Photo by Nicolas Barbier Garreau on Unsplash
Photo by Nicolas Barbier Garreau on Unsplash

The entertainment industry has a long and storied history of blending fact and fiction, but few of those blends cause as much confusion as the difference between a PI and a police officer. Police enforce the law. They have extra responsibilities and must answer to a chain of command. They have to account for every action to prove their dedication to public safety and the law. As citizens, the law binds private investigators, and they cannot enforce it. However, they can do a plenty of jobs the police simply cannot.

Police Enforce the Law

Although suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, the police have to suspect people in order to do their jobs. Even innocent people feel uncomfortable around the police for this reason. We all assume the police are analyzing us and looking for signs of guilt. As law enforcers, police must put the legal code first. If they never suspected people, they would never find criminals. Due to this natural bias, it’s essential for anyone fighting the legal system to rely on third parties who can further investigate to support their own interests.

A PI Serves a Client

A private investigator is bound by the law, like any citizen, but their professional loyalty belongs to the client. As a result, this means that they will seek evidence that may contradict the official story and counter a police officer’s version of events. Because a sense of loyalty naturally binds police officers to one another, it can be complicated to get the real narrative from police if anything happened that would compromise an officer. That’s why a PI is so crucial for witness interviews and evidence investigations. Even if the police are on the same ‘side’ of a case, they still follow the commands of superior officers. Their dedication to a case is only available so long as their higher-ups say it is.

Police Answer to a Chain of Command

Law enforcement and politics are always tied together. Police commissioners have to answer to prosecutors and judges. The chain of command that controls the police detectives assigned to particular cases is complicated. They are also very restrictive. Every action requires approval and a lot of paperwork. Of course, this is very important for public safety. However, it also makes things difficult for families seeking missing relatives, or for victims as they gather evidence to prove their innocence in a car accident.

Differences in Legal Authority

As representatives of the law, police officers and police detectives can make arrests. Private detectives cannot, which is one reason private investigators work so closely with police, even if the private investigator’s client is a suspect. Authority always comes from official police.

A private investigator’s role in the chain of evidence is also vastly different from a detective’s. It’s important for everyone to be sure evidence is handled carefully and by the right people, so there is less opportunity for tampering. Chain of evidence also establishes the evidence’s background. Usually, a PI who discovers physical evidence merely reports the find to local authorities and waits for them to arrive. In this situation, they are no different from any other private citizen involved with the case. Contrary to Hollywood crime thrillers, private detectives cannot pocket evidence and provide it for the defense to suddenly reveal in court.

Differences in Assets and Availability

Police share their tools. A precinct only has access to a certain number of squad cars, personnel available for backup, and testing facilities. Even police detectives are considered assets that must be shared and utilized carefully. As a result, it makes it extremely difficult for the authorities to continue pursuing a case after it begins to turn cold. In most situations, the assets dedicated to a particular case are repurposed bit by bit, until someone shelves the case. Police value everything at a premium, including focus and labor hours.

A private detective doesn’t often enjoy the same support police do, but a PI is free to follow a lead as long as they are willing to work for a particular client. Since they are paid directly by the client, they can stay on the case as long as necessary. Their funding and tools are free from the chain of command and the pressures of an entire community.

Whether you’re worried about the police’s ability to remain impartial or you want someone to investigate a cold case, private investigators can help in ways no police officer can. That said, don’t mistake a PI for a police detective. They cannot bring justice to a cold case on their own. A PI cannot replace the police. A private investigator can only complement law enforcement. They serve different functions and offer various benefits to private citizens.