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How To Become a Detective

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The term ‘detective’ may summon images of the fast-moving, smartly dressed characters of James ‘Sonny’ Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo ‘Rico’ Thomas (Philip Michael Thomas) from Miami Vice or the supernaturally adept Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) from the eponymous TV show. The truth is that real detective work is far-removed from the glamorous media portrayals, requiring incredible patience, investigative rigor, and ironclad ethics. In addition to being exposed to potentially dangerous individuals and situations, the process of solving cases can take months or even years, much of it spent poring over documents, photographs, and files. Despite the challenges, however, becoming a detective can be a rewarding profession, providing the deep personal satisfaction that comes from solving crimes and bringing resolution to victims.

First, there’s a difference between police detectives and private investigators (PIs), although the two fields have overlapping competencies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015), police detectives typically garner investigative experience through their work in law enforcement and have become detectives as a promotion through the agency. On the job, they may conduct interviews with witnesses or suspects; examine records; collect and carefully document evidence; prepare reports; observe the activity of subjects; secure scenes of crimes; get arrest warrants; participate in the apprehension of criminals; and serve as expert witnesses in court. By contrast, PIs are citizens who typically need state licensure and cut their teeth gathering legal, financial, and personal information for clients by conducting surveillance; performing background checks; tracking missing people; searching records for clues; and interviewing people of interest. Detectives may choose to specialize in homicide (police detectives only), computer forensics, corporate malpractice, insurance fraud, and other fields.

Read on to discover how much money detectives typically make, as well as how to become a detective including the personality, education, and credentials necessary to join this exciting profession.

Detective Salaries

As mentioned above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) differentiates between private investigators (PIs) and police detectives. First, the 26,880 private detectives and PIs across the US reported the following salary ranges (BLS 2014):

  • 10th percentile: $27,000
  • 25th percentile: $34,530
  • 50th percentile (median): $44,570
  • 75th percentile: $63,370
  • 90th percentile: $85,560

By contrast, police detectives and criminal investigators reported substantially higher salary ranges (BLS 2014):

  • 10th percentile: $40,780
  • 25th percentile: $53,280
  • 50th percentile (median): $79,870
  • 75th percentile: $101,940
  • 90th percentile: $127,400

Also, good news for those interested in becoming federal agents: Washington DC was the top-paying state for detectives and criminal investigators (BLS 2014):

  • District of Columbia: $118170 annual average salary
  • Alaska: $111,970
  • Delaware: $100,550
  • New Jersey: $99,600
  • California: $98,940

It’s important to note that three of the top-paying states are also states with the highest cost of living in the US. As proof of point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERC 2015) found that the top five most expensive states were Hawaii, District of Columbia, New York, California, and Alaska. By contrast, the most affordable states were Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

Finally, both PIs and police detectives are expected to have similar growth rates in job openings during the coming decade. By illustration, the BLS (2015) anticipates that between 2014 and 2024, openings for PIs will grow 5 percent (BLS 2015) and 4 percent for police detectives (BLS 2015), somewhat slower than the average growth projected for all occupations during that time (7 percent).

Skills & Personality Traits of a Successful Detective

Most successful detectives are curious, attentive to detail, and hard-working. Additionally, perseverance may also be important, as crime solving doesn’t always happen linearly or quickly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015), important skills for successful detectives include:

  • Communication skills: Detectives must listen carefully when interviewing witnesses, victims, and potential criminals, asking the right kind of questions and staying aware of nonverbal communication cues.
  • Decision-making skills: Detectives must be able to think quickly and act calmly, particularly if someone’s life could be at risk or if quick action can uncover clues to solving a crime.
  • Inquisitiveness: Seasoned detectives are natural-born problem solvers who possess the ability to think about possible motives for a crime and how to ascertain how crimes were committed.
  • Patience: As previously stated, crime-solving can take months or years. Sometimes crimes go without resolutions—thus becoming cold cases—which can be picked up years later, especially with advances in forensic technologies such as DNA analyses.
  • Resourcefulness: Detectives must think on their feet and follow procedures at all times, but they must also be able to use the resources at hand and intuition to help in solving a crime.

Steps to Becoming a Detective

There are varied paths to becoming a private investigator (PI) or detective, although all paths require a steady combination of didactic instruction and on-the-job investigative experience. Here is one possible path to becoming a detective:

  • Graduate from high school. At this stage, aspiring detectives are encouraged to foster skills such as critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning. Some students may choose to seek out volunteer opportunities through their local police departments, civic organizations, or federal agencies in order to get hands-on training in the field. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) offers the weeklong Future Agents in Training (FAIT) program to interested high school students. Similarly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) provides the Pathways Internship Program to qualified high school and college students. Students are encouraged to contact local agencies for available opportunities.
  • Get a degree in criminal justice, criminology, sociology, or a related discipline (2-4 years). At this stage, some prospective police detectives may be eligible to enroll directly in a police academy, but many police academies require at least some college to qualify. By illustration, Eileen Carlin—a 20-year veteran in law enforcement and state coordinator with Rasmussen College’s School of Justice Studies—reports that most departments want detectives who have two- to four-year college degrees (Rasmussen 2015). Florida Tech Online—an affiliate of the Florida Institute of Technology based in Melbourne—provides an online associate of arts (AA) in criminal justice degree with courses in law & the legal system, correctional systems, and delinquency & prevention. Ideal for aspiring detectives seeking some college experience to join a police academy, Florida Tech’s 20-month program imparts the basic fundamentals of crime-solving, victimology, and critical thinking. For those interested in working as an FBI agent, a DEA agent, or a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement criminal investigator, having a bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York (CUNY) provides several reputable undergraduate degrees with majors in criminology, criminal justice, and criminal justice management. In its bachelor of science (BS) in criminal justice program, students focus on institutional theory and practice with specialized training in law & politics of race relations; police & community relations; and constitutional law. Additionally, California State University in San Bernardino (CSUSB) provides a bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice, combing valuable research and internship opportunities with structured coursework in criminal law, statistics in criminal justice, and correctional counseling.
  • For prospective police detectives: Enroll in a police academy and get investigative experience (1-3 years). For those looking to become police detectives—an option which can be more lucrative than becoming a private investigator (PI)—enrolling in a police academy is the next step. Although requirements vary by department and region, to qualify for a police academy, candidates must be US citizens; be at least 18 years old; possess a driver’s license; have no felony convictions; and have some college experience. Please note that state and federal agencies typically require at least four years of undergraduate education. Police academy programs generally last 6-8 months with specialized training in firearm use, patrol procedures, ethics, self-defense, report-writing, CPR & first aid, physical fitness, and emergency response. After the academy, aspiring detectives are urged to take on advanced training and responsibilities in investigative units to build their resumes. There are various branches of investigation including homicide, surveillance, fraud, computer crimes, financial crimes, and missing people.
  • For prospective private investigators (PIs): Get on-the-job investigative experience and state licensure (timeline varies). For civilian PIs, requirements vary by state, but many require licensure. For example, California’s Bureau of Security & Investigative Services (2016) reports that to qualify for licensure, PIs must be at least 18 years old; undergo a criminal background check; and have proof of experience in one of three capacities. They either must have 6,000 hours of paid investigative work, a law degree plus 4,000 hours of experience, or an associate degree and 5,000 hours of experience. Additionally, candidates must pass a two-hour multiple choice test on laws & regulations, terminology, evidence handling, undercover investigations, and other cornerstones of the field. Professional Investigator (PI) Magazine (2016) reports that licensure is necessary for practice in 42 states (in addition to some cities) and provides a convenient table of PI licensure policies by state.
  • Take the police detective test or get professionally certified (timeline varies). There is a wealth of certifications available for both police detectives and private investigators. For those who have several years of investigative experience in law enforcement, they may qualify to take the National Detective/Investigative Test (NDIT) which measures a police officer’s readiness to become a detective or investigator. This 75-question exam measures candidates’ knowledge in criminal investigations, major court cases, and investigative interviewing. Similarly, the Police Detective (PDET) 200 Series provides a 100-question test gauging law enforcement professionals’ knowledge in police investigative procedures, laws related to police work, and how to complete reports. There are also professional certifications available to detectives and PIs outside of police forces. For investigators who specialize in negligence or criminal defense investigation, the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) offers the certified legal investigator (CLI) certification. CLI candidates must have at least five years of full-time experience (or qualifying academic coursework); complete a 1,000 word research paper on investigations; and pass an examination with a score of at least 70 percent. To maintain the certification, CLIs must complete 50 hours of continuing education (CE) every three years. For investigators who specialize in security, ASIS International offers the professional certified investigator (PCI) certification. To qualify, candidates must have a high school diploma and five years of investigative experience (with two years in case management). The 140-question exam tests people’s knowledge in case management, investigative techniques & procedures, and case presentation.

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