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 2021), 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 the typical salary detectives earn, as well as the required personality, education, and credentials necessary to join this exciting profession.

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Detective Salary Guide – How Much Do Detectives and PIs Earn?

As mentioned above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019) differentiates between private investigators (PIs) and police detectives.

First, the 35,000 private detectives and PIs across the US reported the following salary ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $30,390
  • 25th percentile: $37,030
  • 50th percentile (median): $50,510
  • 75th percentile: $67,940
  • 90th percentile: $89,760

By contrast, police detectives and criminal investigators reported substantially higher salary ranges (BLS May 2019):

  • 10th percentile: $44,860
  • 25th percentile: $58,890
  • 50th percentile (median): $83,170
  • 75th percentile: $107,050
  • 90th percentile: $139,180

Also, good news for those interested in becoming federal agents across the United States: the top-paying states for detectives and criminal investigators are spread out among coastal states (BLS May 2019):

  • Alaska: $113,420 annual average salary
  • Hawaii: $109,320
  • California: $107,760
  • New Jersey: $103,460
  • Massachusetts: $102,350

It’s important to note that four 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 (MERIC 2021) found that Alaska, Hawaii, California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are among the top ten most expensive states. By contrast, the five most affordable states were Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Finally, both PIs and police detectives are expected to have similar growth rates in job openings during the coming decade. By illustration, the BLS (2020) anticipates that between 2019 and 2029, openings for PIs will grow 8 percent and 5 percent for police detectives (BLS 2021), which is nearly equal to the average growth projected for all occupations during that time (4 percent).

Skills & Personality Traits of the 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 Jan. 2021), 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.

Detective Specializations

As previously mentioned, police detectives may have the ability to select a specialization within their detective division, which will vary by county and state. In addition, there may be continuous training that is necessary due to advances in technology and compliance regulations. Some departments may also regularly research, develop, and implement improvement strategies to enhance the quality of investigation procedures and techniques.

The following list outlines some of these specializations or divisions that are generally lead by commanders, captains, or lieutenants:

  • Homicide and Robbery – Detectives in this unit will focus on cases that involve murders, suspicious deaths, kidnapping, and robberies.
  • Forensic – This division includes analysis of various types of physical evidence and digital media found at crime scenes.
  • Juvenile – Investigators deal with child abuse, exploitation investigations, and any other juvenile cases.
  • Gangs and Narcotics – These detectives are responsible for violent street gangs and the use and sale of illegal drugs and firearms.
  • Commercial – Commercial crimes include auto theft, and may also include fraud and forgery cases.
  • Technical Investigation – This department of investigation includes financial crimes and web-based crimes against children.
  • Detective Support and Vice – This department handles hate crimes, missing persons, animal cruelty, human trafficking, and pornography.
  • Special Victims Unit (SVU) – These detectives investigate crimes against children, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes against adults.

How Long Does it Take To Become a Detective?

While the path towards becoming a police detective may vary, generally, after obtaining a high school diploma or GED, it can take anywhere from five to eight years to be promoted from a police officer to a detective.

In fact, according to the BLS (2021), prospective detectives will need to graduate high school (or obtain their GED), and most will complete an associate’s (two-year) or bachelor’s (four-year) degree in criminal justice, psychology, criminology, sociology, or a related field.

In addition, to be a competitive applicant for the police department, prospective officers will have to pass physical exams, background checks, and other requirements. In some cases, once hired as a police officer, candidates will attend a police academy for further training. The length of academies vary by department, city, and state. In Portland, OR, basic police training lasts 16 weeks, whereas in San Jose, CA, training goes on for 26 weeks.

Additionally, after graduating from a police academy, aspiring detectives will need to continue developing experience for a minimum of three years as a police officer prior to being promoted to detective. To be promoted, officers must complete an exam and/or they will be evaluated based on their service within the police department.

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:

Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years). 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.

Step 2: Get a degree in criminal justice, criminology, sociology, or a related discipline (two to four years). 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.

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 and the legal system, correctional systems, and delinquency and 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 U.S. 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 and politics of race relations; police and community relations; and constitutional law.

Additionally, California State University in San Bernardino (CSUSB) provides a bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice, combining valuable research and internship opportunities with structured coursework in criminal law, statistics in criminal justice, and correctional counseling.

Step 3: For prospective police detectives: Enroll in a police academy and get investigative experience (one to three years). For those looking to become police detectives—an option that 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 six to eight months with specialized training in firearm use, patrol procedures, ethics, self-defense, report-writing, CPR and 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.

Step 4a: Prospective private investigators (PIs) should pursue 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 (2020) 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.

Pursuit Magazine (2020), an online resource for investigators, reports that licensure is necessary for practice in 46 states (in addition to some cities) and provides a convenient table of PI licensure policies by state.

Step 4b: 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.

Step 5: Fulfill local credentialing requirements (timeline varies). Requirements to become a detective can vary by state. Since most states have different requirements to become a police officer, steps to join the state’s detective division may also vary.

Overall, some police departments require prospective detectives to hold only a high school diploma or GED, while others require some college courses or a two- to four-year college degree.

  • For example, to join the Los Angeles Police Department Detective Bureau, one must have a high school diploma or GED and detective or sergeant is the first promotion available to those who have trained as officers.
  • However, to join the New York Police Department, applicants must have 60 college credits or have served two years in the military to be a successful candidate.
  • In Dallas, TX, applicants who are between the ages of 21 and 44 must have 45 semester-credits (college-level) and a 2.0 GPA.
  • Whereas, in Miami, Florida, applicants will need to pass a law enforcement exam (FBAT – Florida Basic Abilities Test), in addition to earning a GED or high school diploma.

In short, the requirements to become a detective vary widely by state. Aspiring candidates are encouraged to reach out to their local government offices to find out about eligibility.

Chief Content Strategist

Jocelyn Blore

Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.