By LISA MONTI
Richard Brooks has spent 10 years in law enforcement, 15 years as a private investigator and has made one run at lobbying the Legislature to make licensing PIs the law.
The lobbying was as tedious as a 24-hour stakeout in the Mississippi summertime and unsuccessful.
His bill passed the House of Representatives last year but didn’t make it out of committee in the Senate. The lawmakers didn’t have the licensing issue on their radar and didn’t see it as a big problem, Brooks said.
“Legislators say they were not getting people complaining about crooked PIs,” he said.
“There are only four states left without PI licensing, and we are the only one in the Southeast.”
Alabama recently passed a law requiring licensing and Brooks said it’s been successful there.
“Alabama fought this same thing. Now they’ve got over 200 members including me, and over 300 licensed PIs. It’s a good time to be strong. More states are adopting licensure and it’s hard to run away from that,” he said.
Though no license is required, private investigators at the minimum have to hold a business license in the city or county where they live, have an office or conduct business, according to the Mississippi Professional Investigators Association. Brooks is serving his third term as MPIA president.
The MPIA officers vet and interview all new association applicants, and MPIA members vote on each member, who must agree to adhere to the group’s code of ethics.
“We want to maintain standards of conduct,” he said. “If they’re listed on our website, you know they have been vetted.”
Brooks said it’s commonplace for the association to deny membership applications every month. He said one convicted felon in Mobile couldn’t get a license in Alabama so he moved across the state line and opened an office in Jackson County “because there is nothing to stop him.”
Brooks said, “There are many PIs who only work in Mississippi because they can’t get licensed in another state for whatever reasons.”
The association has approximately 50 active members, mostly in South Mississippi. “The Gulf Coast has a lot more competition, a lot more qualified people and more money. As you go north, there are less and less PIs.”
PIs fees run higher on the Coast, around $125 an hour plus mileage. Elsewhere in Mississippi, the cost may average $75 an hour.
Brooks is licensed in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida and regularly attends their training sessions. His speciality is working fraud cases for insurance companies and conducting criminal investigations for attorneys. “Sometimes a person’s family hires me in criminal matter,” he said.
Brooks said the Hollywood stereotype PI is “very wrong.” The main difference is a real PI operates covertly, trying not to attract attention. “The guys on TV are saying, ‘Look at me.’ A PI is not supposed to be overt.” Brooks, who once did a television reality show playing himself, said, “Most of the time we’re not supposed to be seen.”
Nationally, Brooks said the use of GPS to track someone is “a big deal” in his industry now. “In some states it’s legal to do it and in some it’s not. Florida just passed a bill saying PIs can’t use it,” he said.
The next big issue is how to deal with the use of drones by private investigators. “Every state has to deal with it,” he said. “Mississippi is going to have to deal with that.”
The next MPIA meeting will be Dec. 5 at 12:30 p.m. at Anjou Restaurant in Ridgeland.