One of the most commonly used tools in mystery, crime, and spy fiction is physical surveillance. However, it is an art that is not completely understood outside of law enforcement and espionage. As the partner of a 40+ year veteran field operative, I’d like to take you through a few of the basics.
The first step in physical surveillance is identifying a subject.
This often happens in conjunction with a crime or a tip, or the subject can be identified as the product of ongoing investigations. The NSA’s blanket electronic data mining of phone calls, social media, and financial transactions also turns up suspects. While the method identifying suspects can vary, one thing is constant – there must actually be a suspect for physical surveillance to occur. No organization, except possibly the Department of Homeland Security, has enough money and personnel to just hang out watching people and waiting for a crime to occur.
Once a subject is identified—we’ll call him Schmucky Putavich—the investigating body will monitor the subject’s activity through cell phone, email, credit card, banking transactions, and computers at work or at home.
If something is picked up from intercepted electronic transmissions that indicates a specific event will occur at a specific time, such as an exchange of cash or information, the law enforcement or espionage personnel—we’ll call them all “operatives” for the purpose of keeping it simple—will place Schmucky under physical surveillance for that specific event.
The next step is to make a surveillance plan, which can include personnel, vehicles, helicopters, etc.
Operatives need to know what assets they have, how many man hours they want to use, how many man hours are available, and, most importantly, their budget. Everything has to be funded. The higher priority Schmucky is, the more funding and resources the operatives will receive. The TV series The Wire does a great job exploring the conflict that can arise around this need for budget and resources.
Once a plan is in place, the team decides when and where to start the surveillance.
Keep in mind that the surveillance will most likely be in anticipation of a particular transaction. If Schmucky’s home address and work location are known, operatives can set up the surveillance ahead of time to follow him on a particular day, when they will try to observe and record whatever transaction it is they are expecting.
At the start of surveillance, the team will get a vehicle in place so that they’re ready to follow Schmucky.
For example, if they are following Schmucky to work, they will station a car at least two or three house lots away from the Schmucky’s home on the opposite side of the street. That’s because everywhere outside of Hollywood, Schmucky is going to notice total strangers staring at him from a vehicle at the end of his driveway, his neighbor’s driveway, or directly across the street.
The operative in the vehicle will avoid eye contact when Schmucky pulls out of his driveway and will wait until Schmucky goes at least 200 feet up the street before pulling out from the curb. If Schmucky is expected to head north, the operatives park south of his house. In Hollywood, operatives are often parked the wrong direction. In real life, operatives don’t let Schmucky drive past them because it’s too easy to be spotted.
If the team knows the route Schmucky will be taking, they will have multiple cars ready and waiting, and they will pass him off at turns. If Schmucky does not have a regular route, the team will have several cars behind him.
When Schmucky turns, the car at the front of the line will continue on through the intersection, and the car that is second in line will move up to first and follow around the turn. The operative in what was the first car will come around and get at the back of the line. This technique works best with four or more vehicles. Doing it with less than three is a bad idea.
Following someone on foot involves the same principles.
A lone operative can’t just be leaning against Schmucky’s front door in Manhattan and start following him the minute he walks outside. The operative would be so easy to spot that they might as well be wearing their “I’m a Fed” T-shirt. To effectively follow someone on foot, an operative must start from a distance and bring a team.
Again, if Schmucky’s route is known, people can be stationed to take over along the way. If it is not known, the team will work in the same way as a line of vehicles, with the person in front peeling off and coming around to the back of the line, either at a turn or at another juncture.
The team will likely ditch their electronics and communicate with physical signals because even headsets and ear pieces are often too obvious.
A signal might be taking off a hat or ducking into a café to indicate that the person behind should move up and take over. The last person in the line is called “Tail End Charlie.” That person can also jump into a car and go ahead of the others if need be.
Operatives tailing someone on foot must also be careful not to attract the notice of Schmucky’s security team.
Smart Schmuckys with adequate resources will have a security team behind them, watching out for anyone tailing them. That means that operatives can’t only focus on who’s in front of them. They have to be acutely aware of who is behind them, too. Otherwise, Schmucky’s henchman will either put a bullet in an operative’s head, snatch an operative off the street, or at a minimum alert Schmucky that he is being followed.
Sometimes, particularly in fiction, an operative will see Schmucky where they least expect him and need to keep an eye on him without help.
Often, such a fictional operative will duck into a doorway on a street and peek around the edge. In real life, this kind of stopping in a doorway to observe Schmucky puts the “dead” into “dead giveaway.” To avoid that dead factor, an operative must take their eyes off of Schmucky, go all the way inside a building, and only turn around once they are out of sight of the street. At that point, they can come back out and stop in the doorway under some other pretense than watching someone.
Imagine for a moment what it might be like when you’ve worked weeks, or even months or years, for a glimpse of Osama Jihadimaggot, and suddenly he’s there in front of you, walking down the street.
Finally, all of that Third World dysentery you’ve suffered while hunting him down is paying off. Your hands are practically around his neck, preventing his next thousand victims. You’ve alerted your team, and you’re tracking him back to his lair while they join you. You’re keeping up, and there’s no sign he’s noticed you, but then he stops in the street to check out a vendor’s melons. You have to find a way to stop, too, but that requires taking your eyes off of him to go all the way into a shop. He could be gone by the time you take that safety precaution. Maybe just this once…
That’s what it’s like for the operative in the field. It’s sheer agony for them to take their eyes off of the target for that instant, and more than one operative has succumbed to the urge to cut corners “just this once.” And more than one operative has died because of it.
But there is an upside to all of this caution about Schmucky’s trailing henchmen—besides the obvious of not getting killed, of course.
It gives operatives a chance to “clean up” any following entourage behind the target if they choose to do so. That involves either popping them off or snatching them up, depending on the circumstances—a rich, realistic opportunity for stories to unfold either way.
Bottom Line: Professional physical surveillance requires a team wherever possible, not just a lone operative, and that team will have resources according to the status of the subject. If an operative must conduct surveillance alone, they must be exceedingly cautious, and they will likely lose the subject or be spotted.
Do your characters work alone or in teams when they are following a subject? What issues have your characters encountered while tailing targets?
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Piper Bayard is an author, a recovering attorney, and the managing editor of the Social In Worldwide network. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE. You can find Piper at BayardandHolmes.com.