Often referred to as criminal investigators, police detectives work to investigate and solve felony crimes ranging from burglary and homicide to identity theft and fraud. Most often assigned to a specific interagency task force or unit, criminal investigators use their finely honed investigative skills to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and victims are given closure.
Criminal investigators must be able to effectively conduct witness interviews and suspect interrogations, examine evidence, observe suspect activities, and serve as experts in courtroom proceedings. These unique skills and proficiencies are gained through extensive police experience, academy training; and in many instances, by earning a college degree.
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1. Qualify for a Career in Law Enforcement
Becoming a detective starts by first becoming a police officer and serving in a conventional patrol capacity. It is during the training, probationary, and patrol periods that police officers gain an understanding and appreciation for the criminal process, the criminal justice system, and the role of the law enforcement community.
To become a police officer, candidates must first ensure they meet the minimum requirements set forth by the department or agency they’re interested in serving. Although these requirements differ from one police department to the next, typical requirements include:
- Being a U.S. citizen
- Being a resident of the state in which the department is located
- Being at least 21 years old (or 21 by the time of Academy graduation)
- Having no felony convictions
- Having no misdemeanor domestic violence convictions
- Possessing a high school diploma, college coursework, or a college degree
Many police departments require a college degree in a subject related to law enforcement or criminal justice. And just as many show they recognize the value of a degree by rewarding candidates with some level of college education. In fact, some municipal police departments have educational incentive programs in place to reward applicants who hold an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree by offering an increase in the base salary at progressively higher percentages based on the level of the degree they hold.
As such, many candidates with their sights set on becoming a detective choose to complete a degree program with a major in subjects such as:
- Criminal justice
- Justice administration
- Forensic psychology
- Police science
- Crime scene investigations
- Forensic science
2. Successfully Complete the Hiring and Training Process
The hiring and in-service training process is usually quite extensive, including everything from written exams and physical ability tests, to a thorough background investigation and psychological evaluation. The hiring process may take many months to complete.
Following the completion of the hiring process, new recruits are then required to attend a police academy, which can often be as long as 6-8 months. New police recruits with municipal police departments complete between 25 to 28 weeks of police academy training, during which time they are introduced to a comprehensive curriculum that includes:
- Patrol procedures and tactics
- Use of force
- Crime scene investigations
- Computer-based report writing
- Interviewing procedures
- CPR and first aid
3. Gain Experience and Seek Promotion
One of the most important aspects of becoming a detective is gaining experience as a police officer, usually in a patrol capacity. Most police departments require a number of years of patrol experience before an officer can apply to become a detective with the department. There are some police departments that also require officers to complete an additional training and testing process to become a detective, while others require that candidates hold a college degree.
For example, the Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department requires sheriff’s deputies to complete at least two years of service before they are eligible to promote to sergeant. To qualify for promotion, deputies must also possess an associate’s degree or at least 64 college credit hours.
The Sacramento, California Police Department requires police recruits to complete an 18-month probationary period upon being hired, followed by at least two years of service, before they can qualify to be promoted to investigations. Likewise, new police officer recruits within the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department must complete at least two years of service and complete a training and evaluation phase to become investigators with the Department.