Homicide detectives are the most telegenic of law enforcement professionals. Prime time is filled with them, looking sharp in suits and high-fashion separates, flashing badges and shouting orders, sparring verbally with wisecracking sidekicks, solving crimes just in the nick of time. However, the day-to-day homicide detective stories don't resemble what you see on television. The real job involves long hours, hard work, a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of talking on the phone.
In the end, though, the results are all worth it. As a homicide detective, it's your job to solve crimes, arrest murderers and prevent new victims. Society doesn't have many jobs with a higher intrinsic moral value than that.
Homicide detectives work within existing police departments as part of a team, studying murder cases and looking for clues. Teams can include forensic experts, psychologists, profilers, beat cops, clerks, archivists and other experts brought in specifically for a particular case. The detectives, however, are in charge of the investigation. Its failure or success lies on their shoulders, and a large part of their job is team management and coordination. They sign time sheets, supervise schedules and assign routine administrative duties, in addition to their detecting work.
Detectives are plainclothes officers but not necessarily undercover officers. They do not wear a uniform, although they must conform to the departmental dress code, which usually specifies business clothing including a jacket and tie or equivalent. Undercover officers work covertly in areas where their true identities are not known, infiltrating the criminal underground at great personal risk to themselves. They may or may not work with the homicide squad on any given case.
Homicide detectives are responsible for the identification, collection, preservation and storage of evidence at fatal crime scenes. They decide whether to investigate a given fatal event as murder, manslaughter, accident or something else. They interview sources including suspects, experts and witnesses, and document those interviews. They may delegate some of the tasks to other team members, but the detectives are always the team leaders. They may liaise with other detectives and other departments and teams, depending on the case. If the case goes to court, detectives may be called upon to testify. They often deal with the bereaved during the interview process and must possess interpersonal skills.
In addition to a good sense of logic and an aptitude for the often grueling work, would-be homicide detective requirements include at least a high school degree, but realistically a bachelor's is a minimum, preferably in criminology or a related professional field, and eligibility to serve in their local police force. This usually means they must be an American citizen with no felony convictions, possess a high school diploma, and be able to pass the physical requirements of the job including a drug test and fitness test. Some applicants who want to stand out go on to get a master's degree in criminology, and in such a tight market that is a good strategy.
Industry and Job Growth Trend
Police detective work is not an easy field to break into in the first place, and the growth trend in the industry won't help. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth in this field to be flat. The only job openings are from people leaving the force, not from new jobs opening up.
Fortunately for job seekers, most police detectives retire within 20 years of joining the force, leaving a steady stream of openings in their wake. Police detective pensions can be generous, and numerous lucrative private industry security companies are happy to snap up retiring but still vigorous police detectives.
Years of Experience and Salary
Unlike most police officers, detectives are considered management and are not unionized. As a result, detective pay is not as directly influenced by years of service as pay is for rank-and-file cops. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates homicide detectives' mean hourly salary at $40.06 and mean annual salary at $83,320. Those whose contracts include bonuses receive in the range of $5,000 per year more.
More important than years of experience is location. The states that pay the highest for homicide detectives are Alaska, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and California. Another factor is the level of government that runs the force you join. Federal investigators are much better paid in all locations than state or municipal police detectives. The New York/New Jersey area employs the most municipal homicide detectives and pays them the most.
A homicide detective's job is high stress and all hours, but the rewards are many. It's well paid, high status and less dangerous than a beat cop's job, and there is the unquantifiable reward of knowing it's your job to catch murderers and save lives.