering,” and “observing.”  The most obvious reason to conduct surveillance is to gather information to support a criminal complaint. Surveillance can also be used to corroborate witness statements, provide probable cause for search warrants, and identifying suspects and their associates.

he surveillant is the officer that is making the observations.  At times, it is valuable to have multiple officers form a surveillance team.  This sort of patient watching is a notorious challenge to the ability of officers to withstand tedium and remain alert during long periods of intense boredom.  Officers conducting surveillance must be resourceful and be able to devise adequate cover for the operation. This can be actual concealment such that the officer’s presence is not detected, or it can be a strategy of blending in by playing the roles of average citizens going about their routine activities.  Either way, a lapse in cover can equate to disaster for the investigation.

Surveillance is an extremely important investigative method, and at times the only available method, of obtaining factual information during an investigation. The success of a surveillance operation usually depends upon the experience and professional ability of the surveillants.

The subject is the person (or place or thing) that is being observed. People under surveillance are most often suspects or the associates of suspects.  Places are usually surveilled when officers suspect that the place is harboring a suspect, or the place is used for criminal activities such as selling drugs, gambling, and prostitution.   Since 9/11, places that are suspected of serving as the headquarters of terrorist organizations are commonly under surveillance.

Characteristics of Successful Surveillants

Due to the nature of surveillance and its importance as an investigative method, the surveillant should possess certain basic qualifications and attributes.

Patience. Although largely inherent, patience can be developed through practice, self-discipline, and determination. The surveillant who is able to remain patient under arduous conditions and through long hours, increases the likelihood of a successful surveillance.

Adaptability. The successful surveillant must be able to adapt to unexpected developments, whether they be caused by the actions of the subject, third persons, the weather, or the environment, and to chart and pursue a new course of action.

Perseverance. This quality involves a determination to bring about the successful conclusion of the surveillance in the face of long hours and arduous conditions. It includes a capacity to “stick” to the subject under prolonged and adverse circumstances.

Alertness. The above-stated qualities are of little use if the surveillant fails to give her full attention to all activities in the area under observation. Where alertness is lacking, the surveillance may be uncovered, or significant actions of the subject may pass unnoticed. Alertness involves the concentration of all of the surveillant’s senses directed toward the subject.  

Attitude. The surveillant’s attitude will influence the performance of his assignment. The dedicated surveillant, with a sincere interest in his profession and a desire for a successful performance, will contribute greatly toward a successful investigation.

Keen Perception. The surveillant should not only be able to observe the activities of the subject, but he should be able to understand and interpret such activities in relation to the suspected crime. He must weigh the importance of what he sees.

Good Memory. The ability, to accurately retain mentally that which the eyes observe is essential to the current surveillance and to future operations. Memory can be improved by practice and concentration.

Good judgment. In the face of unexpected developments, the surveillant must exercise good judgment and common sense, oftentimes quickly, in adjusting his course of action to the changing situation.

Resourcefulness. The surveillant cannot always rely upon past methods and techniques in a given situation and should have the ability to adapt new methods to a new situation by the use of whatever means or materials are at hand.

Types of Surveillance

The most general classification of surveillance types consists of stationary surveillance and moving surveillance.  Stationary surveillance often involves the classic Hollywood stakeout.  This type of surveillance is used when officers are relatively sure that a suspect will come to the location being surveilled.   Officers wanting to observe a particular place have two basic options. They can either attempt to remain unseen, or they can attempt to blend into the environment and appear to be something other than law enforcement.  The choice often comes down to the environment. In a rural setting where vegetation offers ready concealment, officers may choose to use camouflage and terrain to remain undetected. In urban environments, officers may choose to “hide in plain sight” by pretending to be painters, carpenters, or other service professionals.

The subject of surveillance can also be divided into three major categories:

  1. surveillance of premises
  2. surveillance of vehicles
  3. surveillance of persons

Although each category will be presented as a separate and distinct type of surveillance, it must be emphasized that a particular surveillance may entail observation of vehicles, persons, and premises concurrently.

Objectives of Surveillance

All types of surveillances have a purpose and an objective. The objective may be singular or multiple, and may be changed during the course of the surveillance due to unexpected developments. The objectives of surveillance operations are to:

  1. Determine whether a violation exists or will exist.
  2. Secure probable cause for a search warrant.
  3. Secure evidence for prosecution.
  4. Determine identity of violators.
  5. Determine activity of violators and suspects.
  6. Secure information as to the vehicles and types of materials used in a violation.
  7. Learn the physical layout and use of the premises.
  8. Gather information as to identities and activities of associates of violators.
  9. Aid in appraising reliability of an informer.
  10. Determine ownership and use of a vehicle in a violation.
  11. Determine destination of vehicles.
  12. Determine location of a “drop” or “stash” of illicit whiskey or alcohol, or cache of contraband firearms or illegally possessed firearms or explosives.
  13. Determine location of illicit distillery, or pickup point for the illegal distribution of firearms or explosives.
  14. Determine the methods of operations of the violators.

Observation Posts

As the name implies, an observation post is a position or point from which the surveillant or observer watches the activity of a subject, premises, or a vehicle. It is usually hidden from the view or knowledge of the subject. There are two general types of observation posts: Indoor posts and outdoor posts. Examples of indoor posts are:

  • Private houses
  • Apartment buildings
  • Factories, warehouses, and other manufacturing premises
  • Stores and other commercial buildings
  • Office buildings
  • Farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings
  • Schools and other public buildings
  • Fire towers
  • Automobiles and other vehicles   

Examples of outdoor posts are:

  • Wooded areas
  • Hills, cliffs, and other high points
  • Ravines, gullies, and depressions
  • Trees
  • High weeds and vegetation
  • Foxholes or dugouts

Certain requirements or standards must be met in all types of observation posts. Failure to observe these requirements may endanger the success of the surveillance operation. The observation post must afford an adequate view of the premises or activity under observation. If the post is too far away from the observer to identify persons or vehicles or discern activity taking place, or the field of vision is acutely limited to only a small portion of the area of suspected activity, the observation post should be changed to a better location.

The observation post must protect the observer against discovery by the subjects. If the surveillants are exposed to either visual or audio detection by the subject or his friends and associates, the post is inadequate. The avenues or means of entering and leaving the observation post must be inconspicuous, or at least unlikely to attract unwanted attention to the surveillants. In this regard, consideration must be given to the time of day the post will be entered as well as the physical means of entering.

or example, entering the front door of a public school at a late hour of the night might easily attract the attention of the police and neighbors in the area. In such a case, the school would probably be adequate if a rear or basement entrance was available. In other types of observation posts, the best means of entrance might be a direct approach through the front door. In addition to the requirement of an inconspicuous entrance and exit, the observation post itself, as well as the presence of the observers, must not attract suspicious attention from the subject or persons in the immediate area.

To meet this requirement, it may be necessary for the surveillants to wear a disguise or carry the equipment of workmen, painters, de., into the observation post. In any event, the attire of the surveillants should be consistent with either the undercover role or the inhabitants of the area. For example, a surveillant dressed in an expensive suit, white shirt, and tie would appear out of place in an observation post located in a cheap hotel or rooming house.

Another item to be considered in selecting an observation post is the cost of obtaining and maintaining it. Such cost might be out of proportion to the nature and seriousness of the crime or the potential revenue loss to the Government. Good judgment should be exercised under these circumstances.

The selection of a suitable observation post can best be accomplished through an inspection of the area of operation. Topography and street maps of the area may be used, but visual inspection must be employed to select the actual observation position. Usually, several locations will be considered and the position that best meets the requirements selected. If a building is to be used as an observation post, consideration must be given to the use of the building and to the trustworthiness of the occupants.

In some instances, the owner or manager of the building should be contacted in person and advised in confidence as to the Government’s interest in using the building in an investigation. Unless unusual circumstances dictate otherwise, the owner should not be advised of the subject or premises to be observed. The nature of the surveillance, the type of neighborhood, and the known or probable reliability of the owner will dictate the amount of discretion needed.

Regardless of the approach used, the person contacted must be requested to maintain in complete confidence the identity and purpose of the surveillants. An outdoors observation post presents different problems as to selection. In most cases, it is not necessary or even advisable to contact the owners or occupants of land through which the surveillants might need to travel to reach an observation post. The fewer persons who are aware of the surveillant’s presence in the area, the better. There are times when a particular landowner is friendly with or a source of information to the Special Agents, and the use of his land is ideal for the observation of suspected premises.

General Surveillance Guidelines

There are some common general principles common and essential to all types and methods of surveillance. Once the surveillance begins, the surveillant’s ability to apply these principles probably determines the success of the operation.  

Secrecy of surveillance. As stated earlier, the surveillant’s mission is to observe the activities of the subject or premises without revealing the existence of the surveillance. The best way of maintaining secrecy, of course, is to remain out of the subject’s view. At times, this is not possible, and ‘the surveillant’s ability to act naturally and fit in with the neighborhood will usually prevent detection. Above all, the surveillant should not behave in a suspicious or “cloak and dagger” manner.

Recording observations. The observer should record in his notes all activity possibly relating to the suspect crime as soon as possible after the occurrence. Improper or inadequate note-taking may result in failure of prosecution of the violators due to insufficient evidence. Even activity which might seem insignificant at the time should be recorded as its value may become apparent at a later time. The notes should specifically include the identity or detailed description of persons and vehicles, the activity occurring, and the time and place of occurrence

In addition, they might include the weather conditions, the distance between the observation post and the site of activity, and other factors affecting the surveillance. Such information may be helpful to the United States Attorney in evaluating evidence for future prosecution. The notes should be of such accuracy and completeness that Hie surveillant can refer to them months later and recall in detail the activity observed. The investigator should not embellish the facts when transcribing Ius notes or testifying in court, but report the facts as recorded in the original notes. In view of this, each observer should record his own observations.

During the surveillance of a vehicle, the route taken, as well as the location of any stops or contacts, should be recorded. In view of recent court decisions which allowed the defense to examine the original notes of Special Agents, under certain circumstances, the notes of each separate surveillance or special investigation should be kept consolidated and isolated from those of other investigations. This can best be accomplished by using a loose-leaf notebook, or one from which the pages can be removed, such as a stenographer’s notebook, or by using separate sheets of paper. Thus the pages pertaining to a particular surveillance or investigation can be removed and kept together in a file after the completion of the investigation.

Comfort of surveillants. The physical comfort of the surveillants should not be minimized as it aids mental alertness, physical endurance and good health. The degree of comfort will depend upon· the circumstances and nature of the observation post. The act of standing for long periods can tire an observer quickly. This can be alleviated by using a chair, table, crate, log, or any other such item .available upon which the observer can sit. The surveillants should bring food and water to their posts, unless relief is to be provided for such purposes. If toilet facilities are lacking, the observer would be wise to carry a relief can with him. This is particularly true when observations are made from a “peep-truck.” Other items such as sunglasses, insect repellent, blankets, sleeping bags and mosquito netting can be indispensable at times in bringing comfort to the observer. Even reading material has its place at times on a surveillance. It may be used as a diverting cover when the surveillant is exposed to view, and it may be an aid to relaxation for an observer when there are more than one stationed at a post. However, such materials should never be allowed to interfere with the attention and alertness of the observer.

Surveillant’s clothing. The clothing worn on surveillance is important not only as an aid to comfort, but also as a means of blending the appearance of the observer into the surroundings. When observing out of doors, the clothing should be suitable for inclement weather. In rainy weather, water repellent outer clothing, including proper foot and headgear, should be worn. In cold weather, besides keeping the body warm, it is important that the feet and head are adequately protected. More heat is lost through the extremities, especially the uncovered head, than from the body proper. Even inside an unheated building, it would be wise for the observers to be adequately clothed.

When observing outdoors, the clothing worn should blend as much as possible with the natural surroundings. In the summertime, clothing of a grey or dark green color has been found to be the least conspicuous. In the fall or winter seasons, clothing of grey or tan shades blends into the background. Contrasting and obvious colors, whether light or dark, should not be worn unless the surveillant has a particular purpose for doing so, such as appearing as a hunter, etc.

Another requirement of clothing is that it should be consistent with that worn by the local inhabitants. This would particularly apply to surveillances in urban and commercial areas. In some areas wearing of a suit might cause alarm and suspicion, and the same might be true of work clothes in another type of area. The nature of the surveillance area, as well as the role or disguise of the surveillant, will dictate the clothing worn.

Nighttime observations. Observations during night hours present problems different from those daytime operations. The major problem is limited vision. The observation post or position must be closer to the premises or activity under observation. When first selecting a position of observation, this fact should be considered if nighttime observations are contemplated. The identification of persons and vehicles is made questionable due to the restricted VISIon. Colors, in particular, are often indiscernible or misleading at such times.

The surveillants should bear in mind that the public’s activity in anyone area is usually different at night than during the daytime. In some areas, there may be few persons on the streets after dark, while in other areas, cities in particular, there may be considerable pedestrian and vehicular traffic until the late hours of the night. Some buildings may be occupied after dark. This, of course, would have a bearing upon the selection of the observation post or position.

Observers should bear in mind that a light, even a match or cigarette, may be seen at a great distance at night. The use of lights should be held to a minimum, and when needed, the light should be shielded by a cover.

Although observations at night present problems to the observer, the cover of darkness may aid the observer in moving closer to the scene of activity and thereby possibly acquiring information that he could not learn otherwise. It should be kept in mind that the subject is also at a disadvantage at night in that he cannot easily detect a surveillance.

Technical equipment. The use of technical equipment can be helpful and often essential to a surveillance, but only when the equipment is working efficiently. It is the responsibility of the surveillance personnel using the equipment to protect it from damage and misuse. This is especially true ill inclement weather. Binoculars and cameras, for example, are useless if moisture gets into the lenses.

Surveillance of Premises

The surveillance of a premises may be accomplished by several methods of observation: from an indoors observation post, from an outdoors observation post, from a vehicle, or by using an undercover means of observation. The circumstances will dictate which methods will best accomplish the purpose.

Observation post is a building. After a building has been selected as the best available post, the success of the surveillance depends largely upon the ability and actions of the surveillants assigned to the post. It is desirable that two observers, if possible, be assigned to a post. Each observer can corroborate the observations of the other. Such an arrangement also permits one observer to rest while the other maintains observation. In the event of unexpected trouble such as the illness of an observer, the other surveillant can give emergency aid.

The first concern of the surveillants is to enter the observation post without causing undue attention. If possible, they should be dropped off in the immediate vicinity by other Special Agents. If a Government vehicle must be driven to the observation building, it should be unknown to the violators, inconspicuous in appearance, and should not be parked in the immediate vicinity. If equipment is to be carried into the building, it should be disguised in some manner. Unnecessary fraternization with other persons present in the building must be avoided. If the observation post is in a secluded or segregated part of the building, the observers should remain in that portion. Arrangements should be made to secure the portion used from unwanted intrusion by others.

When camera equipment is used, it should be set up and prepared for immediate operation. The camera should be on a tripod, or other steady rest, and the appropriate exposure, distance, and lens settings correctly adjusted. When the activity of the suspects or violators begins, the surveillants will· have little opportunity to prepare the camera. Therefore, it must be ready for instant use. notes should include the subject matter of each picture and the identification number of the picture, when still cameras are used. This data will be valuable for proper identification of the film or photographs if they are used as court exhibits. However, when testifying, the Special Agent should refrain from discussing any technical aspects of the photographic process, such as the camera settings used, unless he is questioned about them. Usually, he will testify only that the film or photograph is an accurate portrayal of the scene in question.

Binoculars should be focused on the immediate area under observation. Radios, if used, should be in contact with the receiver sets in the area. The volume should be set as low as possible and still be audible. Radio noises can be heard for qUite a distance at tinles, and care must be used.

As discussed earlier in the text, the surveillants should make themselves as comfortable as the conditions will permit, using a chair or table. Care must be used when observing from a window. If shades or venetian blinds are on the window. they will provide excellent cover. Shades should be drawn to within a few inches of the bottom. The observers should not peek around the edge of the shade or otherwise disturb lis condition. The same would apply to curtains or other types of window coverings. If the window is bare or uncovered, it may be necessary for the observers to take positions far back in the room to avoid exposure to view, or to improvise some type of blind or camouflage at the window. Any movement at a window may be easily seen from the outside.

The behavior of the surveillants should be such as to avoid attracting attention to their presence either from persons inside or outside the building. Unnecessary noises, such as loud talking and laughing, and banging and scraping sounds must be avoided, especially when others are in the building, or within hearing. Care should be exercised in smoking, particularly near windows and other openings or under circumstances which might be detrimental to the surveillance. Observations at nighttime are especially vulnerable to detection from a carelessly used match or lighter. It should be remembered that odors, such as tobacco smoke, and noises can be carried for a surprising distance by the wind, especially at night.

While making observations, the surveillants should be alert to all activity within their view, regardless of how insignificant it may seem. This does not mean that the observers should allow their attention to wander unnecessarily from the premises under observation to the extent that important activity might be missed, but rather that the surveillants be aware of the general activity of the area, some of which might later prove to be important. In this way the surveillants might notice conditions potentially capable of uncovering the surveillance. During periods of inactivity, the surveillants would be wise to study the premises and area under observation, giving particular attention to the position and physical structure of all buildings concerned. Avenues of escape for the subject should be noted as well as the best means of approach by a raiding party. In this respect, a sketch made of the area would be helpful.

The surveillants must remain alert, and not be lulled into a false sense of security because they are hidden in a building. They should be on the alert for any activity or indication by the subject that the surveillance has been noticed. It should be remembered, though, that while the subject’s behavior might tend to indicate that he is aware of a surveillance, it does not mean that he has actually detected the observation post or the surveillance. Many times the unintentional presence of a third party in the area, such as Special Agents from another Government agency, police detective, or any unknown persons, will temporarily alarm the subject. Actually, such an occurrence will often be advantageous to the surveillants as the subject will probably be lulled into a false sense of security upon realizing the intruders are not interested in his activity.

At times, activity might occur at such an angle from the window that the surveillants would have to expose themselves to view in order to observe. This can be remedied by placing a mirror at the proper angle at the side of the window. In doing so, caution should be used to avoid a reflection that might be noticed by the subject or other persons.

If the surveillance is to be continuous or for an extended period, the surveillants on duty should be relieved by other personnel. Such relief should be accomplished quickly and quietly with disturbance kept at a minimum. The relieved observers must advise the next team of any unusual conditions or occurrences. All trash, such as lunch bags and wrappings, cigarette butts, etc., should be disposed of or removed from the post. The relieved surveillants should then leave without loitering in the observation post unnecessarily.

At times it may be necessary for the relieving team or other personnel, to use a signal or means of communication with the observation post to advise of their intended entrance. This would be especially true if the doors of the observation room or the building were locked, necessitating unlocking from within. 

If the observation post is to be left unoccupIed for a period of time, all evidence of the surveillant’s presence must be removed, I~specially technical equipment. Not only will such measures prevent detection of the observers purpose, but will avoid creating criticism of the Government by the building owner or occupants. In this respect, the surveillants should always remember that they are guests in the building as well as representatives of the Government and must act accordingly.

Outdoors observation post. An outdoors observation post differs greatly from the indoors post in that the observers must utilize whatever natural cover is available to shield their activity. They are subject not only to inclement weather conditions, but to detection by other persons in the area while moving to and from the observation post. To insure the security of the surveillance, the Special Agents must take precautions essential to this type of operation.

When moving to and from the observation post, the surveillants should avoid crossing open fields providing little cover. If it is necessary to cross such areas, it should be done so by using natural depressions in the land contour, and by keeping close to the ground, even crawling if necessary. Fields of corn, tall weeds and brush, etc., usually provide good cover for crossing, but care should be’ exercised to avoid leaving telltale signs which might attract the attention of anyone nearby. Before any open area is crossed, the surveIllants should study the area carefully for the presence of persons working or walking nearby.

Soft ground, such as sand and mud, should be avoided, if possible. If it is necessary to cross these areas, walking on the toes will lessen the appearance of footprints. The banks of streams are particularly difficult to walk on without leaving prints. Walk as much as possible on gravel rocks, or any hard surface that prevents leaving obvious tracks. At times, walking in the stream bed itself, particularly when the surrounding area is muddy or marshy, will enable the covering of a large distance without leaving a trail. This should not be done, though, if the condition of the stream is such that walking will disturb the bottom, and thereby muddy the water, leaving evidence of a person’s passing.

When traveling through the woods, the surveillants must also use caution, especially in the vicinity of the suspected premises. Broken branches, trampled grass, discarded papers and cigarette butts will leave distinct evidence of the surveillant’s presence in the area. Usually the special agent should avoid moving fast through the woods, thereby creating a disturbance and leaving an obvious trail. With practice, he can learn to move stealthily but steadily. Surveillants should not walk on paths that they may be following, but rather to one side. While doing tllis, they should be alert for trip wires, delicately placed branches which will fall if brushed, and other traps that the violator may install to detect the presence of intruders. Whenever possible and appropriate, movement through woods should be made in daylight.

Farm and domestic animals should be avoided if at all possible. When a surveillant is detected by a dog, horse, or other farm animals, the best course is usually to pacify them rather than attempt to chase them away. Scraps of food will often accomplish this purpose. Horses are particularly troublesome in that they possess keen eyesight and a curious nature. They will often stand and stare at men moving in the area, and even trot over for a closer look. Under such conditions, a surveillant’s position may be disclosed inadvertently.

The greater the familiarity the surveillant has with the area, the easier it will be for him to move through that area undetected. Besides having knowledge of the terrain, it is advantageous to know which fields are being cultivated, what buildings are occupied or empty, and what other persons might be working in the area, such as timber crews, etc.

As with the indoors observation post, it is desirable that two observers be assigned to the outdoors post for two additional reasons. First, it allows one observer to watch for surprise intrusion or accidental discovery by strangers in the area. Secondly, if the circumstances warrant, one observer can move temporarily to a closer or more advantageous position.

Movement of the observers should be held to a minimum at the observation post. They may find it necessary to conceal their position with brush gathered in the area. It should be remembered, though, that the leaves of freshly cut branches will turn brown after a short time, and thus could create an obvious area of dead foliage against a green background. Blankets, the color of the background, are useful as camouflage and to break up the outline of the observers movements, especially at night. By holding the blanket in front of his body, an observer may be able to move to a closer position at night without fear that his body will be silhouetted against the background. The blanket also serves as a shield under which a flashlight, if necessary, may be used.

Trees make excellent observation posts at times, and should be given definite consideration. Not only is the observer provided cover by the foliage, but the added height may increase the field of vision. The danger of detection, provided the observer remains quiet, is minimized as few persons look up in the trees as they walk in the woods.

When making observations from a position. on a hill, with the danger of becoming silhouetted against the skyline must be considered by the observers. They should remain below the crest, if possible, or take a position with a rock, tree or other obstacle behind them. When used properly, hills, like trees, provide observation positions with an advantageous view of a large area.

While making observations, the surveillants should remain as quiet as possible. Loud talking and laughing may be heard at a surprising distance. The same holds true for coughing and sneezing, and every precaution should be used to avoid such noticeable sounds. Special Agents afflicted with colds and similar ailments should not be assigned to the post. Any sidearms worn by the observers should be covered by clothing in the event of accidental discovery in the area.

Under some circumstances, it may be appropriate for surveillants to disguise their identity and purpose by carrying equipment and assuming certain roles consistent with the area. Some of the typical roles or disguises that might be used: fisherman, hunter, survey crewman, Fish and Wildlife Service employee, and timber cruiser. The type of disguise used would depend upon the supporting equipment available, the season of the year, and the nature of the terrain, etc.

If the observers on duty are to be relieved by other personnel, definite plans covering the procedure should be made in advance. It may be necessary for one observer to meet the relief team at a prearranged point and direct them to the observation position. This will be particularly true if the relief team is unfamiliar with the area, or if the location of the observation post has been changed. It is important that the relief team arrive at the time they are expected (to avoid causing confusion or alarm to the observers at the post). It may be necessary to arrange for a signal or method of communications with the observation post.

If the observation position is to be abandoned for a period of time, it is important that as much evidence as possible of the observer’s presence be removed, including materials used for camouflage. This would minimize the possibility of discovery of the site during the observer’s absence.

Vehicles as observation posts. Many times vehicles are used as observation posts in the surveillance of premises. Although such use is usu!illy of a temporary nature, they are particularly adaptable when other types of observation posts are unavailable or inadequate, and when it is necessary to follow suspected vehicles from the premises.

Generally, the observation vehicle should be parked or located at a safe distance away from the premises in the daytime, moving closer at night. As in any observation post, the observer must be near enough to the premises or subject for clear discernment of activity, and yet at a distance that minimizes detection, from persons on the premises. The greatest danger of detection, particularly when using automobiles, comes from neighbors and friends of the subject becoming aware of the observer’s’ presence. For this reason, the position of the vehicle should be changed at intervals, if practical. The observers must appear as natural as possible. To do this they may find it advisable to employ diversionary tactics such as:

  1. Simulate motor trouble by lifting the hood
  2. Pose as traffic survey team
  3. Pose as highway surveyors
  4. Appear to be testing commercial radio equipment  

The imaginative surveillant may simulate many other types of occupations that will be appropriately applicable for the particular area.

When using the car radio, care should be used to avoid holding the microphone in obvious sight, especially when passersby are near. The volume should be set as low as possible and still be audible. At nighttime, it would be wise to cover the radio’s receiver signal light with a piece of tape to prevent telltale illumination.

Observation by “peep truck.” One of the most effective means of observation from a vehicle is through the use of the observation or “peep truck.” Generally this vehicle is of more use in a commercial area, but it is often valuable in other areas if equipped with appropriate signs or lettering. If it is parked for long periods of time in a residential area though, attention attracted to it could bring police investigation. With the signs or lettering on the truck, it should be kept in mind that the violators may attempt to verify the company or services advertised.

If the truck is equipped with a radio, the antennae should be of the normal broadcast radio type rather than the whip type. Many “peep trucks” are equipped with one-way glass in the rear door, but often such glass is quite noticeable from the outside. To alleviate this, some trucks use two-way or transparent rear windows, and by arranging a blind of boxes, crates, or other merchandise, create a realistic appearance of a commercial vehicle as well as providing cover for the observers. Camouflaged peepholes, placed strategically in the blind, allow ample field of vision for the observer.

When the surveillance begins, the truck should be driven to the desired location with the observers secreted in the rear. The driver should lock the truck and leave the area on foot. The observers must remain in the truck while it is parked. This may entail long periods of seclusion, and for this reason, the observers should be prepared with food, water, and relief cans.

Activity of the observers within the truck must be held to a minimum, conversation or noises from within the truck may be quite apparent to anyone close by. Even though the truck may be equipped with one-way glass, a light or face held close to the glass can be seen from the outside. It is advisable that the observers do not smoke, but if done, it should be held to a minimum. Excess smoke may flow into the cab of the truck or leak from openings near doors, and thereby create the possibility of detection by someone nearby, Also, heavy smoking in such close quarters may bring discomfort to the observers, especially in the eyes. The behavior of the surveillants within the truck often will determine its effectiveness as an observation post.

Improvised observation post. At times, the circumstances make it impossible or inadvisable to locate an observation post that will hide the surveillants from the view of persons at the subject premises. Usually, the surveillant will not be able to loiter on foot in the area, except for a short period of time, without establishing a reason for his presence. In such instances, he will have to improvise a position of observation by assuming a role or disguise to explain his presence. The following are some of the undercover roles that may be used, although Special Agents in various parts of the country may assume other roles JIlore appropriate to their area.

  • Telephone company lineman
  • Sewer inspector or worker
  • Gas line repairman or worker
  • Highway and roads repair crew
  • Traffic survey team
  • Geographical survey team
  • Good Humor truck driver and other types of vendors
  • Fire safety inspector
  • Panhandler
  • Painter  

The types of roles and disguises to be used lire limited only by the extent or the Special Agents imagination and resourcefulness. Local and state government agencies will often prove helpful in providing equipment and advice concerning an undercover role, but good judgment must dictate the extent to which outside aid is sought.

Surveillance of Vehicles

Although vehicles are often used in the surveillance of premises, as discussed earlier in the text, their primary value and use is the surveillance of “tailing” of suspected or known violation vehicles. This type of surveillance can be, for the purpose of discussion, generally divided into two main categories: using two or more surveillance vehicles and using one surveillance vehicle.

Using two or more surveillance vehicles. If possible and practical, at least two surveillance vehicles should be used in tailing of suspect vehicles. If they are used properly, the probabilities of avoiding detection by the subject are greatly increased and the chances of losing the subject, due to traffic problems or mechanical trouble such as a flat tire, are minimized.  

The vehicles to be used on a surveillance operation should be particularly suited for the purpose. They should be of such inconspicuous appearance that they will not noticeably stand out among other vehicles. It is preferable that the vehicles be of subdued, rather than bright, colors. The colors may be further subdued, and often made indistingUishable at a distance, by allowing a light coat of dust and road grime to accumulate on the vehicle.

Official papers, books, handcuffs, clipboards, and other such matter, should be removed from the seats or the rear window shelf where they might be exposed to outside view. The inside dome light and the license plate light should be removed to avoid possible identification at night. The vehicles should be radio equipped in order to obtain the maximum benefit from using more than one surveillance vehicle. The result otherwise, could be general confusion as to each vehicle’s position. The radio antennas should be of the normal broadcast radio type rather than whip antennas.

Two surveillants should be assigned to each vehicle. The driver must give his full attention to the operation of his vehicle, while the passenger acts as observer, operates the radio, and records the activity. There may be times when the passenger observer will be required to leave the vehicle and follow the subject on foot, or take up a position from which he can observe the subject’s parked vehicle.

During the surveillance, the vehicle that is the closest to or immediately behind the subject vehicle will generally act as the “lead” vehicle, and as such will radio directions and information to the other cars. The lead position will change from one car to another during the surveillance. Radio transmissions must be as short and concise as possible, giving accurate and essential information.  All surveillants should use the radio only to acknowledge orders or give essential information. This will reduce the possibility of two or more vehicles transmitting at the same time.

The surveillant’s knowledge of the streets, roads, and traffic conditions in the area may make the difference between success and failure of the operation. The surveillant may be able to anticipate the route and direction to be followed!, and, in the event of loss of contact with the subject, the “tail” may be resumed at a further point on the route. Such familiarity with the area may also prevent the surveillant from being led into a “detection trap,” such as dead-end street or road.

Usually, the surveillance operation will begin in the area where the subject vehicle is parked. The lead vehicle should be in position from which the subject vehicle can be viewed, with the other cars deployed strategically in the area covering anticipated routes of travel. As the subject drives away, the leader will direct the most appropriate car to assume the lead position, and the other cars to take positions to the rear or on a paralleling course. The subject will be more likely to check for a “tail” at the beginning of his trip, and when near his destination, than at any other times. Therefore, the surveillants must be especially careful at these times.

During the surveillance, the lead car must use every means possible to avoid a prolonged appearance within the rearview vision of the subject. This may be done by keeping one or two unrelated vehicles between the subject and the lead car. In heavy traffic, the lead car should not be more than two or three vehicles behind the subject. The other surveillance cars should follow at reasonable distances, with the second car possibly about one-half block behind the lead car. When traveling in sparse traffic, such as on a rural road or highway, the distance between all vehicles will be greater, particularly between the subject and the lead car. The lead car should avoid following the subject for an unreasonable length of time, and may need to pull off the road at an appropriate place to allow the second car to assume the lead position.

Although the surveillance personnel should be alert to any indications by the subject that he is suspicious or aware of the surveillance cars, they should bear in mind that the subject’s rear view vision is limited and, unless he has noticed the same vehicle on two or three different occasions during the tail, he will have no particular reason to be suspicious. He may make precautionary checks for a “tail” as a general method of operation. On the other hand, a subject who is aware that he is being followed will not go anywhere of importance to the surveillants unless he thinks he has lost the “tail.” If the subject is not “burned,” the tail may be resumed at another time. Just when to discontinue a “tail” is a matter of judgment for the surveillants, which experience will help to develop.

There are several other “methods of conducting a surveillance with two or more vehicles, other than following directly behind the subject.

Parallel tailing. With this method, the surveillance vehicles travel a route parallel to the subject’s arriving at each cross street at the same time as the subject. This method is usually limited to residential type areas where the traffic is light and the streets are parallel. The obvious danger to success lies in the possibility of the subject stopping, slowing down, or increasing his speed, thereby disrupting the timing of the tailing cars and causing them to lose sight of the subject at the next cross street. If there is a third tail car available, this danger may be eliminated by placing the car sufficiently to the rear of the subject from where it can advise the other cars of the subject’s location. If the subject turns left or right at a cross street, each surveillance vehicle will assume new positions.

Progressive tailing. This method is of particular advantage in rural areas and when part of the subject’s route of travel is known. When used properly, it avoids the possibility of the subject noticing a tailing vehicle. By this method, the surveillance cars are stationed and hidden if possible, at various points along the suspected or known route, preferably at intersections. The distance between the surveillance cars will depend upon the number of intersecting roads. The cars may be stationed at every intersection or alternate intersections. When the subject fails to reach a particular position covered, it is possible to determine where he turned off after his last known position, and the next surveillance will be resumed at that point.

Lead tailing. One surveillance vehicle may actually lead the subject while the other surveillance cars follow behind the subject at a discreet distance. The particular advantage of this method lies in the fact that the subject will pay little attention to vehicles ahead of him. It is of value only when the subject cominues on a relatively straight course for a reasonable distance.

Using one surveillance vehicle. Surveillance under these conditions is far more difficult as the subject must be kept in view and followed constantly by the same vehicle. This, of course, greatly increases the chances of detection by the subject. The lone surveillance vehicle must use all available traffic cover in remaining out of the subject’s rear vision. In heavy traffic, the tail car must remain close to the subject or run the risk of losing him. On rural roads and highways, greater distance must be allowed between the two vehicles, even to the extent of losing sight of the subject at times.

The surveillants should make every effort to alter the appearance of their vehicle so that it does not present the same picture to the subject each time it is in view. This may be accomplished by:

  1. Changing seating arrangements within the surveillance vehicle.
  2. Donning hats, coats, and sunglasses.
  3. Changing license plates of the vehicle.
  4. Turning off into side streets or roads, and then resuming the tail.

In the one car surveillance. the observer will travel on foot many times to take up a position of observation after the subject has turned a corner or parked. From his position, he can give further directional signals to the driver as to the subject’s activity.

Surveillance of vehicles at night. Nighttime surveillance presents unusual problems that counterbalance the advantage of darkness screening the surveillants. The subject is able to view any vehicles following him due to their headlights. He can also use the advantage of darkness to elude suspected tailers by cutting off his lights and turning off the road. Under medium to heavy traffic conditions, though, an advantage is gained by the surveillants in that the subjects’ field of vision in the rearview mirror is restricted. Due to the glare of headlights, he is unable to distinguish objects clearly. Generally, at night the subject must be followed closer than during the daytime. This is particularly true in heavy traffic.

Surveillance vehicles that are equipped with off switches for the headlights, tail lights, and brake lights, are very effective for nighttime tailing. When properly used, this equipment enables the surveillance vehicle to alter its appearance by cutting off or changing the brightness of lights. If the subject turns a corner, the tailing vehicle may alter one of its headlights before it turns the corner, thereby appearing as a different vehicle to the subject.

The surveillants must be familiar with any identifiable features the subject vehicle may present from the rear. The taillights may be of unusual shape or brilliance, or present some pattern that might distinguish that vehicle from others at night. Such identification may be aided, if the opportunity presents itself, by loosening the taillight bulb, replacing the taillight bulb with a brighter one, or other means of discreetly marking the subject vehicle. There have been times when a small hole has been punched in the taillight lens or the lens broken, but this procedure is not recommended.


Modification History

File Created:  05/02/2019

Last Modified:  06/11/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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