Want To Become A Detective? Here’s What You Should Do!

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22 February 2024

Job & Career

how to become a detective

When you hear the term “detective,” you might think of the fast-paced, well-groomed characters from television series. True detective work demands extreme patience, rigorous investigation, and unwavering ethics; it is very different from the glamorous portrayals in the media. The process of solving cases can take months or even years, during which time a lot of time is spent sifting through files, documents, and photos.

On top of that, solving cases may expose investigators to potentially dangerous people and situations. Notwithstanding the difficulties, though, working as a detective can be fulfilling because it offers the intense sense of accomplishment that results from cracking cases and giving victims closure.

Despite the overlap in their areas of expertise, private investigators (PIs) and police detectives are two different professions. Police detectives usually obtain investigative experience through their work in law enforcement and become detectives as a promotion through the agency. This is according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022).

At work, they might interview witnesses or suspects, look through documents, gather and meticulously record evidence, write reports, watch subjects at work, secure crime scenes, obtain arrest warrants, assist in apprehending offenders, and also testify as experts in court.

In contrast, private investigators, or PIs, are citizens who usually require state licensure. They gain experience in obtaining legal, financial, and personal information about their clients through surveillance and background checks. They also participate in missing person tracking, snooping for hints in documents, and speaking with relevant individuals. Detectives can focus on corporate malpractice, insurance fraud, computer forensics, and other areas.

There are a hoard of professional courses you can do, and your scope is equally varied. Keep reading to learn about the salary detectives draw and the qualifications, training, and personality needed to enter this field. Here is everything you need to know about how to become a detective.

Skills To Become a Detective

Skills To Become a Detective

Most prosperous detectives are inquisitive, meticulous, and diligent. Perseverance may also be crucial because solving crimes isn’t always a straight line or a quick process. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the following abilities are critical for successful detective work:

Communication skills: When speaking with witnesses, victims, and possible offenders, detectives need to pay close attention to what they are saying, ask the right questions, and be aware of nonverbal cues.

Decision-making skills: Detectives need to be able to make decisions quickly and calmly, especially when someone’s life is in danger or when acting quickly can lead to the discovery of information that can help solve a crime.

Curiosity: Skilled investigators possess an innate ability to solve puzzles and can consider potential reasons behind a crime as well as determine the means of commission.

Perseverance: As mentioned earlier, solving a crime can take several months or even years. Crimes go unsolved occasionally, turning into cold cases that may be reopened years later, particularly with the development of forensic technologies like DNA testing.

Resourcefulness: Although detectives always need to be quick on their feet and adhere to protocol, they also need to be able to solve crimes by using their intuition and the resources at hand.

How To Become a Detective?

How To Become a Detective?

There are several ways to become a detective or private investigator (PI), but they all involve a consistent mix of classroom learning and real-world investigative experience. If you want to know how to become a detective, then this is one standard way:

Step 1: Complete your four years of high school

At this point, prospective detectives are advised to cultivate critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning. To obtain practical experience in the field, some students might look for volunteer opportunities. They can do it through their local police departments, community organizations, or federal agencies.

For instance, high school students who are interested can enroll in the FBI’s week-long Future Agents in Training (FAIT) program. Similarly, eligible high school and college students can apply for the Pathways Internship Program offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Many police academies require at least some college to qualify. Whereas some police academies may be able to accept prospective police detectives directly. Eileen Carlin is a state coordinator for Rasmussen College’s School of Justice Studies and a 20-year law enforcement veteran. According to him, most departments prefer detectives with two- to four-year college degrees.

Step 3: Complete a police academy and gain investigative experience

The next step for someone who wants to work as a police detective is to enroll in a police academy. This is an option that can be more profitable than working as a private investigator (PI).

The qualifications for a police academy differ depending on the department and area, but applicants must be US citizens, be at least eighteen years old, have a driver’s license, have never been convicted of a felony, and have some college experience.

Note that most state as well as federal agencies require a minimum of four years of undergraduate study. Typically lasting six to eight months, police academy programs provide specialized training in the use of firearms, patrol procedures, ethics, self-defense, writing reports, CPR and first aid, physical fitness, and emergency response.

Aspiring detectives can enhance their resumes by pursuing advanced training and responsibilities in investigative units after graduating from the academy. Homicide, surveillance, fraud, cybercrimes, financial crimes, and missing persons are among the different investigation branches.

Step 4: Private investigator’s (PIs) licensure and on-the-job investigative experience

Prior to receiving a license, private investigators frequently need to have investigative experience gained through on-the-job training. Before being issued a license to operate, a prospective PI must first fulfill the eligibility standards of their home state, pass an exam, and finish additional state-mandated requirements. The number of hours required for this type of work varies depending on the state.

After receiving their full license, the PI may choose to focus on specific investigation fields, such as litigation support, insurance claims, cybersecurity, and criminal investigations. An online resource for investigators, Pursuit Magazine (2022), notes that 46 states (as well as certain cities) require a license for private investigators to practice, and it offers a useful table of state-by-state private investigator licensure policies.

Step 5: Police detective exam for professional certification

Both private investigators and police detectives can obtain certifications. For investigators with a focus on criminal defense or negligence, the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) offers the Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) credential.

Candidates for the CLI program must pass an exam with a minimum score of 70%, finish a 1,000-word research paper on investigations, and have at least five years of full-time experience (or qualify through appropriate academic coursework). Every three years, CLIs must complete 50 hours of continuing education (CE) to keep their certification.

For investigators who specialize in security, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator (PCI) certification. Candidates must have five years of investigative experience (two of which must be in case management) and a high school diploma to be eligible. People’s knowledge of case management, investigative techniques and procedures, and case presentation is tested on a 140-question exam.

Step 6: Local credentialing

State-specific requirements may differ for becoming a detective. The procedures to enter the state’s detective division may differ as well. Because most states have distinct standards for becoming police officers.

Generally, some police departments only accept a GED or high school certificate. Others demand a two- or four-year college degree, as well as certain college courses. For instance, you need a high school degree or GED to work in the Los Angeles Police Department Detective Bureau. Here, the first promotion after completing officer training is detective or sergeant.

However, candidates must have completed two years of military service or 60 college credits to be considered for employment with the New York Police Department. Candidates from Dallas, Texas, between 21 and 44, must have a 2.0 GPA and 45 semester credits (college-level).

In contrast, candidates in Miami, Florida, must obtain a GED or a high school diploma and pass the Florida Basic Abilities Test (FBAT), a law enforcement exam. To put it briefly, state requirements for becoming a detective differ greatly. Moreover, it is advised that prospective candidates check their eligibility by contacting their local government offices.

Institutions to Consider

Institutions to Consider

When you are looking for more details regarding how to become a detective, the consequent thought to follow it up is which are the top colleges and universities offer the relevant courses. Here are some premier institutions that you should check out. 

California State University

California State University

A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in criminal justice is also offered by California State University in San Bernardino (CSUSB). It combines structured coursework in criminal law and statistics in criminal justice. It also has correctional counseling with beneficial research and internship opportunities.

Graduates from this program will be well-versed in the criminal justice system, how it functions, and how laws, as well as law enforcement, affect society.

The program, which is worth 120 credits, consists of classes on topics like criminal law, research methodologies in criminal justice, statistics in criminal justice, police and police systems, theories of correctional theory and institutions, crime and delinquency, police and police systems, and criminal investigations, among other things. If you are seriously looking for the answer to how to become a detective, then CSU is your top bet.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Many respectable undergraduate degrees with criminology, criminal justice, and criminal justice management majors are offered by this institution. Students can pursue a Bachelor of Science (BS) in criminal justice program. They will receive specialized training in constitutional law, police and community relations, and the law and politics of racial relations. It lays special emphasis on institutional theory and practice.

The 120-credit program comprises courses like:

  • Drugs, Crime, and Law in Latin America
  • Police and Urban Communities
  • An Introduction to Corrections
  • An Introduction to Police Studies
  • Criminology
  • Community-Based Approaches to Justice
  • Police and the American Criminal Justice System

Pennsylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs and Penn State World Campus have partnered to offer an online associate in science (AS) degree in criminal justice through Pennsylvania State University. Through this program, students will acquire the abilities and information required to start or progress in a variety of criminal justice and social services careers.

The 64 credits that make up the program include the following courses among others:

  • Criminology
  • Policing in America
  • Courts and the prosecution process
  • Corrections in America
  • Introduction to ethics
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Culture
  • Statistical Analysis for the social sciences
  • Research methods in criminal justice 

Graduates of this program will be prepared to work in the legal and correctional fields, protective services, security management, social services, court administration, and other related fields, serving both public and private interests.

How To Become a Detective: Specializations?

How To Become a Detective: Specializations?

Depending on the county as well as the state, police detectives may be able to choose a specialization within their detective division. Additionally, because of compliance regulations and technological advancements, ongoing training might be required. Certain departments might also conduct ongoing research, design, and implementation of improvement strategies. This is done to improve the caliber of their investigative methods and procedures.

Some of these specializations or divisions, which are typically headed by lieutenants, captains, or commanders, are listed below:

Homicide and Robbery: Detectives assigned to the Homicide and Robbery unit will concentrate on cases involving murders, suspicious deaths, kidnappings, and robberies.

Forensics: This section examines the digital and tangible evidence discovered at crime scenes.

Juvenile: Investigators work on cases involving minors, including those involving child abuse and exploitation.

Gangs and Narcotics: These detectives deal with violent street gangs and the use and distribution of illicit substances and weapons.

Commercial: In addition to auto theft, commercial crimes can also involve fraud and cases of forgery.

Technical Investigation: Financial crimes and online crimes against minors fall under the purview of this investigative division.

Detective Support and Vice: This division deals with pornography, animal abuse, human trafficking, missing people, and hate crimes.

Special Victims Unit: Also known as SVU, these detectives investigate violent crimes against adults, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, and crimes against children.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Detective?

How Long Does It Take to Become a Detective?

In general, there are many different routes to becoming a police detective. But it can take five to eight years to advance from police officer to detective after earning a high school degree or GED. The BLS (2022) states that to become a detective, a person must complete high school or earn a GED. Most will do so by earning an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminology, criminal justice, sociology, psychology, or a similar discipline.

Moreover, passing physical exams, background checks, and other requirements is necessary for prospective officers to be considered as competitive applicant in a police department. Candidates may occasionally attend a police academy to receive additional training after being hired as police officers. Academies differ in duration depending on the department, city, and state. Basic police training takes place in Portland, or, for 16 weeks, while it takes place in San Jose, CA, for 0 weeks.

In addition, prospective detectives need to work as police officers for at least three years after completing a police academy to be promoted to detective. Officers who want to advance in the police department must pass exams and/or review their service history.

How Much Do Detectives Earn?

How Much Do Detectives Earn?

It’s crucial to remember that four of the states with the highest salaries in the US also have the highest cost of living. To illustrate the point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) discovered that among the top fifteen most expensive states are Alaska, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Hawaii, and Washington. In contrast, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Alabama were the five states with the lowest cost of living.

Ultimately, over the next ten years, job growth rates for private investigators and police detectives are anticipated to be comparable. For example, in 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that employment for police investigators (BLS) would increase by 3% and for investigators (PIs) by 6% between 2021 and 2031. This growth is almost equal to the average growth predicted for all occupations during that period (5%).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, May 2022) makes a distinction between police detectives and private investigators. First, the following salary ranges were reported by the 32,050 private investigators and PIs in the United States:

  • Annual mean wage: $59,400
  • 10th percentile: $33,710
  • 25th percentile: $38,360
  • 50th percentile (median): $52,120
  • 75th percentile: $75,740
  • 90th percentile: $92,660

In comparison, the salary ranges reported by criminal investigators and police detectives were significantly higher (BLS May 2022):

  • Employment: 107,400
  • Annual mean wage: $91,610
  • 10th percentile: $47,990
  • 25th percentile: $61,240
  • 50th percentile (median): $86,280
  • 75th percentile: $110,530  
  • 90th percentile: $150,570

Additionally, there’s good news for Americans who want to work as federal agents nationwide: coastal states are home to the highest-paying states for criminal investigators and detectives (BLS May 2022):  

  • District of Columbia: $133,890 annual average salary
  • Alaska: $128,410
  • Hawaii: $119,290 
  • Maryland: $117,800 
  • Washington: $110,620 

If you were thinking about how to become a detective, the salary should be enough to push you towards achieving your target. It is a highly rewarding job, both morally and financially.

Wrapping Up

People who want to work in law enforcement and make their communities safer or who just have more questions about becoming detectives should check out the criminal justice degree programs offered by the various universities across the states.

If you want to serve your community and the nation at large, becoming a crime investigator in any capacity is very rewarding. If you have thoughts to share or questions to ask about how to become a detective, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

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Sarmind is a Writer and an aspiring Editor who has experience in various short and long-form niches. Her academic pursuits intensely mold her industry background in content creation. She holds a Master's degree in Literature, and when not writing for professional purposes, she can be found re-reading old classics of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. She is super fond of cats and enjoys hours of doom-scrolling through memes on social media while cuddled up with a cup of desi chai. She likes to think she is an intellectual badass (colloquial: nerdy bore), and now all she needs is a sewing kit to complete the look!

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