Not Getting 'Burned'

You can always tell the veterans because they don't wear hats or fake mustaches anymore.

Dave Smith Headshot

One of the really great things about law enforcement is surveillance; and one of the really bad things about law enforcement is surveillance. I know that's an oxymoronic sentence but it's true.

A good surveillance is an exciting, intense, and fulfilling adventure leading to an arrest or good information gathered or a second of three buys going down. A bad surveillance is boring, boring, boring...leading to blame, blame, blame. People start thinking someone must have been burned, someone must have tipped them, someone didn't get their intelligence right, and on and on and on.

I've been a part of many of both kinds and you never know what you're going to get until it's over. One time I spent a week in the dead of winter (OK, it was a Tucson winter) on business rooftops trying to catch a burglar...but I only caught a cold. A few days later I parked down the street from a hotel that had been shot at and almost immediately the dirtbag drove up and shot into the lobby. You just never know.

Moving surveillances are almost always exciting if not chaotic. Bad guys aren't usually trying to lose a "tail," they just drive like...well...bad guys. That's what makes following them such a great time.

Being the "eyeball" is always fun, since you are the one closest to the subject being followed and therefore liable to be "burned" or "made" by the target. You can always tell the new kids in a unit because they are always "burned" or "made" and asking someone else to take the "eyeball" even though they have changed hats twice and put the fake mustache on three times.

You can always tell the veterans because they don't wear hats or fake mustaches anymore. And they've thrown away the cheap binoculars that make your eyes ache and bought a really good pair. They've also learned it is OK to lose a happens.

The thing about surveillance really never know what will happen, and that's either good or telling. Part of it is who you are working with and if they love the adventure or not.

Once, we were assisting the FBI on surveillance when the suspect suddenly got in his vehicle and went mobile. Everyone was scampering to vehicles and I jumped in with Welty and off we went trying to regain a visual on the fellow.

One of the agents said he thought he'd heard the fellow say something on a payphone about going to the airport. Sure enough, we regained the "eyeball" and followed the fellow all the way from the heart of Phoenix to Tucson International Airport...what a ride! We had DEA aircraft, DPS Narcs, FBI agents, heck a whole alphabet on I-10 following this guy.

Finally, he went into the airport terminal and Welty and I followed as we had had the eyeball for about 80 of the 120 miles and we knew what the fellow looked like pretty damn well. We were in the bar watching the fellow meet with two unknown subjects, when two men in suits and cameras came walking into the bar and us! Two long-haired narcs and two well-dressed agents idly chatting didn't seem to attract anyone's attention and we went "unburned."

The subject shook hands with his cohorts, exited the terminal, went to his car, and we followed him all the way back to his hotel room in Phoenix. On the way back, Welty and I bought food at Burger King for all of our folks and asked for crowns. We then raced down Interstate 10 handing off bags of burgers and kid's crowns to our fellow state narcs. We then took turns passing agents wearing the paper crowns. Even Lt. Reutter wore one. Amazingly, we still didn't get "burned..."

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. His book "In My Sights," a compilation of his POLICE articles, is now available.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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