Government Job Profile: Detective

two detectives at crime scene
Vasko Miokovic / Vetta / Getty Images

Police detectives are sworn peace officers who investigate crimes with the objective of gathering evidence against criminals for prosecution. Like most other jobs in law enforcement, a detective job is highly dangerous at times.

To be successful, detectives must have strong analytical and people skills. They piece together individual bits of physical and testimonial evidence to recreate how and why crimes happened.

Detective work can be highly rewarding because each successful investigation makes the community safer. A detective’s work ends once the case is handed over to prosecutors. After that, a detective can only hope that the evidence speaks for itself and that the case is free of technical errors. Frustration can set in when prosecutors are unable to secure convictions or when criminals receive mild sentences.

The Selection Process

Detectives are often selected from within a police department from a pool of police officers who apply for open positions. Like with entry level police officer positions, there are written examinations built into the hiring process. Presumably, a detective will have passed physical tests in the police officer hiring process. The differences between the police officer and police detective positions are the higher level investigation and interviewing skills required for detectives.

The Education You'll Need

Since new detectives are current police officers, the educational requirements for detectives are unlikely to be different than those for a police officer in the same police department. The educational requirements vary by the police department and can range from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree.

The Experience You Need

Detectives need experience in police work. Several years as a uniformed officer are necessary for detectives to have the basic knowledge and skills to do their work. Officers who wish to become detectives should work with detectives to the greatest extent possible. This allows officers to watch detectives go about their business. Officers should study the differences between detectives with good and bad reputations.

What You'll Do

Detectives investigate crimes that have been reported to the department or discovered by police officers. Detectives work with police officers, crime scene investigators and evidence technicians to build a case for prosecutors to take before a jury. They analyze physical evidence and conduct interviews to reach their conclusions about what exactly happened during an incident.

People skills are incredibly important in detective work. Detectives must draw information out of interviewees when many times the interviewees do not want to be cooperative. Detectives want to gather as much information as possible from witnesses, victims and suspects.

Not only do detectives have to draw information out, they must also determine which people and pieces of information are credible.

They must distinguish between nonverbal cues that indicate someone is lying and those that show someone is just nervous to be interviewed about a crime. Detectives hone this skill over time and tend to develop a keen intuition for it.

Detectives in large police departments often specialize in a particular type of crime such as homicide, sex crimes or property crimes. This allows detectives to sharpen their skill in their type of crime through significant experience as well as study and training. In small departments, there are not enough detectives for specialization.

Cases are typically assigned on a rotating basis since it is near impossible to determine how time-consuming a case will be when it first comes in. Detectives that have easier cases may volunteer to take additional cases when their colleagues are swamped.

Detectives will also assist one another in research, evidence analysis and interviewing.

Cases can quickly expand and require the assistance from or consultation with state or federal law enforcement personnel. Sometimes the higher level authorities will take the case once it clearly falls within their purview. For instance, a simple drug possession case can lead to apprehending a local drug dealer and eventually the leader of a drug cartel. In this example, detectives would call the state police and US Drug Enforcement Agency once the drug dealer gave up the name of his supplier.

What You'll Earn

According to 2014 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, detectives earn a median wage of $79,870. BLS puts police officers and detectives in the same data, but because of their experience and job responsibilities, detectives earn higher salaries than police officers.