Private Investigator: Hard Work If You Can Get it

Forget those late-night reruns of Magnum PI. Being a private investigator is tough work, as Rich Harris of the East Bay Detective Agency explains: “People think it is glamorous, but it isn’t. It’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of responsibility.” Patrick McKee, a private investigator who runs Excelsior Services, Inc., another detective agency, agrees: “It is not necessarily all that much fun.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of becoming a private investigator is the arduous licensing process. The State of California requires 6,000 hours of investigative experience, as well as a grueling written exam before an individual receives a private investigator’s license. (Harris says he has known police officers with 10 to 12 years experience fail the test on the first try.) Those requirements can make breaking into the field extremely difficult.

Harris advises that “maybe 90% of the investigators I know are retired cops”. For those with no law enforcement background, he recommends attending a specialized school (such as the Center-Pro Investigative Training School in Pleasant Hill, which offers a 10-week program that costs just under $5,000) and then seeking an apprenticeship with an established agency to obtain the certified hours of investigation. He cautions, however, that the field is “something of a closed shop”, making apprenticeships difficult to obtain.

McKee concurs that entering the field is difficult. With a background in psychology, McKee says he spent years “banging his head against the wall” trying to get the 6,000 hours of investigative experience required to obtain his private investigator’s license. “If someone is younger, I would tell them not to go into private detective work. Almost every police department is hiring right now, and they pay well. Go be a cop for awhile.”

For those set on becoming a PI, finding the right agency for apprenticeship poses equally challenging problems. “Ideally, you want to apprentice with a PI firm that is large enough, so you get exposed to a wide variety of cases. The problem is, almost everyone in this industry specializes in some way,” McKee explains. That specialization means that apprentices are likely to face questions on the exam which have not been covered during their apprenticeship. McKee adds that agencies specializing in insurance fraud are most likely to be open to apprentices, with pay somewhere around $10 per hour.

McKee himself became a private investigator after watching a television show – but no, it was not Magnum PI. “I saw a show about video surveillance on employees, including babysitters. I realized no one was doing that, and realized that video surveillance is a powerful tool.” Motivated by his interest in the technique, he has since obtained his license and founded his own agency, which specializes in video surveillance of all kinds.

Harris took a more traditional route to becoming a private investigator. After serving in the California State Police (now part of the California Highway Patrol), he was looking for other career options besides promotion. “I had a limited number of places to go when I left the agency, and I wanted to make a career change,” he says. Having the law enforcement background allowed him to obtain certification of his 6,000 investigative hours right away, as well as providing him with training in investigative techniques.

Harris specializes in criminal defense work, and is often appointed by the court to assist defendants who are representing themselves in criminal matters. He also investigates matters for private clients, who hire him to either assist in their defense or, in the case of a recent client, see if a supposedly accidental death was truly an accident.

Both McKee and Harris say that the work can be dangerous, although McKee says the “image of the gun-toting PI is inaccurate. If I’m going into a bad neighborhood at 3 a.m., I’ll carry a gun, but if I’m doing background work in Piedmont, I probably wouldn’t.” Harris says that, “If my client is charged with murder, or drug dealing is involved, it can be very serious and very dangerous. But that is the extreme, that’s not every day.”

Although the tasks they perform vary day to day and case to case, the work is often tedious. “I took my son with me recently,” McKee explains. “We were mainly in the courthouse, doing record searches. After spending time with me, he said being a PI is ‘boring’.” At other times, McKee explains, the work involves “sitting in your car in Modesto in the middle of August”, or some other equally undesirable task.

What other careers are available if someone wants to be a PI, but finds the qualification process too daunting? McKee suggests, “the secuirty business, forensic accounting, record researchers – those are all separate jobs.”
Harris can be contacted through his web site, www.eastbaypi. com, and McKee through his at

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