Detectives and Criminal Investigators Overview
Detectives and criminal investigators work in a wide variety of industries, from law enforcement and government to insurance and tech. Additionally, detectives and criminal investigators can work as independent contractors, especially in the field of background investigation.
Depending on their position, detectives and criminal investigators must have a high school diploma, college degree, or degree plus specialized law enforcement training. Those who are most qualified will have the best job opportunities at local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as companies and corporations in the public sector. However, the application process for jobs in state and federal agencies can be extremely competitive. For these positions, advantages include being bilingual and having a college background in police science or military police training.
What Do Detectives and Criminal Investigators Do?
Detectives and criminal investigators have similar jobs, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Depending on the case, both careers focus on the same things: protecting peoples’ lives and/or property. However, in many cases, detectives and criminal investigators can have distinctly different careers, with the primary difference involving the types of crimes they investigate.
Whether they work with crime or fraud, detectives and criminal investigators use similar techniques to solve crimes. These include researching criminal files, interviewing witnesses, investigating leads, inspecting crime scenes, and examining all kinds of incriminating evidence.
What Is a Detective?
Typically, detectives work for law enforcement agencies and handle criminal cases involving missing persons and homicides. As such, detectives play a key role in bringing murderers to justice during homicide investigations, and they’re instrumental in discovering the fate of people reported missing.
The primary role of a detective is to gather facts, collect evidence, inspect records, examine witnesses, conduct interviews, and research every aspect of a criminal case for clues in solving it. This may include following suspects to observe their activities, or even participating in stake-outs.
Cases are assigned to detectives either on a rotating basis or according to their seniority and expertise. For instance, in certain homicide cases, the department chief may assign the case to the detectives with the best track records for solving crimes. And since not all cases are solved, a detective may eventually be removed from a case if it doesn’t seem feasible to continue pursuing it. Otherwise, detectives will continue to work on a case until it is either dropped or an arrest is made.
What Is a Criminal Investigator?
A criminal investigator often works with a wide variety of cases ranging from fraud and theft to terrorism. Toward this end, criminal investigators not only protect lives, but also work to protect personal or commercial property.
While criminal investigators can work with state and federal law enforcement agencies, they also work within the private sector. Insurance companies may hire them to determine the validity of claims, or they may work with corporations and tech companies to protect physical and intellectual property. Criminal investigators can also work as independent contractors, taking on private clients and cases.
Like detectives, criminal investigators collect evidence and examine witnesses, and they also provide expert testimony in court. However, unless they’re working under the auspices of a law enforcement agency, criminal investigators may not have the legal jurisdiction to make arrests.
Responsibilities of Detectives and Criminal Investigators
The responsibilities of a detective or criminal investigator depend on where you work. If you’re a detective with a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency, you’ll probably work more with homicides and missing person reports. If you’re a criminal investigator, you may work with police on these crimes, or you might also work on cases involving theft, fraudulent insurance claims, cyber security breaches, or terrorist attacks.
Likewise, if you work with a federal agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), you might work on cases involving kidnapping, terrorism, and criminal activity that pose a national threat. FBI agents can examine business records, investigate white-collar crime, conduct surveillance, or participate in undercover assignments. The criminal activity that the FBI investigates includes public corruption, organized crime, bank robberies, financial crime, terrorism, espionage, kidnapping, cyber crime, and drug trafficking.
Detectives and criminal investigators can also provide evidence in court cases, making it crucial for them to keep detailed, updated records of each investigation. These reports and firsthand accounts may provide the key evidence needed to successfully prosecute a criminal case.
Job Risks for Detectives and Criminal Investigators
Detectives and criminal investigators spend a lot of time at crime scenes, and often have to handle distressing sights involving assault, murder, and accidental death. They also deal with violent criminals, sometimes in extremely threatening situations. Plus, they need to be prepared to talk to people who are enduring great physical or mental suffering due to traumatic events involving fatalities.
The work of a detective or criminal investigator can be stressful and physically demanding as well as dangerous. In addition to the physical risks involved, it can take a toll on mental health and well-being. Toward that end, detectives and criminal investigators receive special training to deal with these types of extreme scenarios. In addition, law enforcement agencies typically offer a variety of medical and mental health resources for staff members whenever they need them.
How Many Hours Do Detectives and Criminal Investigators Work?
For detectives and criminal investigators working with law enforcement agencies, the typical work week is 40 hours, but paid overtime is common in these jobs. Since protection must be provided around the clock, detectives and criminal investigators work varying shifts, and may be required to work long hours during investigations. Additionally, they may need to stay on call if a case is close to breaking. Likewise, FBI agents must work at least 50 hours per week, and they stay on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
When working under the auspices of law enforcement, detectives and criminal investigators may be called upon to exercise their authority (and, in some instances, stay armed) even when they’re off duty. In addition, detectives and criminal investigators working for federal agencies such as the FBI may be required to travel extensively, sometimes on short notice, and may also have to relocate multiple times throughout their careers.
How To Become a Detective or Criminal Investigator
The educational requirements for detective and criminal investigators vary depending on the job position, the type of agency or company they apply for, and the branch of work involved.
Civil service regulations govern the appointment of detectives in most city, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Job candidates must be at least 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, and have specific educational and physical qualifications for the job.
As for education, detective and criminal investigators should have a high school diploma, and some departments will require one or two years of college coursework or a college degree.
State and federal law enforcement positions are extremely competitive, so it’s beneficial for applicants to know at least one foreign language. As for the stamina and agility needed for these positions, applicants can develop these strengths through physical training and sports participation.
In many cases, prospective candidates are required to graduate from their law enforcement agency’s training academy before they’re allowed to start on-the-job training. In addition, federal, state, and local agencies encourage those interested in investigative positions to take additional law enforcement courses after high school. Toward that end, many universities, colleges, and vocational schools offer programs in justice administration and law enforcement training. Some law enforcement agencies will even help pay portions of tuition for applicants pursuing degrees in police science, administration of justice, or criminal justice.
For private sector companies such as insurance firms and corporations, many of these same qualifications also apply. Ideal candidates will have sufficient law enforcement training and experience. And for those who prefer to work as an independent investigator, the qualifications are basically the same. Private clients will likely hire investigators with solid law enforcement training, as well as a stellar track record of work experience.
As for personal qualifications, detective and criminal investigators should possess characteristics such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility. They should also enjoy interacting with people and the public. During the application process, candidates may be interviewed by a psychologist or psychiatrist and given a personality test.
Likewise, candidates may be required to take physical examinations that test hearing, vision, agility, and strength. Written examinations to test intelligence may also be conducted.
Given the competition for state and federal law enforcement jobs, prospective investigators might have an easier time applying for local and city police departments, where they can get the training they need to advance their careers. And once they’re hired, rookie detectives and criminal investigators can improve their job performance through continued agency training in firearms, use-of-force policies, communication skills, and self-defense tactics.
Detective and Criminal Investigator Salary
As of May 2021, the median annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators in law enforcement is around $66,000, or $31.74 per hour. However, this salary can vary greatly depending on the branch of work, qualifications, experience, and location. As of February 2022, the average median annual salary for a homicide detective is $75,800, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $50,000, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $111,000 annually.
For detectors and criminal investigators specializing in fraud, the median annual salary is around $64,100 a year (as of May 2022), with the lowest 10 percent making less than $41,000 and the highest 10 percent making around $95,000 annually.
Additionally, some law enforcement agencies offer higher salaries for detectives who are bilingual or have college degrees. And as for other compensation, many law enforcement agencies provide extensive benefits, as well as the option to retire earlier than the norm.
Detective and criminal investigation work can provide a rewarding career, as long as you understand the responsibilities that these jobs entail. While criminal investigation requires highly specialized training, the good news is that job prospects are favorable for this field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects around 67,100 law enforcement job openings for police and detectives opening each year over the next decade, and this number doesn’t even include private sector positions. While it’s an exacting profession, the field of criminal investigation will always be in demand, with agencies and companies in both the public and private sector eager to accept new applicants each year.