The Role of Private Investigators and Commercial Agents in Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

The private security industry in Australia is at least double the size of public police services, and while there has been some research on security guards and crowd controllers, very little is known about "inquiry agents" or private investigators.

The authors estimate that there are about 25,000 private investigators in Australia, and this study, based on 40 in-depth interviews in Queensland and New South Wales, is a first attempt to assess what it is they do, how effective they are, the legal and ethical issues facing private agents, and how their efforts can be maximised by their clients, most notably agencies affected by fraud.

While more work needs to be undertaken with a larger random sample to develop an ongoing research base, this paper provides an important description of the activities of those interviewed, and the finding from this sample that for every dollar spent on an investigation, between $3 and $6 are saved in uncovering fraud.

Adam Graycar

Director

The private security industry comprises (among others) a variety of security guards, crowd controllers, private investigators, process servers (serving legal documents) and debt recovery agents-the latter two often licensed together as "commercial agents". Consideration of the work of "inquiry agents" (or "private agents") leads to a number of questions addressed in this research project. What is the size of this sector? What are its main functions? How effective is it? Does it satisfy exclusively private, selfinterested ends or does it make a broader contribution to society? To what extent do industry members conform to legal and professional standards of conduct? Is there a need for greater regulation? Should the industry be given more powers to do its work?

Research Method

A three-part research method was developed to find answers to these questions.

1. In order to obtain a picture of the size and occupational categories of the industry, regulatory agencies were contacted to gauge the number of licence-holders.

2. Interviews were conducted with investigators in New South Wales and Queensland. These states have seen considerable scandal and reform in the industry in the last two decades. Interviews were conducted because they allow for in-depth questioning and because private investigators tend to be poor respondents to mail-out questionnaires (Gill & Hart 1997). Respondents were pursued through an opportunity method following recommendations from relevant professional associations (the Australian Institute of Private Detectives and the Institute of Mercantile Agents) and from listings in the Yellow Pages. Opinions were sought across a range of specialisations. A total of 40 interviews were conducted-15 in New South Wales and 25 in Queensland. All 40 respondents had Private Investigator licenses (in New South Wales, "Private Inquiry Agent") and 15 had Commercial Agent licences.

3. The information gathered in steps 1 and 2 above was supplemented with a literature search to identify key documentary source material, including inquiries into the sector.

What is the Size of the Private Agent Sector?

It is extremely difficult to obtain a true picture of the size of the private agent sector because of a lack of consistent licensing figures. Table 1 shows available numbers of licence-holders for Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. The total figure of 21,333 probably underestimates the size of the sector by at least one-quarter.

A figure of approximately 25,000 is consistent with previous research indicating that the private agent sub-sector makes up between 20 and 30 per cent of the larger security sector (Prenzler 2001). Another way of looking at the figures is in relation to police. The total of 21,333 in Table 1 equals almost half the 44,922 police in Australia in 2001. In New South Wales there are 13,614 police (Australian Institute of Criminology 2001), compared with 15,800 private agents (who comprise only one part of the greater security sector). …