A law enforcement career in criminal investigations involves a deep understanding of the criminal process and the legalities surrounding it. Detectives (also referred to as police detectives or criminal investigators) are law enforcement professionals who have gained expertise in everything from forensic science to arrest procedures through formal education and training and a significant amount of on-the-job experience.
Although not all police departments require their detectives to possess a college degree, the shift toward a greater emphasis being placed on qualifying candidates through college education does appear to be taking place. This is apparent in the fact that many police departments now require some post-secondary credits in relevant fields from candidates for investigative positions. And even those that do not require a formal college education are following the trend by encouraging their police officers and detectives to pursue a degree. In some cases, law enforcement agencies have even been offering educational pay incentives to those that earn college credits, and also allow the substitution of college courses for some of the experience requirements needed for promotions.
The move towards a greater emphasis being placed on college degrees is no surprise given that investigative bureaus/divisions at the state and local level are seeking candidates with the most comprehensive backgrounds and an understanding of the technology and science used in the criminal investigative process.
For example, a typical criminal justice degree includes coursework in a number of very relevant areas, such as criminology, the legal foundation of criminal justice, and the fundamental concepts of social science research, including the interpretation and study of crime, law, and justice.
Criminal investigators are held to very high standards. Those interested in becoming police officers, and then detectives, must have an appreciation of the strict requirements of today’s police departments.
Specifically, candidates should understand that police departments do not generally accept candidates with felony convictions, misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, or a history of illicit drug manufacturing, selling, or using. Further, candidates must be able to clearly demonstrate strong values and morals. This means a past history of theft, embezzlement, cheating, or fraud is not tolerated among police departments.
Candidates will be expected to be able to back up the information they provide through a polygraph examination, background investigation, and even a credit investigation.
Individuals who meet a department’s minimum requirements are typically required to complete an employment process that includes both a written examination (often a civil service examination) and a physical abilities test, both of which serve as a gauge for whether the candidate can successfully complete the arduous training process and probationary period.
Written examinations are generally used to assess grammar, spelling, writing, comprehension, and problem-solving skills, among others. Physical abilities tests are designed to assess a candidate’s strength, endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.
To become a detective, individuals must first become a police officer, which requires the completion of academy and field training. Academy training includes academic study, field work, and physical training. It is typical for recruits to take a number of written, physical, and situational tests throughout the academy training process, all of which must be passed to continue on with the training program.
The academic curriculum is an important component of the training process, as it provides new recruits with a foundation in police science and criminal justice. As such, it is common for recruits to study the following topics during academy training:
- Search and seizure
- Patrol theory and methods
- Criminal justice system
- Criminal law
- Rules and evidence
- Laws and protocols of arrest
- Principles of law enforcement
- Control methods
Upon the successful completion of academy training, most police officers will be assigned to patrol duty, under the supervision of a training officer. This field training period is also called a probationary period, and new recruits are not recognized as full-time members of the department until the successful completion of their probationary period.
Criminal investigator careers can be said to start when a person begins working as a police officer, as this experience is required before a promotion to detective can take place. Each police department has its own set of requirements regarding how long a police officer must work in patrol before becoming eligible to become a detective and work in criminal investigations, although, for most, this time period is usually between 2 and 5 years.
Some departments also require candidates for detective jobs to complete a promotional examination and some require additional training or the completion of college coursework or a college degree.
Although police departments always require a specific set of tangible qualifications, including education and experience, they may also be looking for candidates who possess specific characteristics or personality traits. Specifically, detective requirements may also include:
- The ability to use both inductive and deductive reasoning
- Honesty and trustworthiness
- The ability to think creatively
- Organizational skills
- Time management skills
- Oral and written communication skills