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TV shows make it seem glamorous, and real-life cases make it seem heroic. Working as a detective can be both, but is often neither. There's a lot of repetitive paperwork and frustration associated with this job. For the right candidates, the ability to solve cases and get justice for victims makes this work worth the struggles. Thinking of applying to a detective job? Think again. In the U.S. at least, detectives start out as police officers and get promoted into this elite field.
What Detectives Do
The exact nature of a detective's job depends on the size and crime rates of his city, and on the organizational structure of his precinct. Essentially, detectives investigate crimes. When a murder happens, for example, police officers report to the scene right away to secure it, arrest any perpetrators and get help for any victims, but they have to move on before too long to handle other police tasks.
Detectives keep working on cases during the days and weeks after a crime has occurs. In the case of a murder, detectives might interview witnesses and neighbors and use investigative techniques to figure out what happened and who was responsible. If the suspects are at large, detectives will try to track them down.
Detectives do more than just investigate murders, however. Typically, they're called in to work on cases for which police officers need assistance, which may be shootings, rapes, burglaries, drug operations, and on similar cases. In smaller precincts, detectives need to wear a lot of hats and must work on many different types of cases. But in large cities, detectives specialize in certain crime types. For example, the New York City Police Department has more than a dozen different detective squads. The NYPD detective branch includes homicide squads, gang squads, computer crimes squads, cold case squads, as well as missing persons squads, among others.
The Path to Becoming a Detective
Traditionally, detective careers start the same way: in the police academy. Detectives are promoted from their roles as police officers, so going through police training is a prerequisite for becoming a detective.
Every city's police department has its own hiring and training processes. If your city's PD is like most, the process starts with filling out an application or interest card. Next, you might be invited to an informational session with other interested candidates to learn more about what to expect as a police officer. You'll be asked to take a written exam and submit to a number of screening tests, which include fingerprinting, both medical and psychological exams and a comprehensive background check. Candidates may also be required to pass a polygraph test. If you pass all those checks, the next step is an intensive training process.
Training happens at police academies. Prospective officers normally attend academy classes full-time for a few months, during which they are trained in firearms, legal codes, arrest techniques, officer safety, driving techniques and more. Candidates who successfully complete academy training become police officers, and work closely with experienced officers at first.
Advancing From Police Officer to Detective
Again, each police department has its own policies, so the process of getting promoted from police officer to detective is different everywhere. Generally, though, candidates have to get at least a few years of experience as uniformed police officers before they're eligible to be considered for detective positions.
An officer who wants to become a detective can get a leg up by asking for the help of seasoned detectives. An experienced investigator may be willing to act as a mentor to a younger officer – or at the very least, she may be willing to share specific guidance about steps that an officer can take to advance within the department. An officer with this career goal must also strive to prepare himself for this role. Detectives have to have great attention to detail, patience and a creative approach to problem solving, in addition to being skilled police officers.
Department leaders may notice officers who have the skills and drive to be detectives, but detective hopefuls also have to be proactive and express their interest to department decision makers. An officer who is promoted to detective may be required to attend training and to pursue continuing education credits.
Remember, detective requirements are really the same as the requirements for new recruits to the police academy. The educational requirements associated with becoming a police officer are usually minimal. In some departments, a high school diploma or equivalent is all that's required. In others, a police officer candidate must have a two- or four-year degree. Sometimes, military service is an acceptable alternative to college. For example, the NYPD requires new officers to have completed 60 college credits with a minimum 2.0 GPA, or two years of active military service in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Investigative work is typically less physically demanding than being a patrol officer. But because future detectives have to meet the physical criteria to become a police officer, these requirements do apply. Police academy training is also strenuous, and candidates have to be in good shape to get through it.
Departments have fitness criteria that recruits must meet. Expect that you'll be required to demonstrate your ability to run, do sit-ups and push-ups, jump and climb. You may even have to complete set challenges to pass a physical fitness test. The NYPD requires its recruits to complete a test that includes a number of tasks, including climbing stairs, dragging a 175-pound mannequin 35 feet and sprinting 50 yards and climbing over a barrier. Candidates must finish the test in 4 minutes and 28 seconds or less, to be accepted to the academy.
Recruits may also have to meet height and weight requirements. Candidates who are too tall, too short or too heavy may be disqualified, along with those who have other physical impairments that would affect their ability to perform all job tasks.
Police departments have age requirements for their new recruits. The minimum age for new recruits is anywhere from 17 to 21, depending on the department. The maximum age to become a police officer is commonly set at 35, although some older candidates may be able to get an extension if they spent several years in the military.
Generally, a recruit must have a valid driver's license and have established residency in the area that the department serves. New officers must also pass drug and alcohol screenings. Previous legal charges, dishonorable discharges and issues with violence or discipline are also disqualifiers for academy recruits.
What to Expect as a Detective
Detectives tend to have more predictable shifts than patrol cops, who may be scheduled to work overnight and holiday shifts. That said, detectives have to respond quickly whenever a crime happens. So while a detective may work normal weekday shifts, he could be called into work at any time of day or night, especially if he works homicide investigations.
Salary varies significantly, based on geographical location, but generally an officer will get a salary boost when he moves into investigations. The median salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $79,970, as of May 2017. (Median means that half of detectives earned less than that amount, and half earned more.) That's significantly higher than the median salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers, which was $61,050, as of May 2017.
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.