Detective Job Description
Detectives work for police departments and other law enforcement agencies at both the state and federal levels, where they investigate crimes ranging from burglary to murder. They oversee every aspect of the process, from collecting evidence to charging a suspect, and work closely with other officers to coordinate the investigation, as well as with fellow legal professionals such as prosecutors and medical examiners. The job is ideal for someone with an analytical mind who stays cool under pressure. Detectives often work irregular hours and are also on call, meaning they typically work more than a standard 40-hour workweek.
Detective Duties and Responsibilities
A detective’s role varies based on the agency and department. However, there are several key tasks common to all detectives, including:
Detectives interview all witnesses present at a crime scene and call them again for further questioning if needed. As they uncover additional witnesses, they either visit them for an interview or ask them to come into the station to give a statement or respond to questions.
Detectives may speak to several people they suspect of committing the crime before charging someone. They interview each suspect to determine where they were during the crime and to ask questions that could uncover a possible motive. To get the suspects to open up, detectives need to know how to establish rapport as well as pick up on inconsistencies in their stories.
If detectives identify a suspect and compile sufficient evidence to prove they committed the crime, they arrest and charge the person with one or more crimes.
Sometimes detectives must catch criminals in the act of committing a crime to charge them. Or, they may anticipate a dangerous situation when attempting to arrest a suspect. In these cases, they commit raids or stings in collaboration with other departments such as the SWAT team.
Maintain Thorough Records
Detectives document every aspect of their investigation, from witness statements to actions they’ve noticed while observing suspects. They log every piece of evidence they collect or handle and keep a record of any time they access stored evidence as part of their investigation.
Detective Skills and Qualifications
Detectives may need different skills depending on the size of their police force and the department they’re assigned to. However, we’ve identified a few core qualities that all police detectives share:
- Physical fitness – being a police officer is physically demanding, and many police departments have strict physical requirements to enter the academy and stay on the force
- Knowledge of investigative principles – uncovering the truth behind a crime is a complex process, and detectives must know how to analyze evidence and witness statements to get started in the right direction
- Legal knowledge – detectives use their deep understanding of how the legal system works to ensure everything they do is admissible in court. This includes knowing the proper procedure for arresting someone or interrogating them, the legal methods for collecting evidence, and the various criminal charges and what they mean
- First aid – a detective may need to administer first aid or CPR to a victim or to fellow officers at a crime scene
- People skills – it’s important that detectives know how to read people so they can learn to sense when a witness or suspect is lying, and so they can change their approach depending on the person. In addition, they work closely with their partner and regularly collaborate with fellow officers from their own department and others
- Empathy – as part of their investigation, detectives often interview witnesses and victims who are traumatized. They also use their empathetic skills to look at the case from a wide range of perspectives, including witnesses, victims, and suspects
- Leadership and poise – detectives take charge of the situation and use their natural leadership ability and persuasiveness to encourage people to open up to them. They stay calm even during a crisis or heated situation, and sometimes testify during court cases, which requires them to convince the jury of their take on the case. In addition, they give instructions to other officers at the scene and during the course of the investigation
Tools of the Trade
Detectives regularly use the following tools and equipment in the course of their work:
- Firearms (service revolver or another weapon they keep on them while on duty)
- Computer databases (fingerprint database, motor vehicle records, arrest records)
- Word processing software (for writing reports)
Detective Education and Training
Education and training requirements vary by department, but all detectives must be at least 21 years old and a US citizen to enter the police force. They need at least a high school diploma or GED. They start out as uniformed officers and work their way up, becoming eligible for a promotion to detective only after several years of experience and increasing responsibility. Some departments also require a degree in law enforcement or a related field. Many agencies won’t accept police candidates who have a criminal record, especially any felonies, or who have a history of drug use.
Detective Salary and Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), detectives earn a median annual salary of $62,900. Those at the top 10 percent earn an annual salary of $105,230, and those at the bottom 10 percent earn an annual salary of $35,780. The BLS expects employment opportunities for detectives to grow 7 percent through 2026, which is about as fast as the average growth of other occupations. Demand for detectives varies based on geographic location and individual budgets, as well as by turnover, which tends to be low.
Ready to transition from uniformed officer to top-ranked police detective? We’ve compiled some valuable resources to help you on your journey:
International Homicide Investigators Association – network with fellow detectives from around the United States and even the world through this professional association that offers training and symposiums
International Police Association – this worldwide friendship organization for police officers offers networking opportunities and exchange programs as well as training programs
How to Become a Police Detective: A 21st Century Guide to Getting Hired in Law Enforcement – Detective Alan K. Ashcroft guides readers on their journey toward getting accepted by a police department, with tips on how agencies choose candidates and what they can expect during the interview process
Detective Inspector – after you’ve made your way through the ranks and are ready to move up to a detective role, prepare for your detective exam with this comprehensive guide. Learn about proper investigative procedures, writing reports, understanding state laws, and more
Homicide Detective Red-Hot Career Guide – you’ve got the experience and the knowledge, now impress your superiors with this intensive guide to preparing for your interview for a homicide detective position
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