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How to Become a Homicide Detective

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Solving the Crime With or Without a Trenchcoat

You don't have to be like Sherlock Holmes to investigate crimes or slouch around in a trenchcoat like Columbo to be a successful homicide detective. You can even be a hard-working mom who insists on quality time at home as long as you follow the prescribed career path to work your way toward this goal. Educational requirements vary between states and agencies. Some require only a high school diploma, while others insist on a four-year college degree. Experience in the field as a police officer is always a prerequisite.

Job Description

Homicide detectives are criminal investigators who gather facts and collect evidence to learn who is responsible for murders. The work of a homicide detective varies from day to day, week to week, depending on the stage of an investigation. As a homicide detective, you work in the field and on the scene to gather evidence. Then you return to the office to prepare detailed reports and try to locate witnesses.

Homicide detectives come in all shapes, colors and sizes, but they all need good communication skills, an abiding sense of objectivity, and the patience to plod through the lengthy and often emotional process of a homicide investigation. The victim's loved ones and the general public expect a quick resolution, but this is not always realistic. Having empathy and being detail oriented are also extremely useful.

Education Requirements

Homicide detectives do not go to homicide detective school then slide neatly into a detective position. Like fictional Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, detectives start out as police officers on patrol. After they gain experience and if they show drive and promise, their superior officers recommend them for promotion to detective.

To get to that stage, you'll need a strong academic background, starting with a high school diploma. While some homicide detectives don't go any further in their education, many positions require more. For example, you'll need a bachelor's degree for federal jobs. And, increasingly, state police departments require either a two-year degree or a four-year degree in criminal justice, forensic science or a related field, plus experience as a sworn law enforcement officer.

Most states and agencies require police to attend their agency’s training academy before working in the field. You'll need to be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years old. You'll also have to pass rigorous physical tests and personal background checks.

Once you become a police officer and get the requisite experience, your commanding officer can put in a request for you to join the homicide division. At this point, you must pass a competitive exam to become a detective.

The mean salary for a homicide detective in the United States is $61,272, while the average salary is $66,129, according to PayScale. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the mean compensation for a detective in any specialty is $81,490. The term "mean" indicates that half of all detectives make more than this amount, while the other half make less. "Average" means that if you add all the salaries together and divide by the number of detectives, this is the result. While an advanced degree may help you get tapped for transfer to the detective unit more quickly, it generally will not affect your salary.


Homicide detectives work almost exclusively for police agencies: municipal, state and federal. Those investigating homicides in the private sector are generally called private investigators rather than detectives.

Years of Experience

The mean salary range for detectives is from $57,550 to $121,100, depending on location and experience. Top-paying states include Illinois, New York, the District of Columbia, Alaska, New Jersey and California.

The salary range for homicide detectives is between $42,514 and $117,553, with the national average around $61,000. Those just beginning their careers can expect 4 percent less, while experienced detectives can earn 10 percent more.

Job Growth Trend

Employment in the category "police officers and homicide detectives" is expected to grow 7 percent over the next decade. This is about as fast as average for all occupations. Demand varies by location.


Single mom, lawyer, writer and world traveler, Teo Spengler splits her time between San Francisco and France, where she raised her child. She has specialized in travel, legal and business writing for the past 15 years, including articles providing tips for mothers returning to the work world or making other big changes in their lives. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,, and numerous attorney websites. She holds a JD from U.C. Berkeley, an MA in English and an MFA in fiction.

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