Within their first few years on the force, police officers may have multiple options when mapping out their career paths. Whether they aspire to become a sheriff, police chief, state trooper or federal officer, there are a number of routes for rising through the ranks.
For some officers, the detective position may be the most exciting and compelling next step in the law enforcement profession.
While officers, as well as the sergeants who supervise them, spend much of their time on patrol, a detective gets into the heart of being a full-time criminal investigator. The job is a step on the command ladder that is often required in order to transition into a higher-ranking role in the force, such as lieutenant, captain and beyond.
Rather than driving around responding to calls and otherwise interacting with the general public, detectives can spend much of their day gathering information for assigned cases, making phone calls, following up on leads, collecting and cataloging evidence, and filing or reviewing paperwork.
While crime scene investigation has implemented a number of new technologies that delight the imagination of television producers and their audiences alike, many cases are still cracked by detectives doing old-fashioned legwork.
A report from the National Institute of Justice that looked at 400 homicide cases in five jurisdictions found that only 13.5% of the cases had physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime scene or victim. In many cases, an arrest is the result of detectives talking to the right people to find an eyewitness or someone who can establish a connection between suspect and victim.
A detective’s duties are based heavily on interviewing suspects, witnesses and victims, testifying in court and working with a Crime Scene Investigation Unit. Along the way, there will be case files stacking on the detective’s desk, more interviews, photographs to study and crime scenes to revisit.
In order to pursue a detective position, law enforcement officers are often required to attain a college degree with a criminal justice focus. Rather than taking time off to attend campus-based classes, the current generation of officers increasingly can take advantage of accredited online degree programs that provide flexibility around their hectic work schedule.
Beyond earning a degree and having three to five years of experience as a patrol officer with a clean record, applicants typically must pass a detective test.
What to Expect
Police officers looking to join the ranks of detectives can expect steady employment growth nationwide in the coming years, according to federal projections. Officers hired in the 1980s and 1990s are approaching eligibility for retirement, which will help create job opportunities.
Rather than working regular shifts in uniform, detectives typically wear a suit and tie, and may have varying schedules depending on call-outs to crime scenes and the volume of cases they’re currently working. Detectives need to chase down leads before they turn cold and that may mean long shifts.
Detectives should have excellent people skills in order to collaborate with other departments, as well as to communicate effectively and appropriately with suspects, witnesses, and victims and their families.
Detectives and criminal investigators in the United States earned a median annual salary of $78,120 in 2016, with the top 10% earning $131,200 or more, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
Recent bachelor’s degree recipients are likely to start out on the lower end of the pay range, although additional experience often brings increased salary potential.