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Homicide Detective: Career Guide

A homicide detective’s job is to investigate deaths suspected to have been caused by criminal activities, as well as deaths with an unknown cause, in order to rule out criminal activity. Homicide detectives are sworn law enforcement officers. Homicide detectives, who are generally promoted from their initial position as a police officer or another position in law enforcement, often work for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Responsibilities of a homicide detective include gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, conducting background checks on victims and possible suspects, identifying the responsible party (or parties), preparing cases for court, and assisting in the successful prosecution of offenders. Working conditions vary greatly depending on the nature of the current investigation. A homicide detective must be prepared to work under any conditions.

Homicide detectives are employed by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Depending on the size and geographic location of the agency, the detective’s jurisdiction may cover the entire agency’s jurisdiction or a sector of the area under that agency’s scope. The nature of the work can be very dangerous and stressful, so the detective must be mentally and physically prepared for the tasks performed.

Steps for Becoming a Homicide Detective

The minimum requirements to become a homicide detective are a high school diploma (a bachelor’s degree for federal jobs) and experience as a sworn law enforcement officer. More and more agencies do require prospective homicide detectives to have at least a two- or four-year degree in criminal justice, forensic science, or a related field, and experience as a sworn law enforcement officer. To become a homicide detective, you can expect a process similar to the one described below.

  1. Acquire the necessary education and/or gain experience in a related field.*
  2. Apply for a homicide detective job opening.
  3. Be interviewed.
  4. Undergo a background investigation and be fingerprinted.
  5. Get hired as a homicide detective.
  6. Receive training on the job once hired.

*Some homicide detective jobs require only a high school diploma, along with applicable experience in the field. Check the job listing for more details.

Please note that a degree cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Additional academy training or education may be required for law enforcement jobs.

CJDS FACT: If you do not have law enforcement experience and want to become a detective, you must be realistic and work your way up the ranks in a department. CJDS suggests you review careers that can springboard you to a career as a homicide detective such as police officer, deputy, or crime scene investigator. The schools listed below will also help get you there.

Homicide Detective Training

While police officer training varies depending on the locality of the police department, aspiring homicide detectives should be prepared to attend the police academy and to gain experience as a police officer, a crime scene investigator, or a sheriff’s deputy first. Detectives are generally promoted from police officers.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Homicide investigators should possess strong communication skills, the ability to remain objective, and the patience and empathy necessary to work through the often long and emotional process of a homicide investigation. Family and friends of the homicide victim, the general public, and the media often expect an immediate resolution, which may not be realistic, so the ability to set expectations (and reset them when necessary) is important. Military experience can also beneficial.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Criminal Investigator
  • Homicide Detective
  • Police Detective

Homicide Detective Salary and Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that detectives and criminal investigators earn an average annual wage of $79,620.1 However, average annual salary can vary widely based on location; detectives and criminal investigators in Washington DC, for example, earn an annual average salary of $119,280.1 The projected job growth for police and detectives is 4% through 2024, based on the anticipated addition of 33,100 new positions.2

Related Careers

If you are interested in a career as a homicide detective, you may wish to research other law enforcement careers:

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is the biggest misconception about the role of a homicide detective?

Answer: The media, politicians, and the general public often put pressure on law enforcement, including detectives, to find the culprit and solve the case quickly – like they see on television. Unfortunately, homicide investigations take time and require methodical work to avoid mistakes and to secure a conviction of the right individual.

Question: What type of schedule do homicide detectives work?

Answer: Prospective homicide investigators must be prepared to work whenever they are called. Homicides take place at all times of the day and the night, which requires a homicide investigator to be on call and prepared to leave for the crime scene at a moment’s notice.

Question: What are the risks of a career as a homicide detective?

Answer: In addition to the physical risks homicide detectives face from suspects, they may also deal with emotional and mental fatigue and stress associated with dealing with death and violent crime scenes on a consistent basis.

Additional Resources

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015, Detectives and Criminal Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333021.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm