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Detective work is crucial to any well-functioning law enforcement department. Indeed, detectives play a significant role in investigating criminal activity, locating missing persons, and helping prosecutors gather evidence to bring wrongdoers to justice.

For those who are wondering how to become a detective, there are several steps in the process. Generally, aspiring detectives must put in a few years as patrol officers on a police force, which allows them to gain practical law enforcement experience and develop the core competencies that detective work requires. Additionally, it may be helpful to obtain an advanced degree in criminal justice or a related field.

What Does a Detective Do?

Before investigating how to become a detective, individuals who are interested in the field should understand the basic responsibilities and methods of the position and some of the specialties it includes.

Responsibilities of a Detective

Part of the detective’s job involves crime prevention. For example, a detective might gather intelligence that points to an organized crime ring or a drug-trafficking infrastructure in their jurisdiction. By gathering evidence of intended criminal activity, detectives may gain the legal standing to break up these organizations and arrest their central figures before a crime is actually committed.

Often, detectives use informants to gather information and evidence of criminal activity. It is the responsibility of a detective to manage the operations of all informants. Any suspect or offender information is provided to patrol officers.

Additionally, detectives work with prosecutors to ensure there is ample evidence to support any arrests that are made. This evidence is used in the courtroom to lead to convictions, ensuring that those who have committed criminal acts are appropriately penalized (and exonerating those who are not guilty).

Finally, detectives may resolve issues on behalf of civilians, such as helping families find missing persons. They also maintain communication with crime victims regarding arrests and required court-hearing information.

Methods of a Detective

There are many methods and strategies that detectives may employ as they seek to gather evidence and build criminal cases.

  • Interrogating those who are suspected of criminal activity
  • Interviewing witnesses to criminal acts, including victims
  • Surveilling those who are suspected of criminal activity
  • Reviewing records, videos or other evidence that might reflect criminal activity
  • Conducting and/or supervising a crime-scene search

Detective Specialties

There are a number of specialties in the detective profession.

  • Homicide detectives: These law enforcement professionals investigate deaths, confirming when and if there is foul play involved and tracking down the killer.
  • Cybercrime detectives: Detectives who work in cybercrime will track down hackers and other online criminals.
  • Narcotics detectives: Some detectives are tasked with monitoring drug activity in their area, seeking evidence to shut down trafficking networks.
  • Fraud detectives: Fraud detectives generally investigate monetary issues, including identity theft, forged checks, fraudulent workers’ compensation claims and more.
  • Commercial crimes detectives: These detectives specialize in burglary and auto theft investigations.
  • Robbery detectives: Robbery detectives investigate bank robberies, serial robberies and extortion. Robberies involving federal jurisdiction may involve working with the FBI.
  • Gang detectives: Gang detectives disrupt the activities and lifestyle of violent street gangs. This may include the investigation of drug crimes, firearms, robbery and property crimes.

The Steps to Become a Detective

As for how to become a detective, the proper combination of experience and education is required. Additionally, aspiring detectives must hone the appropriate set of skills.

Education and Experience

Specific educational requirements vary from one police department to the next. It’s typically necessary to have a high school diploma and in most cases a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or in a field related to criminal justice. Advanced degrees and certificates aren’t always mandatory, but they can help aspiring detectives compete for the best jobs.

Most police departments also require detectives to complete training at the local police academy and spend a few years as patrol officers, gaining valuable experience in the law enforcement system. Upon completion of a few years of patrol, officers take a promotional exam to become detectives. It is a competitive civil service process. The combination of education and professional experience prepares police officers for promotion to the rank of detective.

Detective Skills

Through education and experience, detectives may hone the skills to become truly successful investigators. Some of the fundamental skills for detectives include:

  • Critical thinking: Detectives must be prepared to review evidence, analyze it carefully and reach reasonable conclusions and inferences. They need to think “outside the box.”
  • Problem solving: As detectives encounter dead ends or “cold” trails, it’s important they apply creative problem-solving abilities.
  • Attention to detail: Detectives never know which pieces of evidence will be meaningful, so they must pay attention to everything.
  • Communication: Detectives need to be adept at communicating with witnesses and suspects. They must also be able to clearly relay their findings to prosecutors and in some cases to judges and juries.
  • Computer skills: The ability to find and evaluate online evidence is a must, especially for cybercrime detectives.
  • Writing skills: It is important for detectives to possess excellent writing skills due to the large number of reports that are written.
  • Emotional stability: Detectives routinely experience unpleasant and sometimes disturbing events at crime scenes. They must be emotionally able to handle these circumstances.

Detective Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019 the median annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $83,170. Any of the following factors may influence a detective’s specific salary level.

  • Experience: Those with more years on the force will usually command higher salaries.
  • Education: Having an advanced criminal justice degree or certificate can also result in higher pay.
  • Geography: Certain cities, communities and jurisdictions may pay more or less than others based on factors including crime levels and population.

It may also be noted the BLS projects detective jobs to grow by 5% annually, which is slightly faster than the average for all other jobs.

Pursue a Career in Criminal Justice

Individuals who are interested in making their communities safer through a career in law enforcement — or those who simply have additional questions about becoming a detective — would do well to explore the University of Central Florida’s criminal justice degree programs.

UCF online programs include bachelor’s- and master’s-level degrees as well as online undergraduate certificates covering criminal profiling, crime analysis, security management, and victim advocacy. Online graduate certificates include crime analysis, police leadership, corrections leadership, and juvenile justice leadership. Undergraduate certificates must be earned in conjunction with a bachelor’s degree. Graduate certificates are stand alone. Learn more about these vital criminal justice careers and how you can hone the skills to serve and protect your community.