The Sleuth Connection

A former LAPD detective reveals the realities of police work and private investigation.

conrad cota
Bill Oxford; Conrad Cota

In Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours, Detective Renée Ballard receives an offer from her mentor, Harry Bosch, to join him as a private investigator. Since Ballard lives for her investigative work, the changeover from officer to PI seems to make perfect sense, but would it be as realistic as the novel suggests?

Conrad Cota, a 61-year-old retired LAPD detective and former sheriff’s deputy, worked in law enforcement for 21 years during the volatile 1980s and ’90s. During that time, Cota was highly respected by his fellow officers yet was also the subject of use-of-force lawsuits and an officer-involved-shooting investigation. Cota resigned from the LAPD and was hired by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for eight years before starting his private investigation firm two decades ago. The firm, Sacramento Private Investigations, in which he acts as lead investigator, provides service to law firms, insurance companies, small businesses, and private citizens throughout California.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Cota about the realities of his work and the challenges faced by Connelly’s characters. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You worked a number of assignments, including homicide, undercover narcotics, and special investigations, before becoming a detective. Which of these was most conducive to PI work?
Working patrol. You’re going into situations that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, what’s the best angle to take, how to talk to people to get information from them. You take on such different assignments, so many different kinds of cases. When that patrol experience kicks in, it really helps. After 21 years in law enforcement, there’s no situation in private work that I haven’t had some experience with.

Tell us about how you get new assignments.
I get a lot of business from insurance companies and other corporations. Large entities, like Starbucks or grocery store chains, surprisingly, don’t have internal agencies that handle investigations when an employee or customer gets injured. So they hire out, and PIs get a lot of that work. We go out there. We take photos of the scene, conduct interviews, speak with witnesses. We often take it all the way through to surveillance, especially if a client feels that there is malingering. Surveillance is where the money is in PI work, but some guys don’t want to do it. I love it.

What is it about surveillance that you enjoy?
You never know what’s gonna happen, and you have to react to the person you’re following. So, I mean, like today—today’s a prime example. I had to be about an hour away from my house—in Yuba City—at six this morning. I leave at five. I get up there, and the guy leaves right away. I follow him, and he’s working, not supposed to be working. He goes and picks up a big truck, and I follow him. He goes all the way to Reno. Two hours into Reno today. So you never know. And that’s what I enjoy: you never know what the day is gonna bring.

If you’re following someone in your car, how do you avoid being seen?
There are little tricks. There are a lot of no-nos. It’s important that you read the person. That’s where the police experience comes in. You have to determine if the person being followed is looking, what they are doing, if they seem preoccupied, if they are on to you.

As far as the driving, you don’t want to stay too far from them because you risk losing them. The guy hits a green light and you don’t, he’s gone. A lot of good following is choosing angles, finding blind spots. Like today, going up to Reno, many times I got in front of the person I was following. I’ll do that sometimes—follow them from reverse. It’s a little risky, and I don’t always do it, but sometimes it’s the best way to go. It’s about reading the flow of traffic and anticipating the person’s driving style.

What kind of equipment and technology do you use? Are you allowed to carry a firearm as a PI?
One of the key tools we use is a covert camera. If I am following someone into a grocery store, I need to get in there and get video of them without being seen. So those are important. Then, of course, if I get video, I have to be able to send it to insurance company lawyers as soon as possible. And it needs to be edited, so I use video-editing software that has the ability to take photos out of the video.

As far as carrying protection, you can’t do so solely as a PI. You would have to obtain a CCW [concealed-carry-weapon license] or a guard card, which allows you to carry a weapon, but it has to be exposed. So there are downsides to carrying a weapon as a PI. Number one: Insurance. PI insurance is expensive because of the nature of our work. So if you carry a weapon, you have to report that and your insurance gets much higher. Number two: The lawsuits. It’s not like being a police officer, where you have automatic protection and access to attorneys.

With such strong technological tools for surveillance, to what extent is old-school investigation, like questioning witnesses and obtaining information through verbal means, still an important part of PI work?
When attorneys want to serve someone papers, they use process servers, but process servers only knock on the door. They don’t look too long for people. No answer? Nobody there? They’re gone. When I get these assignments from attorneys, it’s what we call a tough serve. The tough serve involves someone who is trying to be avoided, or they don’t know where he lives, or he is hostile. But we’ve got to serve him. Again, this is where a police background comes into play. You have to figure out the best strategy to use on the guy, when to get him, how to approach him. That’s why you have to know how to read people. Is he a worker? Is he a partyer? All these different factors come into play. It’s things the average person doesn’t think about.

Sounds like those can get intense.
They can get hostile. They’ll often try to slam the door on you. Sometimes you have to be aggressive. So technology, it only goes so far. The average person has technology. They’ll run an address, get a phone number, but they don’t know the field the old-school way. They don’t know how to trick somebody into getting served or giving up information. You have to assess the person: Is the person an older man? Is [the person] a female? Is he a gangster? Is he going to get violent?

Detectives are often portrayed as tough. How can you tell when a lighter touch is warranted?
That’s a great question, because you’re hitting on something that I had to learn right off the bat. As a police officer, when I interviewed people, I could be more forceful and demanding. In the private industry, as a PI, you’re not going to get away with that. You have to learn different techniques. You cannot muscle your way through situations, because you’re not going to get any information. The first thing you have to do is relax the person. Then you gain their confidence—just like a salesman—and that is key. Gaining their confidence is everything. You’re not going to get that coming on like a police officer. I knew an old PI who told me, “Just use the Columbo technique.”

The Columbo technique?
Act stupid! You act stupid and nice, like Columbo, the TV PI who wore the long raincoat. He was always scratching his head and pretending to forget things. If you become a bumbling nice guy, you’re no threat to the person. You ask a question and then walk away and then come back and say, “Oh, one more thing.” I try to use those tactics sometimes, just playing dumb. People will talk to you.•

Connelly will join the California Book Club on April 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time to discuss The Dark Hours with host John Freeman and a special guest. Join us in the Alta Clubhouse to talk about the book’s themes and characters. Let us know what you think! Register here for the event.

Ajay Orona is an associate editor at Alta Journal.
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