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Foot surveillance in London

In our September 2015 print issue we feature the latest book by surveillance trainer and operator, Peter Jenkins, Covert Imagery and Photography, about getting the best pictures or video as a private detective when doing surveillance. Here he walks us (pardon the pun) through foot surveillance in London. He runs three-day BTEC training courses on foot surveillance in London, one of the subjects he offers as a course.

Pictured: John Islip Street, looking north, Westminster, central London.

Foot surveillance in the major cities poses its own problems just as any smaller town. With the hustle and bustle of London some would argue that conducting surveillance on foot is difficult; people, traffic, dense geography, buses and the underground. Others would argue that all those things were an advantage to the surveillance officer, to help blend in and become part of the street.

Foot surveillance cannot really be conducted single handed, especially against an aware target. We advise that an operator will always be seen but being noticed is something totally different. Becoming unnoticed is the art to surveillance and using that tradecraft to avoid multiple sightings and consequently detection. A foot team is rarely deployed on their own, normally assisted with vehicles and motorbikes. It has to be a team effort with each member sharing his or her ‘exposure’ to the target. Communication is essential using body worn covert radios in order to commentate on the targets actions, to control the team and report to a control. Mobile phones are a definite no no, except as a back up to their radios. What gets an operator ‘noticed’ is normally down to:

• Multiple sightings
• Unusual behaviour
• Cross Contamination

Multiple sightings

It is obvious that the more times a target sees you, the more chance of them noticing you and thus remembering you. Especially if seen at different times and in different locations.

Unusual behaviour

For the novice, one of the hardest things to accomplish in foot surveillance, is to act normal and naturally, but this is easier said than done. The last thing an operator needs to do is react in view of their target.


Now and again, there may be a need for you to meet up and talk to another team member. Strictly speaking this should never be done. If the target suspects that you are surveillance, and sees you speak to someone else, you then compromise them by what we call ‘cross-contamination’. This can also occur inadvertently by the use of mobile phones; I have seen individuals on a street or in a mall, that happen to look at each other when talking on a phone. It looks even funnier when they both hang up at the same time! Controlling a target in a large open space such as a park can be equally challenging if they were on a bus or the underground. The latter having its own problems as the team often have to be close enough to keep control, especially when there many eventualities.

London Underground

The London underground is a vast network used by thousands of people each day and is probably the easiest and quickest mode of transport within London. Therefore we have to adopt certain procedures when dealing with this situation. We have to be very guarded in these areas of the third party, pick-pockets and security staff. Any unnatural behaviour displayed will certainly attract someone’s attention.

Communications maybe limited, especially to those ‘up top’ and the use of apps such as Whatsapp are only good if you have a wi-fi signal. Pre-Oyster, the drill was to get in close to the target, attempt to identify the destination and pass this information ‘up top’ so that they can dispatch a surveillance car, taxi or a motorbike to cover the destination and provide support. If the target has an Oyster card, he is straight through the barriers and into the system with no indication of his destination – this can really hinder a surveillance operation.

Emerging from a very busy location such as Charing Cross or Tottenham Court Road with multiple exits will have a totally different approach to alighting a train in a quieter area such as Green Park. The team either have to close up or spread out and in these quieter areas a surveillance operator on foot can be vulnerable to detection, especially against an aware target that may have counter-surveillance in place. But that is another story.

About the writer

Peter Jenkins is the director of ISS Training Ltd and author of books including Surveillance Tradecraft: The Professional’s Guide to Surveillance Training (2010). For the three-day foot surveillance in London course outline, click here.


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