A Day in the Life of a Police Detective

Caution tape at a crime scene.
Ron Koeberer/Aurora/Getty Images

A lot of people who chose law enforcement as a career do so with the goal of becoming a detective or criminal investigator, and with good reason. There's a certain satisfaction that comes from solving a complex case, much like putting together a difficult puzzle. Whether you're considering a career as an investigator or just curious about the job, you'll want to know what a day in the life of a detective is like.

Time to Go to Work

It's Monday morning and your alarm pulls you from your sleep, which you didn't get a lot of last night. Because you work in the Criminal Investigations Division (CID), you get to work day shift with weekends off, which is great. This past weekend, though, you were the detective on call, and it was a busy one. You're holding three new cases before the work week has even started.

You ease out of bed, shower, shave and put on a shirt and tie. You can't decide if you miss wearing a uniform; on the one hand, you'll always be a patrol officer at heart. On the other, and especially when it's 95 degrees out with 80% humidity, you're thankful you're not working traffic or walking a beat in a dark wool outfit like your police officer buddies in patrol have to.

You grab a travel mug of coffee, strap on your sidearm, and head to the office in your unmarked car. At first, you were excited about getting an unmarked car, until you realized that instead of the sleek new Dodge Charger you were expecting you were issued a 5-year-old low-end import to avoid conspicuity.

CID, you were told, tries to avoid standard patrol car models so that they're not as easily pegged as cop cars.

Just Another Day at the Office

When you get to the office and check your voicemail, you have 5 new messages, all from the family of the victim from the murder scene you worked Saturday night.

They're understandably hurt, shocked and desperate for answers, and they're calling with what they believe are more leads and evidence for you to look into.

You return the calls and take down the information, which turns out to be promising. You assure them you're going to do everything you can to get answers, and you give them your mobile number so they can get in touch with you more easily. It's a small gesture and an even smaller comfort, but it brings a little more relief to the family and lets them know you really do care about their plight.

After you get off the phone, you look through your case files and plan your day. You've got 5 witnesses you need to interview, as well as the primary suspect from Saturday's murder scene. He "lawyered up" and has declined to answer questions to date, but his attorney reached out to you and said he's ready to talk. You set up the interview for late afternoon to give you time to talk to the witnesses and get as much extra information as you can to help you look for holes in the suspect's story.

The Detective's Waiting Game

You spend the rest of the day making notes in your file, reviewing photos and contacting the crime scene unit to follow up on an older case.

You're hoping for some breakthroughs from either the DNA analysts or the fingerprint examiners or, better yet, both. You don't hold out a lot of hope because you know that - despite how TV shows portray CSI cases - it usually takes months, not hours, to get any kind of actionable evidence analysis back from the lab.

Interviews, Interviews and More Interviews

With no new progress from the evidence techs, you leave the office, grab a quick lunch, and make your way to meet your witnesses. You take recorded interviews with each of them. Most of the information you get confirms what you already knew from the evidence, but a couple of new pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. Progress.

A couple of the statements contradict each other, which is a frustrating but common occurrence when dealing with different people who have different perspectives; witnesses' minds often try to make sense of what they saw after the fact.

The challenge is to separate the facts from the speculation.  A challenge to be sure, but nothing you haven't dealt with a hundred times before.

After your last witness interview, you pull into a vacant parking lot to make some notes and go over your facts before you meet with your suspect. You develop a line of questions and devise a game plan and then make your way to the suspect's attorney's office for the interview.

Your suspect's answers are short and somewhat evasive, and it's clear he's been coached. He offers an alibi, but you've got some witnesses who contradict that. You're not ready to play that card just yet, though. You can tell he's lying, but you want to get more proof to back it up before you call him on it. When the interview is over, you play nice with the suspect and the lawyer and assure him you're exhausting all leads.

Playing by the Rules

With the new information you gathered, you've got some good leads and ideas of where to look for some key evidence. You head back to the office and draw up a search warrant so you can collect the evidence you expect to find. You send a draft to the district attorney's office for review. Since it's not time-sensitive, you know you won't get a thumbs up or thumbs down until at least tomorrow.

It Doesn't End at the End of the Day

It's been a long day, coming off of a long weekend. As quitting time rolls around, you head out to your car and make the short drive home. When you get home, you pine for a shower and a cold beer to wash away the day. The shower, you can do. The beer is out because you're still on call.

After a few hours of reading and watching TV, you're ready to turn in for the night. You rest your head on your pillow and hope for sleep to come. Sometimes, when you close your eyes at night, you see the faces of the victims whose deaths you've investigated. Sleep doesn't always come easily, but fortunately, it does tonight.

A Detective Never Sleeps

You're not sure how long you've been asleep when the ringing telephone wrenches you awake. A glance at the clock tells you it's 2:30 AM. The fog of sleep slowly lifts as you answer. It's dispatch. "Good morning Detective," the dispatcher says. "We've got a signal 7 for you. Are you ready to copy?" You grab the pad and pen you keep by the bed and start to take notes. It's going to be another long day.