11 Commandments for Conducting Surveillance from a Vehicle

Surveillance from a car. Camera with a telephoto lens, handgun at the ready, and a cover cloth to conceal both.
| May 5, 2020
Categories: Learnin'

When I started writing for Breach Bang Clear I worked patrol at a small agency. For the last two years, my job has changed a bit. I moved first to general crimes investigations and worked with another investigator concentrating on narcotics investigations. This has turned into a full-time job working Narcotics Investigations and I’ve had the opportunity for an on-the-job training crash course in the subject. It’s a whole new world for me and I’m happy to share my new experiences with the BBC audience.

A large portion of my job has been conducting surveillance, particularly from a vehicle. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in unmarked cars watching people and places. With the long hours in Surveillance Vehicles (SVs), I’ve learned there are some unwritten rules…well unwritten until now. So here you go…my Ten, make that ELEVEN Commandments for Surveillance from a Vehicle.

1. Thou Shalt Urinate Before Entering the Surveillance Vehicle.

Anyone who has ever road tripped with kids knows this rule. Seriously most surveillance isn’t a 2 or 3-day affair. At least most I’ve done haven’t been. It’s more like a 2 or 3-hour deal that turns into a 5 or 6-hour deal, but as I get older (I’m 42) it seems more and more that I have a limit on how long I can wait before I go. An obvious corollary is, do number 2 before you leave home. So, when you pull up to swap out to the (Surveillance Vehicle) SV…go piss on a tire. It beats pissing in a bottle.

For a side note: When Russian cosmonauts go into space, they take a leak on the right rear tire of the transport bus that takes them to the launch pad. This goes back to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who legend has it had toasted over and over before the take-off and had to go before he got on the rocket so he went to the back of the bus and took a leak on the tire. Its such a tradition that even today, female cosmonauts pour a cup or vial of their urine on the rear tire.

Per tradition, cosmonauts relieve themselves on the right rear tire before entering the transport bus.

Per tradition, cosmonauts relieve themselves on the right rear tire before entering the transport bus.

2. Pack a BAG

From my perspective, surveillance isn’t something that’s prescheduled, many times its drop-of-the-hat run and get into place. So, I pack a bag and keep ready to jump into the SV of choice for the operation at hand. In the bag, I keep a couple of bottles of water, hand sanitizer, a shemagh to cover the bag from prying eyes, and a spare gun so I don’t have to fight a seatbelt in a hurry, etc.

Basically, having a quick bag handy to do all the surveillance you need to do is super helpful and some bags even act as organizers keeping stuff handy beside you. A trick that has helped me a lot is using a carabiner to hang the bag from the headrest bars. It’s easy to keep close, it won’t dump in the floorboard, and you can easily swing it out of the way when someone jumps in with you.

Use a carabiner to hang your bag from the passenger seat headrest whien doing surveillance from a vehicle.

I use a carabiner to hang my bag from the headrest. It keeps the bag from sliding off on the
floor and keeps my gear handy. I can swing the bag around the back of the seat if I have a
passenger or if I need to conceal it from the casual viewer. I mount my radio on the side so I
can access it easily. The bag also holds a spare handgun that I can access from either side without having to
fight the seatbelt for my gun.

3. Bring Optics

Distance between you and the target is your friend because it makes it harder for him to see you and safer for you, but it makes it harder for you to see. So make sure you bring some optics. It will do wonders for your ability to gather intel while maintaining enough distance to be invisible.

Also, consider bringing a camera with a telephoto lens. Writing a tag down is good… a photo of a tag is 10x better. Also, make sure you check around you before you take a photo or start glassing the target. Nothing says “THIS IS A SURVEILLANCE OPERATION” like a guy pointing a camera from inside a car or holding up a pair of binos. You can be sure that the first time you don’t bring your optics to the game you will wish for a better look, or a photo you can go back and check to make sure you saw what you thought you did. So, take them with you every time.

Vortex Solo compact optic.

The Vortex Solo is a compact optic that’s easy to keep around. It’s available with or without a
ranging reticle, is affordable, and has a robust clip that allows it to hang from molle straps on a bag or
to clip to a car visor. It’s small enough and handy enough to have more than one. Photo by Jake Bush.

Bush uses the Vortex Solo and Canon T7i for surveillance investigations.

I currently use the Vortex Solo and Canon T7i with a telephoto lens. The T7i allows me to use
my phone to pull photos off using the Canon App. Photo by Jake Bush.

Where to buy Vortex Optics

4. DO NOT burn the surveillance vehicle for less than a murder suspect.

If there is one thing most agencies don’t have it’s a ready supply of vehicles not associated with your agency or law enforcement that you can easily use, get to quickly, and borrow or utilize for days on end. So treat a SV as a precious commodity, because when it’s burned, when people who talk find out what you are driving, especially in small towns, then you just lost the use of that vehicle for successful surveillance for the near and possibly the foreseeable future.

Also make sure you realize; the objective may be bigger and more important than the resource. And for a murder suspect, I’ll burn the SV. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

5. Attempt to fit in

Choose a vehicle that fits where you are going to be sitting. No standout colors, no fancy rims, no odd models of cars, no stickers in the windows, NO GOVERNMENT TAGS, and don’t wash the SV unless where you are going only has clean cars! Get a car that fits the area, maybe a pickup truck, maybe a Lincoln Town Car but if you use the Town Car for surveillance on a farm you might stick out — just a bit.

Don’t wear your fancy new tactical vest in the driver’s seat where you can be seen. The bad guy might see you coming or even the little old lady next door might call you in to the cops. And if you really want to get burned have a marked patrol unit pull up next to you to ask why you are there because the little old lady next door called 911.

6. Bring a phone charger

We are crazy dependent on our phones nowadays. Let’s be honest, it would be great to be able to do everything without one, but a phone is a great tool that makes it EASIER. Its comms, it’s a camera, its GPS, it’s entertainment, it’s the ability to looks stuff up on the fly. Heck, a phone is even good cover. No one pretends to read a newspaper anymore; they just pretend
to be, or actually are, on their phone.

All of these burn batteries. Have a phone charger, have a spare phone charger, and have a battery pack for if the car plug fails. Also, have an AUX cord. It’s handy to go hands-free or for everyone in the SV to be able to hear the conversation. Even if your phone is fully charged and ready to go…. your partner’s phone might not be. Make sure you have a charger for his phone if its different from yours.

Keep a spare battery pack around when conducting surveillance from a vehicle.

I use a spare battery pack I got for $25 to keep my phone charged in a pinch. I also keep
several charging cables and plugs but sometimes you can’t depend on the cigarette plug in the SV to
always work.

7. Keep Your Head on a Swivel

There are two types of surveillance from a vehicle: stationary and moving. Stationary, the vehicle is a mobile hide, a camouflage container you take with you. You sit for a while watching a stationary target. Yet while you are sitting you are a sitting duck. Keep aware of your surroundings.

I once visited and rode along with Miami Dade PD’s Tactical Narcotics Team. They worked surveillance from a vehicle like no one else. They had two-man teams where they divided the work between the driver and the passenger. The driver conducted surveillance on the target and handled comms and the passenger was security, so his job was to make sure they didn’t get ambushed or busted and burned. They were commonly armed with a sub-gun. So, keep your HEAD ON A SWIVEL, and stay ready for the fight. Avoid getting tunnel vision or target lock. Crack a window so you can hear. Be aware that optics accentuate the tunnel vision/target lock.

Break it up by turning your head side to side and actually LOOKING around. And for Pete’s sake…. Please don’t let someone walk up on you while you are face down in a game of candy crush.

Also remember when the sun goes down, maintain light discipline inside the vehicle. A light can be seen exponentially father than it allows you to see. Light from your cell phone can give you away pretty easily from a long way away. Another reason to not play candy crush.

8. Tint the windows

Thank God that 3M invented window tint film in 1966 (I had to look it up) because good dark window tint on a vehicle that fits into the background is WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD. I have done surveillance on dope buys with good tint where I was within 10 feet of the dealer and he never knew. It wasn’t planned that way…it just went down that way. All thanks to some good DARK window tint, I did not get burned.

9. Comms

Cell phones, radios, walkie talkies, internet, etc. You have got to stay in touch with other teams involved. Secure comms are one of those “force multipliers” we don’t talk about often enough. Compared to guns, drones, and night vision, radios just aren’t sexy, but they are a HUGE building block in making the surveillance Op go smoothly. Make sure you have a phone that’s free to make a call and keep everyone on board with a group text or on a board with everyone’s number.

Also, if your phone is being used having a backup is a huge deal. Its one of those things that seems like common sense. It’s so simple it’s easy to screw up. Make sure you have comms set up before you start.

10. Maintain the SV at Every Opportunity

Keep it full of gas, take the trash out every time, check the tires and the oil, etc. Make sure if you keep supplies in the SV you keep them topped off and ready to go. Because it’s guaranteed that when you don’t…EVENTUALLY… it will mess you up on an op. You’ll run out of gas, that slow leak on the tire goes completely flat when you are in a hurry, or even the battery is dead.

Real punishment is doing surveillance in 100-degree weather with a failing air conditioner blowing what can mildly be described as mildewed dog’s breath. Clean the interior out when you can. Wipe it all down. You are gonna spend a huge amount of time inside this space, might as well make it as pleasant as possible.


Be it by dictation, or photos, or whatever. If something sets off your spidey-sense but gets dismissed, write it down. A description of a person, a car tag, etc. Write it down. Put a notes section on your phone, dictate it to a recording. You never know what exactly is going to be important later on.

Make sure you at least have it, even if you have to sift through a bunch of stuff to get it. You will write down 1000 unimportant things for the one thing you need later. But the one time you do need it and you have it; you look like a genius and may make or break a case.

BONUS: Be flexible.

Things aren’t preplanned and most times stuff doesn’t go exactly as planned. You may go long on time. You may wind up taking a trip out of town, or into another state. Be ready for your surveillance operation to go completely south and turn into a takedown, so something as simple as some handcuffs and something to package evidence in would be handy to have with you.

Always be prepared for the worst and that means guns and medkits. Mostly, flexibility is having everything handled so you can at a moment’s notice take off and go tail a car two hours from home.

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  1. Turbo

    Rule #1: Never trust a fart on a surveillance op

    This is NOT a joke, playboi…

  2. AED

    Bring 2 bags and pack all your equipment out, don’t leave anything in the vehicle if at all possible. Related story: We had borrowed 8 or 9 vehicles from a local car dealership, to do a number of Christmas time bait vehicles, at shopping malls and some outlets, putting rocks in empty boxes of electronics, gifts, etc. At the end of shift the newer dics were to drive to a parking garage of a local bank, hide the cars, and stick the boxes in the trunks. Of course they half assed it, left the boxes in view and the next shift found that a few of the cars were burglarized, and rocks from the bait boxes were then used to break out windows of the others. It cost us several thousand dollars.

  3. JB Gleason

    Don’t park your UnderCover vehicles at HQ or your Detective Shop or the City Lot either. Once popped a guy and while copying his pocket trash (you do that right?), I found a series of letters and numbers. Took me a minute to figure out they were license plates. Took a day to figure out it was every plate of our Narcotics Division. Some enterprising young gentleman went downtown and copied every plate from the sidewalk next to our HQ (we reviewed video to verify this). Guy never entered the secured lot. He went around town selling the list of plates to guys who looked like they might like to have that information. DA’s office couldn’t come up with a charge for what he did. I applauded his ingenuity and the lack of SA on the part of our Narc’s who couldn’t stand to park on the street and walk a block to work.


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