Being a Detective or Criminal Investigator

Get Career Info on Job Duties, Salary, and More

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There's a good chance that almost every crime drama you've seen or read has featured some intrepid detective tirelessly working to solve a heinous crime or a complicated heist.

While the real-life job of a police detective or criminal investigator isn't quite so chocked full of excitement and intrigue as you've seen on TV, the career definitely has its moments.

In fact, detective and investigator careers are a popular ambition for aspiring criminal justice professionals. If this is a job that interests you, you'll want to know what detectives do, where they do it and how they do it.

Job Functions and Work Environment of Police Detectives

Detectives investigate crimes. They also search for and apprehend criminals. Unlike patrol officers, detectives spend their days following up on crimes that have already been committed, as opposed to actively patrolling to prevent crime. Police detectives perform a number of job functions, including:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Evidence collection
  • Witness interviews
  • Report writing
  • Record keeping
  • Courtroom testimony
  • Preparing arrest warrants
  • Writing probable cause affidavits
  • Preparing and executing search warrants
  • Arresting criminals

Depending on the agency, criminal investigators may work Monday through Friday, unlike uniformed officers who often work rotating shifts. However, because crime happens at all hours, detectives are subject to call-out and are often required to respond to crime scenes at odd hours. Detectives and criminal investigators may specialize in specific crimes, such as:

  • Crimes against persons
  • Property crimes
  • Homicide
  • Sex crimes
  • White collar crimes

When first called out to investigate a case, a criminal investigator can expect to work long hours. It is imperative to gather as much fresh evidence as possible and to track every fresh lead as soon as practical. As a result, it is not uncommon to work up to 20 hours straight, or more, after initially responding to a scene.

Detectives and criminal investigators should also be able to deal compassionately with people. They should feel comfortable speaking with witnesses and suspects. They should also be prepared to answer questions and deal with grieving families and to work closely with other components of law enforcement and of the criminal justice system, such as forensic science technicians. Detectives need to be able to take control of a crime scene and feel comfortable directing investigations and other officers at the scene.

Education and Skill Requirements for Police Detectives

Education requirements vary widely by department. Many agencies only require a high school diploma, while others may insist you have an associate's degree or some college. Even choosier agencies will require a bachelor's degree.

The most common degrees are in criminology and criminal justice, but there are many other degree programs that can help prepare you for a career as an investigator. For example, a political science degree can be very beneficial as it provides a strong foundation for the theory and thinking behind the United States Constitution and the evolution of laws.

In addition to any degree requirements, it will be necessary to receive law enforcement certification from your state's standards and training commission, or Peace Officers Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.). The standards for P.O.S.T. certification differ from state to state but generally require a mandated number of hours of academy training and a state certification exam.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook for Police Detectives

In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were approximately 112,200 detectives and criminal investigators employed in the United States. The bureau projects growth in the industry to be around 10% through 2018, keeping in line with the average projection for all industries during the same time period.

By 2018, the bureau anticipates there will be around 130,000 detectives employed. Population growth is cited as the largest driving force behind the expansion of the industry.

The median annual income for detectives and criminal investigators was around $60,000 in 2008. The lowest earners made approximately $36,500, and the highest earners made more than $97,000. Salaries depend greatly on location and agency, as well as the time of service. Detectives with greater longevity typically earn significantly more than younger workers.

It is important to realize that police detectives are not entry-level workers. You must go through an extensive hiring process and be get hired as a police officer first. Depending on the department, obtaining a position as a detective may either be a promotion or lateral transfer.

In either case, there is usually a requirement that a candidate is a patrol officer for up to 2 years or more before being considered for a position as a detective or criminal investigator.

Is a Career in Criminal Investigation Right for You?

Few careers in criminology are as rewarding or exciting as investigations. However, it is equally true that few careers are as stressful. There are often very long hours involved, and the job can be very tiring. In addition, detectives often respond to gruesome scenes and must confront victims of violent deaths and serious injuries. They must also be able to control their emotions as they deal with people suspected of committing violent crimes.

If you feel you have the constitution for it, working as a criminal investigator can provide a chance to solve crimes and serve justice. It can be extremely interesting work and can help serve as a building block for further promotional opportunities in the future. Spending time as a detective or criminal investigator can help you become a better-rounded officer and help you to develop supervisory skills.