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Police Detective Career Profile

December 18, 2019

Detectives in movies and books have long captured the imaginations of people of all ages. While these fictional portrayals spark considerable interest in detective careers, they've also led to some confusion about what detectives actually do. Part of that confusion stems from the fact that the term "detective" can be used to refer to both police detectives and private investigators, which are two similar but quite distinctive career paths.

For people who work in law enforcement, the distinction between a police detective and a private investigator may seem obvious but it may not be as clear to the general public. The most fundamental difference is that police detectives are part of the police force or law enforcement, while private investigators work on their own and are more limited in their investigative powers. Private investigators can help individuals gather information, find missing people or serve as bodyguards, but they aren't able to solve crimes like police detectives.1 If you want to use your investigative skills to truly fight crime, pursuing a police detective career is the best choice for you. It's a great career fit for people with meticulous attention to detail, a strong ethical compass,2 and the patience and perseverance to investigate criminal cases that may progress slowly.2

Police Detective Job Description

While police detectives are part of the regular police force, their duties aren't quite the same as ordinary police officers who take part in daily patrolling and enforcing the law. Instead of being directly involved in the hands-on, day-to-day work of catching and arresting criminals, detectives collect evidence, interview witnesses and analyze criminal cases in order to solve crimes.3 Being a police detective can be challenging and potentially even dangerous, and it can mean working long hours.3 But it can also be immensely rewarding to know you're making the world a safer place through your hard work and expertise. There are many possible detective career paths you can pursue at the federal, state or local levels, depending upon your specific area of interest.4

How to Become a Police Detective

Almost without exception, police detectives must work their way up in the police force, gaining investigative experience as part of their career in law enforcement.2 If you are interested in pursuing a detective career and do not have a law enforcement background, you will need to gain the necessary training and educational experience before you enter the field.

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as criminal justice or law enforcement. If a career as a detective is your end goal, take courses that will help you in your detective career, such as forensic science, criminal procedure and criminology. You may also want to study other languages, which can help you communicate with non-English-speaking people you may need to interview.3
  2. Enroll in and graduate from a police academy. Many police departments and government agencies offer programs that will prepare you with physical training as well as classroom study in areas such as law, self-defense, firearm training and more.3
  3. Gain career experience and complete several years on-the-job. Each department will have its own requirements for moving up the ranks from a police officer to a detective, which sometimes can take between 5 and 8 years.2 Let your supervisor know that you are interested in pursuing a detective career, and follow your department's guidance on how to get there.
  4. Develop skills through work experience or further education. Becoming a police detective is highly competitive. To be chosen to be a detective, you should work hard and distinguish yourself from others in your field.2 One way of doing that is by gaining additional expertise through advanced education, such as a master's degree in criminal justice or criminology or courses in computer forensics. You should also take advantage of any opportunities possible to hone your investigative skills as a police officer by paying close attention to details and reporting them carefully when you're at a crime scene.

Police Detective Duties

As with many careers in law enforcement, detectives face new and different challenges every day, and duties vary depending on what type or part of an investigation you are involved in at any given time. Furthermore, detectives frequently specialize in investigating specific types of crime, such as homicide or fraud, which often leads to even more diversity in a detective's daily tasks.5

Job Titles

One of the tricky parts of trying to decide whether to pursue a career in criminal justice or criminology is that some career paths are open to people who have degrees in either field. If you are unsure about whether to get a degree in criminology or criminal justice, you may want to consider some of the career options that are available in each field.

In general, however, the duties of a detective typically include:2,5

  • Collecting and documenting evidence
  • Writing reports
  • Interviewing witnesses and suspects
  • Observing suspects
  • Apprehending criminals
  • Testifying as expert witnesses in court

If you are a law enforcement professional who wants to succeed in a detective career, you'll need to stand out from your peers. The online Master of Arts in Criminology and Criminal Justice program at Kent State University can help you expand your knowledge and expertise in the field, preparing you for leadership and advancement in your career.