Becoming a Police Detective: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a police detective career? Get real job duties, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a police detective is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Police Detective Career

Police detectives gather evidence, investigate and prepare reports and paperwork on different types of crimes. Below is a list of pros and cons that can help you decide if this career is right for you.

Pros to Being a Police Detective
Ability to earn a living helping people and making a difference in your community**
Job security**
Police departments are looking for people with diverse backgrounds (The number of minority officers increased 10%, to one in four, and the number of women increased 8% to one in eight from 2003 to 2007)***
Ability to specialize into areas that interest you (investigations and traffic enforcement)**
Above-average salaries (mean annual salary of $81,000 in 2014)*
Supplemental pay opportunities and excellent benefits**

Cons to Being a Police Detective
Dangerous, high-stress job*
Must meet rigorous requirements for employment (physical and psychological)*
High rate of on-the-job injury and illness*
Firsthand experience with seeing death and suffering*
Constant need to be on the alert for danger*
Slower-than-average job growth (2% increase expected between 2012 and 2022)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, **Discover Policing (website of the International Association of Police Chiefs), ***Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Police detectives are investigators who collect evidence and search out the facts concerning specific criminal cases. Detectives often specialize in a particular branch of crime. Examples include drug trafficking, homicide and fraud. Some of a detective's duties can include monitoring suspects, assisting uniformed officers in raids, reviewing records, interviewing crime victims and suspects and keeping careful records of cases in the event they need to testify in court. Detectives are not uniformed officers but work in plainclothes. Police officers work a 40-hour week, but overtime is common.

Police work can also be dangerous, but according to the International Association of Police Chiefs, (IAPC), while dangers are real, officers are expertly trained to handle these situations. Though your career won't have the excitement seen on television, helping to maintain quality of life in your community is as vital as enforcing laws and arresting criminals. However, witnessing a high level of death and injury due to crime can affect an officer's emotions and personal life.

Job Prospects and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities are largely dependent on budgets and funding for local departments. Employment for detectives and criminal investigators is only expected to grow by 2% between 2012 and 2022, which is much slower than the average for all professions. The BLS lists the mean wage for detectives and criminal investigators at $81,000 in 2014. The mean 2014 salary for detectives who work for local governments was $67,000, and the average was $60,000 for state investigators. Additionally, you might be able to earn bonuses for working nights and weekends, years of service and for overtime. Many officers can retire with full benefits after 20-25 years of service, regardless of age.

Education and Training Requirements

According to the BLS, becoming a detective usually requires being promoted after working from six months to three years of average duty as a police officer. Qualifications to be a detective begin with your education and basic training. After promotion, you'll need more training to specialize.

Formal Education and Training

Most agencies require a high school diploma or GED, although, depending on where you live, your local agency might hire you after high school graduation as a police cadet. Some agencies request a minimum amount of college credit or a bachelor's degree.

Candidates fill in an initial application and prescreening questionnaire. You might have to pass a standardized written test, watch a video and answer questions orally. You'll need to pass a physical fitness test, which varies by agency. You might also be given a personality test or be interviewed by a psychologist and will have to pass a background check, drug testing and, often, a lie detector test. Senior officers will likely interview you, evaluating factors such as your appearance and ability to communicate.

There are disqualifiers for police service, such as committing a felony, having a poor driving record or using illegal drugs. The IAPC notes that police agencies do exercise judgment when looking at infractions from your past. It states that some requirements vary; one police agency's reason to disqualify you might not apply at another agency.

After acceptance, you'll train at the state or local police academy for 12-14 weeks. Instruction includes class work in subjects such as law, civil rights and accident investigation. There is also supervised training in using firearms, emergency response, first aid and self-defense. You might have to pass an additional certification exam. Periodic continuing education could also be required for police officers to maintain their certification.

Skills and Qualifications

You must be a U.S. citizen or, for some agencies, a permanent resident alien who is applying for citizenship. You should be age 21 by the time you graduate from the academy, and you might have to live in the jurisdiction you work in. You'll also need a valid driver's license.

Police detectives also need to be empathetic, especially when dealing with victims of crime, and perceptive in order to figure out how or why a crime was committed. You'll also need to show good leadership, communication and judgment skills when working with the community and fellow law enforcement officers.

Job Postings from Real Employers

While there are few postings specifically looking for detectives, many listings note that advancement to detective is possible for officers who meet hiring requirements and have the desired experience. Here are a few of the available positions from March 2012:

  • A police department in Florida is looking for a part-time cold case detective. Requirements include at least a high school education or GED, but a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field is preferred. You'll need 15 years in law enforcement with investigation experience, current law enforcement certification, a valid Florida driver's license and no convictions.
  • A police department in California is hiring police academy graduates and lists detective as one of the positions that officers can obtain, which includes an increase in pay. Candidates must be age 21 at the time of hire, have already completed an accredited police academy course and meet physical and skill standards.
  • Washington state is hiring experienced officers with required certifications and who have been working (or received an offer) in law enforcement within the last two years. The listing notes that most assignments are in patrol, but experienced officers have the opportunity to advance to detective and other areas.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Higher Education

According to the IAPC, education beyond high school only helps your career. A 4-year or an advanced degree is an asset when it comes to getting a promotion. Many candidates major in criminal justice or police sciences, but sociology, psychology and social work are other college majors that can prepare someone for police work.

Prior Experience

Experience with the military or military police can also help you stand out, according to the IAPC, because you probably already have many of the skills and character traits police departments are looking for. You might be able to have some educational requirements waived and get incentive pay. For college students, or persons looking to change careers, the IAPC also recommends volunteering with the local or campus police.

Related Skills and Specialized Training

Police agencies are also looking for people who can speak more than one language. Additionally, taking specialized training and having good performance on the job during your probationary period are key to promotion and getting the opportunity to branch out in your field.

Alternative Career Paths

Private Detective

If you like the idea of investigation but don't want the regimen of working as a police officer, becoming a private investigator might be for you. Private investigators collect and analyze information for businesses, private individuals and attorneys. Their investigations can include areas such as computer crime, missing persons cases and insurance fraud. Private investigators can be self-employed or work for an agency. There is no specific educational track, but many private investigators hold degrees in criminal justice or political sciences. Most states also require private investigators to be licensed, and requirements vary state to state. According to the BLS, employment is expected to grow 21% between 2010 and 2020, but the field is highly competitive. The mean annual wage for private investigators was $49,000 in 2011.

Federal Investigator

If you want employment beyond state and local governments, you might be interested in working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Federal agents work on crimes such as kidnapping, terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and Internet crime. Persons applying for federal law enforcement need to have a college degree, related experience or both with possible additional requirements, depending on the agency you are applying for. Requirements are similar but more stringent than for regular police work. The mean annual wage for federal investigators was $97,000 in 2011.

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