By some estimates, the practice of organized and sanctioned criminal investigations has been around for close to three thousand years. And, although the methodology, practice, and approach have changed significantly as technology and science has advanced, the roots of this applied science have not.
Criminal investigation involves collecting and studying the facts to identify a criminal offender or determine the guilt or innocence of an individual. Modern-day criminal investigations involve interviews, evidence collection and preservation and, often times, forensic science.
Criminal investigators, also commonly referred to as police detectives, are law enforcement officers with advanced education and training in the field of criminal investigations. Criminal investigators can be found at all levels of government, from the Department of Homeland Security to sheriff’s departments that serve small counties.
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What Kind of Specialized Roles Do Detectives Serve?
At the state level, criminal investigators most commonly work through a state bureau of investigation or a department of public safety, while detectives at the local level are most often employed through city police departments or county sheriff’s departments.
The work of criminal investigators involves studying the facts of a case until a conclusion can be made or until evidence prevents them from going further. Depending on the size of the criminal investigations unit or department in which they work, they may serve as general detectives, or they may work in a specialized investigations unit/task force, such as:
- Major crimes unit
- Property crimes units
- Crimes against persons unit
- Homicide unit
- Sex crimes unit
- Juvenile crimes unit
- Narcotics unit
- Vice unit
- Financial/white collar crimes unit
- Domestic violence unit
- Identity theft unit
- Cybercrimes unit
- Vehicular crimes unit
- Arson unit
- Gang unit
- Robbery unit
As part of an investigative team, detectives may also specialize in a specific area, such as interviews, searches, surveillance, or evidence analysis, among others.
What’s in a Detective’s Job Description?
Working with forensic scientists and psychologists to solve crimes, testifying as an expert witness in court, gathering evidence at the crimes scene, and performing surveillance on suspects are just a few of the exciting job duties performed by police detectives.
Regardless of the specialty or unit in which police detectives work, the job duties are often very similar. Typical duties for criminal investigators include:
- Working alongside forensic investigators/criminalists at crime scenes to collect evidence and process the crime scene
- Interviewing suspects, witnesses and victims to ascertain details of the crime
- Collecting and organizing evidence
- Keeping detailed reports of the investigative process
- Following up on leads
- Attending autopsies
- Testifying in court as expert witnesses
- Exchanging information and coordinating activities with other agencies
- Performing surveillance work and monitoring suspects
Assessing the crime scene and processing evidence at the scene of the crime is one of the first duties of a criminal investigator upon being assigned to a case. Whether as the sole investigator or as part of an investigative team, criminal investigators must ensure the investigative process is completed in a comprehensive and thorough manner, leaving no stone unturned.
Criminal investigators may be responsible for conducting covert surveillance operations to expose criminal activity or identify perpetrators. This work often involves following suspects, documenting their activities, whereabouts, and conservations, tracing phone calls, and performing exhaustive research.
How do Law Enforcement Professionals Qualify for Detective Jobs?
The path to becoming a criminal investigator almost always begins with attaining a job as a police officer. Because the scope of a criminal investigator’s job is so broad and complex, individuals must first become a patrol officer. During the initial years working as a peace officer, individuals learn the basics of public safety, community relations, the investigative process; as well as federal, state and local laws, all of which provide a solid framework for a career as a criminal investigator.
Although the requirements to become a police officer vary depending on the agency/department in which applicants seek employment, individuals interested in becoming a police officer with the goal of becoming a detective should understand that a clean criminal record, proof of citizenship, and the ability to pass any number of written and physical examinations are typical of the hiring process.
Although many police departments do not require a formal education beyond a high school diploma or GED, many do set minimum requirements to include some college coursework or even a bachelor’s degree. Serious candidates should be prepared to complete at least some formal, post-secondary coursework in subjects related to the profession. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree may also bode well when seeking advancement to a detective position down the road.
Typical college degrees for criminal investigators are usually focused on criminal justice or criminology, although it is quite common for individuals in the criminal investigative profession to seek degrees in everything from sociology and forensic psychology to criminal justice and crime scene investigations.
Being promoted to detective from police officer usually occurs after an initial term of employment. Many departments have policies in place that require police officers to put in a specific number of years on patrol (usually between 2 and 5 years) before a promotion can take place, while other departments take each promotion request on an individual basis, taking into account an officer’s education, experience, and reputation with the department.
Lateral employment may also take place, provided the candidate has previous patrol experience; however, many police departments require candidates to complete a minimum number of years with the department before a promotion to detective is considered.
Just like any number of law enforcement professions, criminal investigators typically begin their careers working under the guidance of a senior criminal investigator. Advancement in this field usually involves achieving senior and supervisory positions that include overseeing specific criminal investigative teams, units, divisions, or bureaus.