What Does a Police Detective Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a man with a trenchcoat, fedora, magnifying glass and a police badge. Text reads:

Image by Katie Kerpel © The Balance 2019

Police detectives are experienced police officers who investigate crimes with the objective of gathering evidence against criminals for prosecution. Detectives are often selected from within a police department from a pool of police officers who apply for open positions.

Detectives in large police departments often specialize in a particular type of crime such as homicide, sex crimes, or property crimes. In small departments, there are not enough detectives for specialization.

Detective Duties & Responsibilities

The job generally requires the ability to perform the following duties:

  • Gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases
  • Determine which people and pieces of information are credible
  • Conduct interviews
  • Examine records
  • Observe suspects
  • Participate in raids and arrests
  • Write detailed reports on findings
  • Testify in court

Detectives investigate crimes that have been reported to the department or discovered by police officers. Detectives work with police officers, crime scene investigators, and evidence technicians to build a case for prosecutors to take before a jury. They analyze physical evidence and conduct interviews to reach their conclusions about what exactly happened during an incident.

Detective Salary

A police detective's salary can vary depending on location and experience.

  • Median Annual Salary: $63,380
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $106,090
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $36,550

Education, Training, & Certification

Detectives normally begin as police officers and are promoted to detective. Because of this, education and training requirements for detectives are similar to those for police officers.

Like with entry-level police officer positions, there are written examinations built into the hiring process. Presumably, a detective will have passed physical tests in the police officer hiring process. The differences between the police officer and police detective positions are the higher level investigation and interviewing skills required for detectives.

  • Education: The educational requirements for detectives vary by police department and can range from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree.
  • Training: Police officers, including detectives, usually must attend a training academy given by the department or agency where they want to work. They then usually complete a period of on-the-job training.
  • Experience: Detectives need experience in police work. Several years as a uniformed officer are necessary for detectives to have the basic knowledge and skills to do their work.

Detective Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:

  • Analytical skills: Detectives piece together individual bits of physical and testimonial evidence to recreate how and why crimes happened.
  • Communication skills: Detectives must draw information out of interviewees when many times the interviewees do not want to be cooperative.
  • Interpersonal skills: Detectives need to gather as much information as possible from witnesses, victims, and suspects.
  • Physical and mental stamina: Detectives need to be alert and ready to take action whenever they're working—even through long shifts on their feet.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in this field will grow 7 percent through 2026, which matches the overall projected employment growth for all occupations in the country.

Work Environment

There's some office work involved with being a detective, but a majority of the work is out in the field.

Like most other jobs in law enforcement, a detective job can be dangerous at times, especially during conflict with criminals. Detective work can also be highly rewarding because each successful investigation makes the community safer.

Work Schedule

Detectives usually work full time, at least 40 hours per week, and get overtime pay beyond that. Cases are typically assigned on a rotating basis since it is near impossible to determine how time-consuming a case will be when it first comes in. Detectives that have easier cases may volunteer to take additional cases when their colleagues are swamped. Detectives will also assist one another in research, evidence analysis, and interviewing.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People who are interested in becoming police detectives may also consider other careers with these median salaries:

  • Private detective or investigator: $50,090
  • Correctional officer or bailiff: $44,400
  • Fire inspector: $60,200

How to Get the Job

Become a police officer

Detectives usually begin their careers as police officers and are later promoted to detective roles.

Gain experience

Police officers who wish to become detectives should work with detectives to the greatest extent possible.

Apply

Police officers are usually considered for detective roles after they've gained experience.