What is a Detective?

Are you an investigative individual, with an inquisitive and curious mind? You may want to consider a career as a detective!

Technological advances have moved many detectives from the streets to the computer, while crime solving has become just a small sector of the market for detectives. Some find the unstructured nature of investigation to be a better fit than a more traditional career.

What does a Detective do?

There are two basic types of detectives — public and private. Solving puzzles is an important part of the job, regardless of the application.

Private detectives - are often former police officers, spies, military personnel, bodyguards, and security guards. While many private detectives investigate criminal matters, they are limited to the powers of citizen's arrest and detention, as they do not have police authority.

Public Detectives - investigate activities related to criminal acts and suspected criminal activity. They fall under the category of public because their salaries come from taxes and government funding.

Three detectives meeting together to investigate a crime.

The applications for investigative skills span all industries. Corporations use detectives to perform background checks, while consumers hire detectives to follow a suspected cheater or look up references on a nanny. Law enforcement detectives solve crimes after the fact, and work to prevent the commission of crimes.

Many private detective firms also offer security solutions. Assessing the security measures in place to protect a building or adding technical security for a network can fall under a contract with the right detective agency.

Specific detective roles include:

Police Detective
Police detectives, also called criminal investigators, investigate crimes such as arson, homicide, robbery, vandalism, fraud, burglary, and assault. They interview witnesses and victims, gather evidence, prepare search and arrest warrants, question suspects, make arrests, and when necessary, testify in court. Unlike regular police officers, police detectives typically wear plainclothes instead of police uniforms and drive unmarked vehicles.

There are specialized police detectives for every type of crime. For example, police detectives can specialize in fraud, white-collar crime, burglary, homicide, sex crimes, narcotics, vice, etc. Detective positions are either promotions or lateral transfers from within the police department, therefore a police detective is required to first work as a police officer for at least two to three years, usually in the patrol division, before applying to be a detective in a special unit. A few years spent working as a police officer is very beneficial, as it is valuable experience in learning about people, laws, and criminal processes; all of which make for better detectives.

Police detectives often spend two to several years in one special unit before they move to another. Moving to other special units not only serves to widen their knowledge base and experience, but also prevents burnout (the job of a police detective is not as exciting or glamorous as movies and television programs would have you believe).

Police detectives spend most of their time working on detailed investigations. They work daily to gather tangible evidence of drug trafficking, terrorist activity, and other crimes. They may work undercover or through an informant; sometimes simply observing, monitoring, and recording the activities of known criminals is enough to gather necessary evidence for an indictment. Most substantial evidence, however, is obtained through the interrogation of both criminals and witnesses. Before making any arrests, police detectives must ensure that the collective evidence is accurate, true, and reliable. The best evidence in any crime is a direct confession, and police detectives have the right to use psychological techniques, misdirection, and lies to encourage a criminal to confess.

Police detectives need to have incredible attention to detail and be able to keep meticulous records. They also need to possess a high level of patience, as some crimes take years to solve.

Some Daily Activities of a Police Detective:

  • Collect, bag, and analyze evidence from crime scenes
  • Interview suspects, witnesses, informants, and victims
  • Work closely with crime scene investigators and other forensic professionals
  • Testify in court and inform jurors
  • Follow leads
  • Analyze information
  • Attend autopsies to gather additional evidence
  • Act as victim advocates in the search for justice
  • Write reports or analyze reports from other law enforcement personnel
  • Request assistance and exchange information from other law enforcement agencies
  • Take notes and prepare diagrams at crime scenes
  • Take photographs at crime scenes
  • Travel throughout their own and different jurisdictions
  • Follow potentially dead-end leads
  • Keep detailed records of investigations and interactions with people
  • Perform surveillance on potential suspects

Forensic Detective
Forensic science is a field that utilizes three scientific branches: biology, physics, and chemistry. Its focus is on recognizing, identifying, and evaluating physical evidence. Since it utilizes such a broad spectrum of sciences to extract information pertinent to legal evidence, it has become an integral and essential part of the judicial system (in both defense and prosecution arguments).

Forensic detectives (also known as forensic investigators) use scientific methods and their scientific knowledge to investigate and analyze physical evidence from a crime scene. They help solve crimes by determining how and when a crime occurred and who perpetrated it by analyzing relevant samples and running scientific tests. They collect evidence from the crime scene such as fingerprints, bodily fluids, and weapons, as well as write notes on their observations, take photographs, make sketches, and bag samples to take to the lab for later analysis. They write detailed reports and use solid scientific evidence in order to prove what occurred and often have to testify in court. Their evidence has to stand up to extreme scrutiny, especially in court.

By examining physical evidence, conducting tests, interpreting data, and writing detailed reports, a forensic detective can give a truthful testimony in court and often prove the existence of a crime or a connection to a crime. Since their only objective is to produce evidence based purely on scientific facts, the testimony of forensic detectives has become a trusted part of many criminal cases.

Forensic detectives typically need a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a natural science such as chemistry or biology. Some forensic detectives get their start as police officers who transferred to forensics after obtaining the necessary education.

New forensic investigators typically apprentice with more experienced forensic detectives to get extensive on-the-job training. Training times vary depending on what is being taught. For example, DNA analysis training can last six months, and firearms analysis training can take up to three years. This profession requires constant learning to keep up with advances in forensic technology.

Computer Crime Detective (or Computer Crime Investigator)
Cybercrime involves a computer and a network that may either be the target of a crime, or may be used in a crime. This type of crime has the potential to harm a person or even a nation's security (cybercrimes crossing international borders and involving the actions of at least one nation-state is sometimes referred to as cyberwarfare).

Cybercrimes are defined as: "Offences that are committed against individuals or groups of individuals with a criminal motive to intentionally harm the reputation of the victim or cause physical or mental harm, or loss, to the victim directly or indirectly, using modern telecommunication networks such as Internet (networks including chat rooms, emails, notice boards and groups) and mobile phones." - Cyber Crime and the Victimization of Women: Laws, Rights, and Regulations

According to a report (sponsored by McAfee), published in 2014, it is estimated that the annual damage to the global economy was $445 billion. Approximately $1.5 billion was lost in 2012 to online credit and debit card fraud in the US. In 2018, a study by Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with McAfee, concludes that close to $600 billion, nearly one percent of global GDP, is lost to cybercrime each year.

A computer crime detective (or computer crime investigator) is able to investigate crimes that can range from computer hacking and copyright infringement, to investigating crimes against children and espionage. They can also help in recovering data from computers in order to use electronic evidence in prosecuting crimes, and are often called upon to testify in court.

Some computer crime detectives test corporate security systems that are already in place. Businesses and organizations need these professionals to help improve their networks, applications, and other computer systems in order to prevent data theft and fraud. By attempting to bypass system security and by trying to find and expose any weak points that could be taken advantage of by a malicious hacker, vulnerabilities are typically found in improper system configuration and in hardware or software flaws.

A computer crime detective's job responsibilities may include:

  • Analyzing computer systems
  • Assessing software applications for design flaws
  • Reconstructing hacked computer systems
  • Recovering destroyed or damaged data
  • Gathering computer system information and evidence
  • Improving and maximizing computer system performance levels
  • Preparing reports, affidavits, and testifying in court
  • Recovering password protected/encrypted files

Detectives sometimes fill in a gap that is outside of the mandate of the the public police force. Some of the most common tasks performed by private investigators include:

Missing Persons
The police department has limited resources to investigate a missing persons case, especially when there is no evidence of foul play. Private investigators offer an alternative, allowing the family of the missing person to continue looking long after the case no longer has priority with the police department.

Finding a Parent
Adopted children frequently wish to meet their genetic parents. Tracking down the birth parents from a closed adoption proceeding takes considerable time and effort. Most adoptees have no idea where to start. Investigators have access to resources that the average person can't get to.

Recovery of Lost/Stolen Property
Unless a missing item is worth a considerable sum, the police force will not spend much time looking for it. They are often hampered by jurisdictional boundaries. Private investigators have no issues with jurisdiction, though they may need to request the help of local law enforcement to retrieve the stolen object.

Insurance Claim Fraud
Investigations into insurance claim fraud can be related to injuries, liability, property damage, medical issues, worker's compensation, etc. Suspected cases are referred to insurance claims detectives (or investigators) by insurance adjusters or examiners. These cases are handled by doing background checks on the claimants, interviewing witnesses, reviewing the circumstances, performing surveillance, and writing reports.

Investigative Due Diligence
Private detectives can be called upon to perform due diligence for a client's high-risk business or investment venture. A potential investor considering investing with a specific investment group or fund manager could avoid being the victim of a fraudulent company or Ponzi scheme. An experienced detective could investigate whether the investment is risky or the people behind the venture have suspicious backgrounds. Investigative due diligence is becoming more popular now, especially with the recent reports of large-scale Ponzi schemes and fraudulent investment vehicles.

Are you suited to be a detective?

Detectives have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also enterprising, meaning they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if detective is one of your top career matches.

Take the free test now Learn more about the career test

What is the workplace of a Detective like?

Detectives that specialize in background checks spend most of their time at a desk, cross referencing information, and using computer databases. Surveillance specialists spend most of their days in a vehicle observing a subject and writing reports. The work schedule is rarely traditional, though there are corporate positions offering a mostly 9-5 workday.

Detectives may be called out for emergency cases, security issues or surveillance projects at any time of the day or night. Even investigators employed by the local or federal police force are on call for emergencies. Federally employed investigators also may be asked to travel on very limited notice.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Detectives like?

Based on our pool of users, detectives tend to be predominately investigative people. Almost every aspect of a detective’s job involves some kind of investigation. There is certainly proof of this in the following excerpt (particularly in the bolded words) from an interview with a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department:

Some of my tasks can be locating and interviewing witnesses, re-canvassing the crime scene for additional witnesses or evidence, locating and downloading surveillance footage, booking evidence, searching through criminal data bases, and meeting with other law enforcement officers, who have expertise in the area where the crime occurred.

Are Detectives happy?

Detectives rank in the 68th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

Being a detective is not what you see on TV. It can be dangerous, dirty, frustrating, boring, and also rewarding, with a high level of satisfaction with a job well done.

Solving a case means going through many details (often boring trivial details) in order to ferret out the truth. Some detectives end up developing negative attitudes because of the constant exposure to criminals and liars.

Should I become a Detective?

If you’re not 100% sure on whether becoming a detective is for you or not, here are a few things you may want to consider:

It's Not So Glamorous
Most people think being a detective is a lot more glamorous than it really is. It’s actually a lot of hard work, involving hours of research before even leaving the house, sometimes driving miles to a site, sitting for hours waiting for something to happen, getting evidence of wrongdoing, driving back home, and writing any findings in a report.

Detectives often have to sit in a surveillance position for hours upon hours until something happens, if anything happens at all. Relieving the boredom by reading a book or magazine isn't possible either, as something may occur during the time attention is diverted.

Work/Family Balance
Detectives may have to work some major holidays, as that’s when most people are apt to be active. On the plus side, they typically start work very early, and so are able to return home in the late afternoon (3pm or 4pm), instead of the 6pm or 7pm timeframe many other careers have.

Detectives work independently, make many of their own decisions, solve problems using their own skills and don't have someone constantly looking over their shoulder. This is a definite bonus when considering this career. Detectives are assigned cases and work on them until they are solved or until they reach a complete dead end.

More Potential as a Private Detective
A private detective's job potential is unlimited. Detectives are not limited to the same restrictions and constraints placed on government employees. They make their own hours and, to an extent, are architects of their own making. Although the private sector doesn't offer the same job security and benefits/perks as government employees, many individuals prefer the freedom.

Having to be Industrious
A good detective is self-driven, and fills the day with investigative activity. Detectives have more freedom than uniformed officers, but not as much stimulation. As a detective, you own the case and no one is going to work it for you or motivate you to do so.

Not a Physical Job
Detectives are rarely in physically confrontational situations with individuals. It's more a battle of patience and wits, piecing together evidence to implicate a suspect.

How long does it take to become a Detective?

The following is a breakdown of the typical timeline that aspiring detectives follow to enter the career:

Education – two to four years
Generally, police departments are more likely to hire applicants with a degree than those who do not have one. A Bachelor's Degree in Criminology, Criminal Justice, or a related field is common among practising detectives. Earning an associate degree takes two years; completing a bachelor’s takes four years.

Becoming a police officer – two years
The road to becoming a full-fledged officer is comprised of four stages:

  • The application process – up to three months
  • The hiring process – up to four months, consisting of interviews and written, oral, physical, mental, psychological, medical, polygraph tests
  • The training academy – about six months
  • The probationary period – about a year of on-the-job training with a supervising officer

Getting experience as an officer – two to five years
Most police departments do not promote anyone before they have served two or three years. Other departments may require officers to have minimum five years of service before they can be promoted to a detective post.

According to the above prerequisites, it takes a minimum of six years to become a detective.

To be considered for a position with a private detective agency or to start your own agency and be hired by clients directly, you need to establish credibility by working for at least a year as a detective in the public sector.

Detectives are also known as:
Public Detective Investigator Police Detective