How to Become a Criminal Investigator in Washington State

Crimes often require further investigative services beyond the crime scene. Once the initial assessment, evidence and reports have been taken by responding police officers, a case will often be given to a criminal investigator or detective so the police officers can return to their regular duties.

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The main difference between a police officer and a detective is that police officers are charged with protecting lives and property, while detectives are fact-finders and collect evidence for the alleged criminal activity. The detective or criminal investigator assigned to the case will gather facts related to the case, interview witnesses, examine written records, conduct suspect surveillance and interrogate suspects.

To become a detective in Washington State, applicants must meet the minimum qualifications for the job and pass written and physical examinations, training, and required background checks.

A minimum of three to five years’ experience as a full-fledged police officer is required before having an opportunity to be promoted to detective.

Investigative Units Within the Washington State Patrol Criminal Investigations Division

Washington State Patrol has a Criminal Investigation Unit (CID) that began in 1982 under the Investigative Services Bureau (ISB). The Bureau consists of eight district offices with more than 60 detectives that serve throughout Washington State.

Within the CID, there are four units: Felony Collision and Criminal Investigations, Auto Theft, and Special Investigations, and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) inspection program.

Felony Collision and Criminal Investigations Unit – In Washington, there are eight Criminal Investigation Units (CIUs) tasked with investigating felony collisions on state highways and, on occasion, may be asked to assist other local law enforcement agencies with investigations that involve violent crimes.

Auto Theft Unit – Every year, thousands of cars are reported stolen and this criminal activity continues to escalate. Three regional units in Washington are located in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane. Their goal is to lessen the incident rate of auto theft, auto-part theft and crimes related to auto theft in the state.

Special Investigations Unit – The General Investigation Unit (GIU) is in charge of investigating criminal activity at the state capital and in other state agencies. There is also a Major Accident Investigation Team (MAIT), Special Investigation Units (SIU), the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC), Identity Theft Unit (ITU), and the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Special Investigations Unit.

In addition, there are local or jurisdictional investigative units such as with the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The Criminal Investigation Bureau is the centralized unit under which most of the other units operate, with the exception of burglary, theft, and juvenile.

In most agencies, detectives handle the more serious and complicated investigations such as homicide, assaults, kidnapping/missing persons, robberies, and organized criminal activity.

Training, Education, and Experience Required to Become a Detective in Washington

Applicants must be a U.S. citizen and 21 or older for an entry-level police officer who may then have an opportunity to promote to detective or criminal investigator after a period of 3 – 5 years. The agency will require a high school diploma or GED and completion of 720 hours of training within the first six months of hire through the law enforcement academy, or a regional or state training facility if it’s a small agency. Once the formal training is completed, a period of on-the-job training begins, typically lasting about six months.

Additional formal education may also be required depending on the agency; however, candidates are encouraged to continue their education after joining the academy if they don’t already have a higher education degree. Some agencies may require college coursework or a degree in criminal justice or law enforcement. Foreign language skills are also an asset, particularly in certain geographical locations.

Other requirements include having a valid driver’s license, a clean criminal background history (some exceptions are allowed – see employment requirements below), and be in excellent physical condition. Preference is sometimes given to those with a military background.

Typically, as a recruit, the first level would be acting as a police officer for 3 – 5 years to gain experience, skills and knowledge in active field work before promoting to detective or other higher levels of law enforcement. There will be written exams as well as an assessment of job performance to determine promotional eligibility.

Some of the necessary skills required are having sound judgment, excellent leadership skills, communication skills, empathy and willingness to help and protect the public, as well as physical and mental stamina.

Becoming a Detective with the Washington State Patrol

Below is a list of some of the requirements that must be met when applying to WSP:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Some college coursework or college degree preferred
  • Polygraph tests
  • Drug tests
  • Background questionnaire
  • Civil service questionnaire (if required)
  • No visible tattoos or body art while on duty
  • Have a current, non-restricted driver’s license
  • Have no history of felony or misdemeanor convictions (although some misdemeanors may be considered on a case by case basis depending upon the nature of the conviction)
  • Must possess good moral character and sound judgment

Becoming a Detective with the Seattle Police Department

Applicants who have no prior police experience will be hired as a recruit first, attend one month with an advanced training unit, and then be assigned to a patrol division. The probationary period for new officers is one year following graduation from the police academy, at which time the recruit becomes a permanent Seattle Police Department member.

Eligibility to test for promotion to detective, or other positions, is available after spending five years on regular patrol.

Applicants must meet the minimum hiring standards:

  • 20 ½ years of age at the time of taking the written test
  • High school diploma or GED
  • Ability to pass the physical fitness test
  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • If discharged from the military, it must be an honorable discharge
  • Must have a valid WA State driver’s license

In addition, applicants undergo a background check that includes, but is not limited to:

  • A criminal history check
  • Traffic record check
  • Employment history
  • Credit history
  • Drug tests/history

There will also be a multiple-choice written exam and a video test that focuses on general knowledge, memorization, reading comprehension, spelling, and grammar.

The selection process to become an entry-level police officer at any agency is highly competitive and may take up to six months depending on the agency. However, once accepted into the law enforcement agency at the entry level and successfully completing all of the required tests, training, and experience, new recruits will be well on their way to becoming a criminal investigator or detective in Washington State.

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