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Differences between Private Detectives and Investigators

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Differences between Private Detectives and Investigators


In the long ago days of Pinkerton, the first official detective agency in the world, private detectives were called just that—private detectives. To this day, in many countries and in many states in the United States, the titles private detectives and investigators remain interchangeable. In North American (with the rest of the world following in suit), the source of influence concerning the popularity of either title was mainly dictated by popular media of the time period. The title of individuals—self-employed or employed by an agency—that engaged in business that can be equated to the cases of modern day investigators, were called detectives, and they worked for detective agencies. It wasn’t until a surge of popular TV shows in the 1970s introduced the public to the term “private investigator” and created the norm of calling individuals private investigators rather than private detectives. Nowadays, the terms are, at times, interchangeable depending on the location and the titles of required licensure programs in the location. However, a general rule of thumb to follow for understanding the jurisdiction of each different title is as follow: detectives are generally employed by the government (dealing with financial and tax type investigations) while investigators are generally employed by the private sector and deal with more low-profile, domestic (civil) cases.

Nowadays the title “detective” has become more or less synonymous with the title “police detective”, which explains one of the largest differences between the professions of private detectives and investigators. A police detective is employed by the government; a federal agent. Unlike private investigators that are hired to solve criminal cases and provide subsequent testimonies in court, police detectives on criminal cases have the jurisdiction to both investigate criminal cases as well as apprehend criminals (they are federal officers, after all). Detectives are also able to participate in mass aids and arrests, as well as communicate and cooperate with other police officers, federal officials etc. However, private detectives remain very similar to the occupations of private investigators in that they often participate in missing person cases, surveillance, trailing, and spend a large amount of time compiling detailed accounts of their activity to report to their client (the government, in this case) and to provide evidence than can hold up in court. Basically, a private detective is a private investigator who works for the government—allowing them more power within their profession, but less decision making power when it comes to choosing cases and methods used to solve cases.

Between the two closely related professions of private detective and investigator, private investigators are the ones who deal with the cases that aren’t what is typically considered “exciting” or heroic. While cases concerning spousal infidelity, divorce, etc. are some of the biggest money-makers in that particular service industry, they simply don’t contain the “wow” factor found in the work of those who deal with criminal investigation, the apprehension of criminals, and other government projects. At times, governments have been known to temporarily hire private investigators for particular cases, but, for the most part, government projects remain in the jurisdiction of private detectives, police, and police detectives. However, it is important to remember once important fact when learning about the differences between the professions of private investigators and private detectives: the names are interchangeable and highly arbitrary. In some countries, private investigators work for the government and private detectives work for the private sector. In other countries, it’s vice versa. And still, there are other countries that provide no distinction between the two titles—nevertheless, make sure to always understand whether the professional you are dealing with concerns him or herself with matters of the government or personal matters of the private sector


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