Careers in Criminal Investigations
Using forensic evidence, witness testimony, and an established motive, detectives work to identify suspects and build a case in order to secure a conviction. For criminal investigators, collecting evidence, interrogating suspects and reconstructing crimes is all in a day’s work. Learn how you can become a detective with your local police department or sheriff’s office today.
Often referred to as criminal investigators, police detectives work to investigate and solve felony crimes ranging from burglary and homicide to identity theft and fraud. Most often assigned to a specific interagency task force or unit, criminal investigators use their finely honed investigative skills to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and victims are given closure.
Criminal investigators must be able to effectively conduct witness interviews and suspect interrogations, examine evidence, observe suspect activities, and serve as experts in courtroom proceedings. These unique skills and proficiencies are gained through extensive police experience, academy training; and in many instances, by earning a college degree.
1. Qualify for a Career in Law Enforcement
Becoming a detective starts by first becoming a police officer and serving in a conventional patrol capacity. It is during the training, probationary, and patrol periods that police officers gain an understanding and appreciation for the criminal process, the criminal justice system, and the role of the law enforcement community.
To become a police officer, candidates must first ensure they meet the minimum requirements set forth by the department or agency they’re interested in serving. Although these requirements differ from one police department to the next, typical requirements include:
- Being a U.S. citizen
- Being a resident of the state in which the department is located
- Being at least 21 years old (or 21 by the time of Academy graduation)
- Having no felony convictions
- Having no misdemeanor domestic violence convictions
- Possessing a high school diploma, college coursework, or a college degree
Many police departments require a college degree in a subject related to law enforcement or criminal justice. And just as many show they recognize the value of a degree by rewarding candidates with some level of college education. In fact, some municipal police departments have educational incentive programs in place to reward applicants who hold an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree by offering an increase in the base salary at progressively higher percentages based on the level of the degree they hold.
As such, many candidates with their sights set on becoming a detective choose to complete a degree program with a major in subjects such as:
- Criminal justice
- Justice administration
- Forensic psychology
- Police science
- Crime scene investigations
- Forensic science
2. Successfully Complete the Hiring and Training Process
The hiring and in-service training process is usually quite extensive, including everything from written exams and physical ability tests, to a thorough background investigation and psychological evaluation. The hiring process may take many months to complete.
Following the completion of the hiring process, new recruits are then required to attend a police academy, which can often be as long as 6-8 months. New police recruits with municipal police departments complete between 25 to 28 weeks of police academy training, during which time they are introduced to a comprehensive curriculum that includes:
- Patrol procedures and tactics
- Use of force
- Crime scene investigations
- Computer-based report writing
- Interviewing procedures
- CPR and first aid
Getting Started in Your Law Enforcement Career
Good homicide detectives are in high demand.
If you want to become a homicide detective, you must first start as a police officer, normally working for at least three years as a patrol officer. During that time, you’ll need to get top marks for your work and have your commanding officer put in a request for you to join the homicide division.
When you’re up for promotion, you’ll first take a competitive exam. If you pass, you can then choose to become either a sergeant who manages other patrol officers, or to become a detective and do investigative work.
Homicide detectives are certainly very important on any police force. But there are many other types of detectives in police departments across the country, and they share many of the same knowledge, skills, abilities, and job descriptions with their colleagues in the homicide unit. The field you work in will depend on your experience and interests, your location, and the needs of your particular department.
Here are some other types of police detectives you can be:
- Assault and battery
- Auto theft
- Computer crime
- Domestic violence
- Juvenile crime
- Missing persons
- Organized crime
- Sexual assault
Education to Become a Homicide Detective
Since you’ll first need to be a police officer before becoming a detective, like all cops, you’ll need a high school diploma, or even an associate’s or bachelor’s degree for some of the higher ranks. Some law enforcement agencies may require additional training. At the very least, you’ll need to go through the police academy, which can last for six months or more.
At the police academy, you’ll learn about the following topics, and more:
- Arrest and booking procedures
- Driving techniques and practice
- Firearms training, including marksmanship
- Human relations, including cultural sensitivity training and stress management
- Investigation techniques
- Law and the legal system, including search and seizure, and evidence chain of custody
- Physical training to build your strength and endurance
- Tactics, including vehicle stops and building searches
- Traffic enforcement and investigation
A successful homicide detective career is built on a solid foundation of the right education and on-the-job training. While police officers only need a high school education to begin their career, those who aspire to the higher ranks in the police department may benefit from a college education. So, if you’re thinking of climbing the ranks, you should also consider that a degree in criminal justice may give you a leg up on the competition.
A degree in criminal justice will give you a strong educational background. Keep in mind that here are online options to make getting an education all the more convenient. Whether you want an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, get your degree on-site or online.
There are two types of detectives, police detectives and private detective or private investigators (PI). Depending upon which type of detective you chose to become, will determine your educational and training requirements, job responsibilities, career path, salary prospects and job growth. If you are interested in becoming either a police detective or a private investigator, here is the information you need.
How to Become a Police Detective ?
Before you gather information on how to become a police detective, you must first know what they do.
What do Police Detectives do – Police detectives are either uniformed or perform their duties in plainclothes. They make arrests, conduct raids, observe suspicious activities and individuals, examine records, conduct interviews and investigate cases. These professionals usually work on criminal, fraud and missing person’s cases. Detectives are assigned cases on rotation basis. A case is assigned to a police detective till an arrest is made, trial is completed or the case is closed for any number of reasons.
Educational requirements to Become a Detective – To be considered for appointment, police detectives must at least have a high school diploma or a GED. However, nowadays, more and more police departments and federal agencies are looking for applicants with post-high school qualifications such as college credits or degrees in criminal justice.
Police officers are also encouraged to pursue college-level studies in law enforcement and particularly in criminal justice. Many police departments across the country offer financial assistance to employees to complete their education. With an ever expanding diverse landscape, college level education in foreign languages can also come in handy for police officers looking to move up to a detective’s position.
Is a career as a detective really for me?
Training to Become a Detective –You cannot be hired as a police detective straight out of the academy. Police officers need to pass a battery of theoretical exams to be promoted as police detectives.
All police officers begin their career by attending a training academy. The duration will vary, but on the whole all police training academies offer curriculum in theory and hands-on training. Courses on constitutional law, local and state laws, police ethics and civil rights are offered in-class. As far as hands on training goes, it includes firearm use, traffic control, patrol, emergency response, first aid and self-defense.
To become a police officer, the following requirements must be met.
Requirements to Become a Detective::
- Must be a US citizen
- Must be at least 21 years of age
- Have a valid driver´s license
- Never been convicted of a felony
- High school diploma/60 college credits/2-years of military experience with an honorable discharge
- Pass background and character investigation, physical agility exam, psychological tests, and medical exam
- Applicant may need to be a resident of the state they´re applying in
Under what conditions do Police Detectives Work?
The working conditions of a Police detective depends on the crimes or infractions they investigate. Criminal investigations such homicide, burglaries, thefts and missing person’s cases require detectives to visit crime scenes which can be disturbing, emotionally distressing and sometimes physically threatening.
Licenses –This is another big difference between a police detective and a private detective; the latter needs to be licensed. Almost all the states require such professionals to be licensed. State requirements for private investigator licensure will vary and therefore you should check with Professional Investigator Magazine for your state’s requirements. If you carry a handgun, you may need to meet further requirements. Certifications are however not required in this career, however certifications can improve your chances of employment.
What is the work schedule like?
A private detective’s work is grueling, since it involves working odd hours, nights, weekends and holidays. This is also an all-weather job where detectives are required to work rain or shine, night or day.
What Skills should you have to become a Detective?
Irrespective of the nature of your employment, all good detectives possess the following qualities and skills:
- Good judgment & Leadership skills
- Communication skills
- Physical strength & stamina
- Analytical Skills
If you possess these, then perhaps a detective’s career is for you.
How Much Police Detective Can Make?
|Job Title||2015 Median Salary||Job Growth|
The abovementioned figures are taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job growth figures reflect the period between 2014-24.
Which investigator should you become?
Both careers have their pros and cons. Unlike police detectives, private detectives could be self-employed, be their own boss, but they make less than the police detectives. Police detectives, on the other hand, may earn more, but their freedom to choose a case is limited as tasks are assigned to them. All in all, both careers require strong decision making and analytical skills, hard work and dedication.
Q: How to Become a Detective in California?
Ans: To become a detective in California, you will need to follow these steps:1- Fulfill the Education/Qualification RequirementsThese requirements would depend on the city in California you reside in. You may become a part of the Los Angeles Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department or the San Diego Police Department, etc. The requirements would be on the following lines:
- Must have a high school diploma
- Must be at least 21 years old
- Must be a US citizen
2- Apply and Take the TestOn the website for your desired city’s department, you will find job listings. Fill out the relevant applications and submit it in the required format (online or printed). You will then be required to take a written test with several essay questions.
3- Clear the background test and the physical abilities test4- Sit for the interview5- Clear the medical evaluation6- Get your certification and appointment letter7- Begin training
Q: How Long Does it Take to become a detective in California?
Ans: To become a detective in California, you will first need to become a police officer in the state. This will require around six months of training. To get promoted to the level of a detective, officers will typically be required to get at least four to five years of experience. In some cases, a college degree may be allowed to substitute for part of the experience requirements.
How to become a detective
In order to become a detective, you need to be a police officer first. The position of the detective is a promotional one, which means that you need to be very good at your job as a police officer in order to be proposed for the promotion.
In other words, if you dream about becoming a detective, you should prepare yourself very well for the position of a police officer. The hiring process is very complex and there are several tests that you need to pass – written, physical agility test, psychological test, polygraph, background check, medical exam. In order to prepare for most of them you can choose a good online course, such as PoliceExam911.
Once you are hired, you need to do your job in the best possible way so that you can have a chance of being promoted to a detective. It is good to let your superiors know that you are interested in the position and then work towards it.
There are some requirements that you need to meet in order to become a detective:
- Education – the minimum requirement for becoming a detective is to have a high school diploma, however most of the agencies require a higher educational level. A college degree in criminology or criminal justice is a great asset, as well as a degree in political science, psychology, sociology or forensic science. Having a bachelor’s degree is an advantage and can even be a requirement for some of the more demanding agencies.
- Age – With most departments, there isn’t a specific minimum age requirement to become a detective. This is because being a police officer comes before being a detective and there will be a minimum age to become an officer. In most cases the requirement is 21 years but there will be differences depending upon the department.
- Length of service – some agencies require that you have worked as a police officer a certain period of time prior to becoming a detective. The period can differ for the different agencies.
It is important to note that you will still need to pass some checks and tests before you become a detective. Your physical fitness will be checked – you will have to pass through agility, strength, hearing and vision tests. You may also be required to take the polygraph test and a further background check may be run on you. In most of the cases you will also be interviewed for the position and in some agencies you will need to take a test to compete for the position of detective.. A valid driver’s license is also required for the position of a detective.
Important qualities for a detective
Only the best police officers are promoted to detectives. In order to be one of the chosen, you need to have certain qualities. Here are a few of the most important ones:
- Good writing skills
- Ability to multi-task
- Being perceptive
- Excellent communication skills
- Strong attention to detail
The job of the detective often includes working odd hours and visiting unpleasant crime scenes. Usually, a detective works on more than one case and hence the ability to multi-task and prioritize is quite important. Besides, detectives work with lots of different people – from other law enforcement officers to suspects and victims and therefore they need to know how to deal with people who are in different situations.
There are also certain skills that can help you stand out. They can be developed and perfected during your years as a police officer and make you the ideal candidate for the position of a detective. Some of the most distinctive ones are:
- Great writing skills – while it is a requirement to have good writing skills, the ability to write well-structured and detailed crime reports is of great importance for the position of a detective;
- Excellent investigating skills – as a police officer you will be able to develop and polish these skills. If your superiors notice that you are good at investigating issues, your chances of being promoted to a detective are much higher;
- Tech-savvy – if you are good with new technologies and science, you are in a better position to solve crimes. Your skills will be much appreciated.
- Good physical shape – in order to do the job of a detective, you need to be agile and physically fit. The job of the police officer gives you the opportunity to stay in shape.
Your overall good performance as a police officer and eagerness to learn and develop new skills are a sign that you will become a good detective.
What does a detective do?
In order to find out if the job of the detective is the right for you, you need to know what a detective does. The main responsibility of detectives is to investigate crimes, they also search for and apprehend criminals. So far, as a police officer your functions were mainly to patrol the streets and look for suspicious actions or people in order to prevent a crime from happening, and also to respond to call for service. As a detective you will have to deal with crimes that were already committed. Some of the functions related to the job include:
- Investigating crime scenes
- Collecting evidence
- Keeping record
- Writing reports
- Interrogating suspects
- Interviewing witnesses and victims
- Preparing arrest warrants
- Arresting criminals
- Conducting raids
- Participating in surveillance
- Testifying in court
- Preparing and executing search warrants
The detective should be able to work both alone and in a team. In their job they have to work closely with other professionals such as coroners and forensic analysts. Quite often the detectives are also the liaison between their department and other departments or even other agencies as the FBI.
The primary task of the detective is to solve crimes. In order to do that, they gather facts so that they can find out what really happened. Detectives work on different cases – murders, burglaries, cold cases, cybercrimes and others. Sometimes their work is compared to solving a puzzle – they need to find all the pieces and match them properly in order to see the entire picture and solve the crime.
Detectives can wear uniforms or be in plain clothes. Quite often they work Monday to Friday unlike police officers who rotate. However, since crime happens all the time detectives are subject to being on-call. They need to visit a crime scene at odd hours. Once there, the detective may have to work long hours in order to collect all the evidence while still fresh. Therefore, you need to be very flexible with your working time and also willing to travel if the job requires it.
As the detectives need to work closely with witnesses and with the families of the victims, they need excellent communication skills. Detectives should be compassionate and ready to answer questions as well, not only ask them.
Detectives may work and specialize in specific that include:
- Property crimes
- White collar crimes
- Sex crimes
- Crimes against persons
The division in which a detective will work depends on their skills, knowledge, and education as well as on the needs of the specific department. It is possible for a detective to change their specialization and move to work from one type of crimes into another.
Career growth and salary
According to the data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistic there are 105,350 people working as detectives and criminal investigators as of May 2017, while there are 807,000 employed as police and detectives. The overall job outlook for the industry is a growth of 7% for the period from 2016 to 2026. This is as fast as the average growth for the country.
The median hourly wage for the profession is $38.45 while the median annual wage stands at $79,970.
There is a difference in the demand for detectives and their pay in the different states and in the different levels of government such as local, state, and federal.
- As it can be expected the highest levels of employment are at local government where the number of people employed is 42,820 and the annual wage stands at $71,340.
- The second largest employer is the federal executive branch that employs 40,570 people and pays an averagely $106,040 per year.
- The third place is for the state government. It gives work to 21,020 people and pays $64,010 annually.
There is also a significant difference in the employment and payment rates if reviewed by state. The highest employment level is in Texas with 16,780 people working in the sphere, followed by California with 11,700. The third place is occupied by New York with 9,290, forth is for Florida with 6,240 and fifth is for Arizona with 5,910.
When it comes to pay, however, the states that occupy the first five places are quite different. The highest paying state is Alaska, which has an hourly mean wage of $55,83 and annual wage of $116,130. The second state is California with hourly wage of $49,91 and annual payment of $103,810. The third state in this ranking is New Jersey with hourly wage of $48,55 and annual salary of $100,980. Then comes Maryland with hourly wage of $48,02 and annual payment of $99,880 and the fifth place is for Virginia with hourly wage of $45.58 and annual wage of $94,800.
As you can see there are significant differences between the employing agencies and the states. Therefore, you should choose carefully your professional domicile if you have that opportunity.