Police Detective

Like a police officer, police detectives pursue and apprehend criminals, protect the public from crime, investigate law-breaking activity, and enforce the law. Police detectives obtain information about crimes by collecting evidence at crime scenes, analyzing evidence, collaborating with crime scene investigators, forensic analysts, and medical examiners, interviewing witnesses and victims, conducting interviews, and interrogating suspects. When a police detective obtains enough evidence to charge an individual with a crime, he can make an arrest and take a suspect into custody. A detective may also be called upon to provide testimony in a court of law. In the United States, detectives are employed at the local, state, and federal levels.

What Is a Police Detective?

A police detective or criminal investigator, unlike an entry-level police officer, usually specializes in one particular type of crime. A police detective may work with juvenile offenders or investigate murders or sex crimes. Other detectives work on the vice squad or on narcotics, fraud, intelligence, computer crimes, surveillance, or arson cases. Still, other detectives investigate robberies, burglaries, auto theft, missing persons, or aggravated assaults.

Criminals don’t take days off, so a police detective must be prepared to work long hours, weekends, and holidays. If working undercover, a detective may immerse themselves in dangerous settings where the threat of physical violence is high. Regardless of the setting, detective work can be stressful and stimulating, but also deeply rewarding. Detectives work with other law enforcement officers and civilians every day, and they must be prepared to handle a wide variety of intense situations.

Job Duties & Responsibilities of a Police Detective

Many people choose law enforcement as a career with the goal of becoming a detective or criminal investigator. Detectives experience a sense of personal and professional satisfaction from solving complex criminal cases, and many people are attracted to detective work because of the great variety in job duties. Generally, detectives and criminal investigators don’t know from one day to the next what they will encounter on the job. Listed below are a few common activities

Completing Paperwork

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, through its online database, lists a number of additional duties that a police detective may have during a criminal investigation. Not only do detectives take statements from witnesses and suspects, but they record those interviews. Law enforcement involves the completion of many files, including reports for the commanding officer, files on suspects, and records of the progress of investigations. The detective, along with the criminal investigator, preserves, processes, and analyzes the evidence from suspects, crime scenes, and criminal investigations. Records and files often exist on repeat offenders, and it’s the detective’s job to find those files. Additional tasks may include preparing charges to arrest suspects as well as search warrants.

At the Scene of a Crime

When a crime scene involves a deceased person, it is the responsibility of a detective or other responding officers to secure the area, protect the decedent’s body so that it is not disturbed, and to prevent the public from contaminating evidence at the scene. If an individual at the scene is injured, a police detective is expected to notify emergency personnel and ensure the person’s safety.

Police detectives begin an investigation by recording a summary of the incident from the police officer who was first to respond and by taking statements from any witnesses to the crime. Along with crime scene technicians, the detective will examine the scene, make observations, and note the location of objects at the scene, including footprints, tire tracks, bloodstains, and bullets. Crime scene investigators, detectives, and other investigative specialists usually photograph or videotape the crime scene, bag evidence, and record any information relevant to the investigation.

Other Tasks

Police detectives canvass the crime scene area to question neighbors, bystanders, and business personnel to confirm the information supplied by witnesses and suspects. After a suspect has been identified, the detectives may take part in raids and arrests. Detectives notify their commanding officers of the events and coordinate with other agencies. They give polygraph tests and record their observations. When participating in surveillance operations, police detectives photograph and videotape drug transactions, among other tasks.

Areas of Specialization in Detective Work

Police detectives typically specialize in one or more areas. In addition, some departments rank detectives based on their level of supervisory responsibility. For instance, in Los Angeles, the “Detective II” and “Detective III” ranks are both supervisory positions, which means these individuals are responsible for hands-on training and oversight of Detective I personnel and police officers. Some of the specialty areas that police detectives focus on include:

Law Enforcement Detective

A law enforcement detective, or police detective, is a police officer who works specifically within a department. They work to solve a wide variety of crimes, including burglary, assault, theft, illegal sex activities, juvenile crime, arson, drug sales and trafficking, gang-related crimes, fraud, and more. While they may assist with homicides, a specially trained homicide detective usually takes the lead on murder cases. They may assist in preserving evidence and ensuring it’s not tampered with at the scene of a crime.

Forensic Detective

A forensic detective, also called a crime scene investigator, focuses specifically on the collection, preservation, and analysis of crime scene evidence. Forensic detectives often take photographs and videotapes, not only of the crime scene but also of the evidence and witness statements. The detectives in the forensic unit analyze evidence from crime scenes to determine the truth as to what occurred and who committed the crime. They work with DNA evidence such as hair or bodily fluids and blood spatter patterns. They examine the trajectory of weapons and ballistics. Soil analysis helps recreate the scene.

Forensic detectives must follow specific protocols when collecting and examining evidence. Failure to do so correctly can render evidence inadmissible in court, which could lead to the exoneration of a guilty party.

Homicide Detective

A homicide detective works specifically on murder cases to help determine who committed the murder. They are called to the murder scene before the body is removed. They may perform a preliminary exam, look for physical evidence, and talk to any witnesses and bystanders. A homicide detective’s job is often stressful, and they work irregular hours. As one LAPD homicide detective said, “When a murder occurs, it is rarely during business hours; it is usually between 10 p.m. and 3.a.m.” Homicide detectives witness violence, sometimes on a daily basis, and the worst of mankind. No two days on the job as a homicide detective are the same, but many in the field appreciate the dynamic nature of investigative work.

Homicide specialists learn the scientific principles behind how a human body acts when force is used against it, such as a club, gun, knife, etc. They learn about lividity, rigor mortis, and how a body falls as it goes through the stages of dying. Homicide detectives also are expected to testify to prove in a court of law that the defendant is guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Cybercrime Detective

A cybercrime detective, or cybercrime investigator, is a police officer who works to solve crimes that occur in an online environment. In today’s technologically advanced society, criminals commit fraud, theft, identity theft, illegal firearms sales, online drug trafficking, sex crimes, hacking, cyberstalking, white-collar crimes, and more. Cybercrimes can be difficult to investigate. They often take place across many different jurisdictions, and the perpetrators hide behind their computer screens. A cybercrime detective uses technical analysis to stay ahead in a constantly changing technology environment.

Narcotics Detective

Narcotics detectives work at every level: local, state, or federal. These detectives investigate drug-related offenses and suspected drug dealers. They often must work undercover to investigate both the sale and purchase of illegal narcotics. They also may have to infiltrate drug-trafficking rings and provide testimony in court about drug purchases they witnessed while they were undercover.

Private Detective

private detective has extensive investigative skills and experience, but instead of serving the public sector, the detective works for an individual or company on a private basis. Private investigators are most often called upon to conduct surveillance and deliver a summons and other types of legal documents. Some private detectives work solely for corporations to conduct investigations into the theft of trade secrets or intellectual property or to help companies do due diligence. Sometimes, a private investigator is hired to do undercover work, wherein they impersonate a third party to conduct investigations.

How to Become a Police Detective

Unlike many jobs, a would-be detective doesn’t simply fill out an application and interview for the job. Years of hard work spent establishing a track record as an exemplary officer, along with a significant amount of training and preparation, are required before an officer may be considered for a detective position.

The promotion process in law enforcement is similar to that of the military. The requirements vary by department, but you can generally expect to be a police officer for several years before you are eligible to apply for a detective position. Every candidate begins at the lowest rank, as a cadet in a police academy training facility. Prospects who graduate from the police academy and successfully advance through a probationary field training period become licensed police officers. Police officers who excel at their jobs and continually work to improve their skills are rewarded with promotions and additional professional opportunities, such as advancing to the role of a police detective.

1. Earn Several Years of Full-Time Experience as a Sworn Officer

Establish Yourself as an Exceptional Officer

Detective positions are highly coveted and extremely competitive. The best way to stand out from other applicants is to focus on being an excellent officer. The law enforcement community is small. Even in a large police department, word travels quickly about thorough, successful officers. Strive to be the best officer you can be, follow up on leads promptly, handle your cases responsibly, and ensure your paperwork is meticulously prepared. Avoid misconduct and other behavior that may lead to disciplinary action. Use all available resources to solve problems as they arise, and seek feedback from veteran officers on areas for improvement.

2. Pursue Higher Education

Earning a promotion from entry-level police officer to police detective may take several years regardless of your educational background, however, it is common for officers who hold a college degree to advance more quickly within department ranks. Employment preference is frequently given to qualified candidates who have completed 60 semester hours, or more, of coursework in a relevant field of study at an accredited college or university.

In other words, a degree can make a difference in your ability to earn a promotion. While the minimum requirements to become a licensed police officer may only be a high school diploma, it’s wise to consider your future goals when making a decision about higher education.

Imagine a scenario where two equally qualified officers are being considered for the same open position. All things being the same, who do you think will be offered the position? The officer with a college degree, or the officer without one? Holding a criminal justice degree can help you stand out from other candidates, earn promotions faster, and eventually reach leadership positions available only to those who possess a postsecondary degree.

Take Detective Related Training Courses

Investigative training courses are offered by state law enforcement agencies to experienced uniformed officers who are interested in transitioning to roles with investigator responsibilities. For example, training programs are developed by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to help officers build upon skills they have learned on the job. Skills such as interviewing, crime scene investigation, and critical investigative techniques are taught by FLETC instructors, along with numerous other topics.

The objective of these training programs is to prepare uniformed officers with the skills necessary to meet the requirements of a police detective and to perform a job with frequently changing needs. Programs help students build a comprehensive understanding of federal laws, policies, procedures, jurisdiction, and basic operations.

3. Approach Your Senior Officer to Apply for the Position

Once you have solidified your reputation as an exemplary police officer, approach your senior officer to advise him or her that you wish to become a detective. Many local and state law enforcement agencies require a minimum of three years of service before an officer may submit an application. Scores on agency tests combined with an evaluation of your service as a police officer are scored and weighted. Those with the highest scores are eligible for a position, while officers with lower scores must reapply when a vacancy becomes available.

4. Keep Building Experience

Even exceptional police officers are not always promoted to detective on their first attempt. It can take years for a position to become available. Additionally, you may have to compete with patrol officers with more experience and equally impressive records of service. Continuing growing your experience, attend training seminars offered by state or local departments, and do everything you can to build a foundation that will translate into future success. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged and stay focused on your ultimate goal.

Important Qualities for Police Detectives

An important distinction exists between police officers and detectives. Police officers respond to emergencies, issue citations, and patrol areas to practice law enforcement. Police and detectives are criminal investigators whose job it is to find a criminal and bring him or her to justice. At a crime scene, detectives obtain statements from complainants, witnesses, and suspects. They may record interviews and help gather criminal evidence. They investigate crime scenes, write detailed reports of their findings, follow leads, interview suspects, conduct background checks, and arrest the criminal or criminals responsible. In many cases, detectives and criminal investigators are called upon to testify in court as witnesses when the criminal stands trial. Successful detectives possess several key characteristics.

Attention to Detail

According to O*NET OnLine, a division of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, detectives and investigators must be detail-oriented and “thorough in completing work tasks.” In addition, detectives must possess highly developed reasoning skills and have the ability to combine and distill a great deal of information to formulate logical theories and conclusions about the criminal who committed the crime.


Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a setback. Detective work is tough, both physically and mentally. Detectives soon learn that every case can’t be solved, and they will not apprehend every criminal. The most successful detectives and investigators learn coping strategies that help them overcome the challenges inherent in a career in law enforcement.

Physical Fitness

Almost every type of law enforcement job is physically demanding. Detectives must possess the physical strength to apprehend a criminal, remain alert for long hours, and pass periodic physical fitness tests. Working through the night is not uncommon.

Detective work requires a strong constitution. As first responders, detectives and criminal investigators respond to emergency situations, typically arriving first at a crime scene or accident, which means exposure to blood and violence. If you recoil at violence, a career in law enforcement may not be for you.

Deductive Reasoning

Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is famous for his deductive reasoning abilities, which helped him get inside the criminal mind to solve crimes. In the novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes examines clues at a crime scene to form assumptions about the criminal. Taken separately, these clues may not mean much, but together, they tell Holmes everything he needs to know about the criminal. Having the ability to examine evidence and make deductions about the criminal are vital skills for an effective investigator.

An Authoritative Presence

Detectives can see a problem and fix it. In addition, they enjoy a sense of responsibility. People listen to and generally follow the detective’s instructions. Detectives have the ability to solve problems and save lives, which earns them the respect of their community.

A “Calling” for the Job

Police and detectives’ pay is not the same as the salary that an actor playing one on TV earns. Payscale.com reports the average salary of a police detective as just over $60,000. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2018 salary of detectives at $63,380 a year, or $30.47 per hour. Specialty technical skills in cybersecurity, drug trafficking law, or forensic accounting, as well a sound education in police policy and the legal system, help detectives earn more. However, many law enforcement officers report that to them, it’s more than just a job with strong earnings potential; it’s something they feel “called” to do. With a strong sense of justice, a love of the law, and a willingness to commit to defend public safety – detectives and investigators focus their lives to the service of others.

Challenges of Being a Police Detective

Of course, the work of a police detective is not without challenges. Police officers report some of the “highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.” But the challenges of a detective career don’t end there.

Unpleasant Job Situations

Officers regularly work at crime and accident scenes and frequently encounter suffering and violence. Detectives and investigators never know what they will confront on any given day, which leads to stress.

Personal Safety

Robberies can turn violent, and standard arrests can escalate quickly without warning. Public safety must be the detective’s number one priority. It’s dangerous work, and detectives must remain alert and poised to react during their entire shift.

Taking the Job Home

For detectives and investigators, their job often becomes part of their identity. Marital and family life can suffer from a detective’s inability to stop thinking about an active investigation. In addition, law enforcement work is usually shift work, which makes maintaining a successful marriage and family life difficult.

Mundane, Boring Tasks

Some aspects of detective work are neither exciting nor interesting. Detectives and investigators are required to complete a number of everyday, repetitive tasks. Detectives spend much of their day talking on the phone, responding to and sending electronic mail, and dealing with the public. Some 80 percent of detectives report that the great majority of the work is not in investigating a crime scene and arresting a criminal, but in working in an environmentally controlled office setting. Another 80 percent say much of their time is spent in an enclosed vehicle.

Stressful Environment

Not only are they putting themselves in danger when they respond to an emergency situation, law enforcement professionals must constantly deal with physically aggressive, angry, violent people as well as the criminal element of society. Inevitably, police and detectives become “the bad guys,” not the heroes. Even though under pressure to solve crimes quickly, the consequence of error is significant, with 69 percent of detectives calling it “extremely serious.” Exposure to contaminants as well as to disease is an everyday fact of life. Responsibility for public safety can become a burden.

New Challenges

The police officer and detective in today’s world faces challenges unique to the times. For instance, coping with an active shooter situation is a reality for many police departments. In addition, public outcry for increased transparency means detective work is often subject to public discourse, and reputations can be ruined by social media. Facing increasing accusations of police brutality, police departments are often the subject of public scrutiny as to the proper vetting of their candidates, which makes hiring and retention of qualified personnel difficult. Additionally, enforcing immigration and sanctuary laws is often challenging, especially when federal laws directly conflict with local and state laws.

Police Detective Salary & Employment Outlook

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, a total of 808,700 law enforcement officers were employed full-time in the U.S. Only 110,700 of those officers were classified at detectives and investigators.

Where Can I Find Additional Resources?

If you are interested in becoming a police detective or working in the field of law enforcement, it's a smart practice to make professional connections and to seek out resources that will help you advance in your career. Professional organizations and online resources can help you with the information and support you need.

Here are a few professional organizations to consider:

National Association of Police Organizations
International Association of Chiefs of Police
National Sheriff's Association
Fraternal Order of Police
Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association
International Association of Women Police
Same Shield
Women in Federal Law Enforcement

If you would like more information about additional career options in law enforcement, here are a few valuable resources to consider:

Police Officer
Crime Scene Investigator
FBI Agent
Game Warden
Private Investigator
State Trooper
U.S. Marshal

The path to becoming a police detective requires years of hard work, resilience, and dedication, but the professional and personal fulfillment you will feel is worth the effort it takes to get there.