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It's experience that makes you a true private investigator

By Peter Small, Contributor

While a 50-hour training course will put you on the path to becoming a private investigator in Ontario, it takes much more than that to excel in the profession, Toronto-area private detective Jim Downs tells

“You could do that course, but that's not going to make you a private investigator in reality,” says Downs, co-founder and managing director of MKD International Inc., a Vaughan, Ont.-based private investigations firm.

You need decades of experience, preferably as a police detective specializing in areas such as fraud or surveillance, he says.

That’s why MKD hires retired police investigators.

“They have the background, and they have the know-how,” Downs says.

According to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the minimum number of in-class hours for students wishing to become private investigators is 50, plus a suggested 29 hours of pre-class reading. Topics covered include laws and statutes, investigative techniques, ethical decision-making, communications, and self-management skills.

Once you complete the course, you are given a number entitling you to write a qualification exam at any of several Ontario DriveTest Centres. If you pass, you can apply for a licence.

Even recently retired police officers have to go through this process, but Downs says the in-class training only scratches the surface.

In reality, investigators learn through years of practice how to make clear notes, and write credible reports, he says. They develop skills to properly collect and preserve evidence and conduct witness interviews that withstand legal scrutiny. They know how to give credible testimony in court, arbitrations or quasi-judicial hearings. These skills do not come overnight, Downs says.

MKD’s investigators are so experienced that many opposing lawyers, once they read their resumes, won’t try to challenge their evidence, he says. “They know it’s not some kid out of college.”

And when it comes to surveillance, which Downs calls both an art and a science, MKD hires investigators who have worked for years in specialized police units.

They have two main qualifications, he says.

“Firstly, you need the technical experience, the ability to do that job because it's very tough."

Secondly, you have to gather, quantify, and document information that withstands scrutiny in criminal or civil proceedings, Downs says.

Sometimes clients, informed by Hollywood movies or TV, have unrealistic expectations of surveillance, he says.

Private investigation firms do not have the budget to deploy the large teams of detectives seen on TV, and used in some police investigations, he says. Private surveillance is usually conducted in singles or pairs unless the client can pay for a larger detail, Downs says.

And conditions for surveillance can be difficult, depending on weather, traffic, and the time of day or night, he says.

Challenges vary between city and country.

Tailing someone in a rural area can be tricky because you have nowhere to hide, Downs says. Tracking a car in the city can be problematic, for instance, when the subject goes through a red or stale yellow light, and then makes a sudden turn, leaving you unable to follow.

“You can’t just sit on their bumper. They’re going to see you,” he says. “I would sooner lose a subject than get detected because if you lose a subject, you can try them tomorrow. If you are detected there is no tomorrow.”

When subjects arrive at their destination, sometimes you have to position yourself to covertly videotape their movements, which requires skill and experience, Downs says.

When it comes to some other specialties such as computer forensics, electronic countermeasures, and forensic fraud probes, you don’t need to be a former police officer to do good work, Downs says. MKD has formed alliances with outside firms with expertise in these areas.

"Some private investigators, who lack police experience, have also proven to be very effective in their capacity, due to their aptitude and years of experience," Downs says. "However, having someone who's been a police officer in the right area, in the right field, puts you leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else."

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