Criminal Investigator: Career Guide

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Criminal investigators (CIs) play an integral role in law enforcement and criminal justice. They work hard to solve open cases, a task that often takes weeks or months to complete. These law enforcement professionals collect evidence, interview witnesses, and arrest suspects. CIs work at all levels of law enforcement, finding employment at the local, state, and federal levels.

Succeeding as a criminal investigator requires strong communication skills, sound judgment, physical fitness, empathy, and ethical standards. In addition to rewarding and exciting work, criminal investigators enjoy strong job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects police and detective jobs to increase 5% between 2018 and 2028.

This guide covers how to become a criminal investigator, including education, experience, and licensure requirements. It also covers other important information for prospective criminal investigators, such as frequently asked questions and potential salaries.

What Does a Criminal Investigator Do?

A criminal investigator works with other law enforcement officers to solve crimes. They must work diligently to ensure the apprehension of the correct suspects and thoroughly analyze crime scenes to gather all relative evidence and information.

A CI regularly works with police, detectives, and other criminal investigators. While a criminal investigator may succeed in finding and apprehending suspects on their own, most of these professionals work with a team.

A criminal investigator’s job responsibilities and wages typically grow with experience. An experienced CI with a successful track record typically works on the toughest cases.

Key Skills for Criminal Investigators

Due to the position’s variety of demands, CIs need diverse skills in areas such as communication, leadership, and judgment. The following list outlines several key skills for successful CIs.

  • JUDGMENT

    Criminal investigators must use their best judgment in a rapidly changing, often volatile environment. CIs learn judgment skills through a combination of education and experience.

  • COMMUNICATION

    As members of a law enforcement team, CIs regularly coordinate with police and detectives. Criminal investigators also interview witnesses and potential suspects, requiring effective communication skills.

  • LEADERSHIP

    Criminal investigators often head cases. leading their team as they collect evidence, interview witnesses, and draw conclusions.

  • PHYSICAL FITNESS

    CIs may need to pursue and/or apprehend suspects, which requires a certain level of physical fitness. Poor physical fitness could undermine a CI’s ability to work effectively.

  • EMPATHY

    Criminal investigators cross paths with countless people. Many of these people are crime victims or wrongfully accused of criminal activity. CIs must be able to empathize with people and see things from multiple perspectives.

  • Criminal Investigator Daily Tasks

    Depending on the case, CIs may complete a variety of different tasks, such as:

    • Respond to emergencies
    • Analyze crime scenes for evidence
    • Collect evidence, including voice recordings and video
    • Obtain warrants for arrest and arresting criminals
    • File for and secure search warrants
    • Interview witnesses
    • Testify in court
    • Write case reports
    • Maintain meticulous case records

    Criminal Investigator Salary and Career Outlook

    According to the BLS, detectives and criminal investigators earn a median annual wage of $83,170. However, pay rates fluctuate based on factors like experience, education, and role. The BLS reports that police and detectives at the federal level earn a median annual wage of $88,060, while state and local police and detectives earn $68,610 and $63,410, respectively. The BLS projects 37,500 new police and detective positions between 2018-2028.

    Salary Expectations for Criminal Investigators

    Criminal investigators and detectives earn a median annual salary of $83,170, and the top 10% of earners make $109,620 annually. Industry and job level heavily influence salaries. The federal government typically pays the highest rates, requiring the highest levels of experience and education. Where a criminal investigator works also affects potential salaries. Those working in rural counties typically do not earn as much as those in busy metropolitan areas.

    CRIMINAL INVESTIGATORS AND DETECTIVES EARN A MEDIAN ANNUAL SALARY OF $83,170. 

    – U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS

    Education is another factor that affects potential salaries. Criminal investigators that earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree typically find it easier to quickly move into higher-paying positions at the state or federal level.

    How to Become a Criminal Investigator

    While not always required, an associate or bachelor’s degree is a great first step to becoming a criminal investigator. These degrees typically take 2-4 years to complete and increase employment opportunities.

    In addition to education, aspiring criminal investigators usually need related experience, which may involve working as police officers. Police officers must graduate from a police academy, which typically takes six months. Next, police academy graduates begin a six-month probation period.

    After working as a police officer for some time, officers can earn a promotion to work as criminal investigators. Officers with a college degree and experience could earn a promotion faster than others.

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    Steps to Becoming a Criminal Investigator

    • Earn a college degree in criminal justice, criminology, forensic science, or a similar field.
    • Apply for a police academy.
    • Graduate from the police academy and become a patrol officer.
    • Earn necessary experience.
    • Earn any certifications required by the local, state, or federal law enforcement agency.
    • Apply for a job as a criminal investigator or earn a promotion.
    • Pass a background check and drug test.
    • Complete job interview.
    • Earn a position as a criminal investigator and gain on-the-job experience.

    Criminal Investigator Requirements

    Criminal investigators combine intuition with education and experience. When searching for criminal investigators, agencies look for candidates with relevant skills and experience, a clean background, and a good education.

    Education Requirements for Criminal Investigators

    Criminal investigators need at least a high school diploma, though some employers prefer to hire candidates with a degree in an area like criminal justice, forensic science, or a related field. Some degrees might offer criminal investigator internships, providing hands-on experience in the field.

    CIs seeking specialized careers should look for degrees aligned with their interests and goals. For example, a CI who wants to investigate tax fraud benefits from earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting or forensic accounting.

    LEARN MORE ABOUT CRIMINAL JUSTICE DEGREES

    License and Certification Requirements for Criminal Investigators

    While not required by most agencies, professional certifications demonstrate specialized knowledge and skills to potential employers, making candidates more competitive in the job market. Criminal investigators can earn a professional certified investigator credential, which requires at least five years of investigation experience.

    Required Experience for Criminal Investigators

    Criminal investigators need a combination of education and experience. To become a criminal investigator primarily through experience, an individual usually must work as a patrol officer. However, the jump from officer to criminal investigator can take years as officers must demonstrate readiness.

    To speed up the process, individuals should complete a college degree, an internship, and a basic training program for criminal investigators. These educational programs teach specific skills required of criminal investigators while giving students valuable experience.

    Where Can I Work as a Criminal Investigator?

    Criminal investigators work in all types of locations. Where a CI chooses to work influences their employability and salary.

    Locations

    While cities and counties offer varying salaries for criminal investigators, the state where CIs work typically impacts salary the most. According to the BLS, Alaska, Hawaii, and California comprise the highest-paying states for CIs.

    Before applying to work in any of the top-paying states, criminal investigators should consider the job demand and cost of living. Hawaii and California both pay excellent salaries but have high costs of living. Alaska pays the highest rates for CIs, but the BLS reports that Alaska only employs 100 criminal investigators total. Adjusted for population, Alaska employs less than half as many CIs as the national average.

    Annual Mean Wage by State for Detectives and Criminal Investigators, 2019

    TOP-PAYING STATESANNUAL MEAN WAGE
    Alaska$113,420
    Hawaii$109,320
    California$107,760
    New Jersey$103,460
    Massachusetts$102,350
    Source: BLS

    Settings

    The federal government typically only takes on the highest-profile cases. To tackle these cases, federal agencies hire the best criminal investigators and pay high salaries to attract talent. As the size of the agency scales down, so do median salaries. According to the BLS, local governments pay the lowest median salaries for police and detectives.

    Median Salaries by Setting for Police and Detectives, 2019

    SETTINGMEDIAN ANNUAL SALARY
    Federal Government$88,060
    State Government$68,610
    Local Government$63,410
    Source: BLS

    Resources

    Frequently Asked Questions


    • How long does it take to become a criminal investigator?


      It typically takes 2-6 years to become a criminal investigator, depending on education and experience.


    • What degree is needed to be a criminal investigator? How much does a criminal investigator make?

      Many employers do not set education requirements for criminal investigators, though some specialized positions require an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree.


    • What requirements are there to become a criminal investigator?

      Criminal investigators need a combination of education and experience. They also need strong leadership, judgment, and communication skills.


    • Do you have to be a police officer to be a criminal investigator?

      No, though some criminal investigators choose to gain experience as police officers before advancing their careers.


    • What kind of tools do investigators use?

      Criminal investigators use various tools depending on their job requirements. All criminal investigators use various tools to collect and analyze evidence, make arrests, and submit paperwork.


    • What kind of schedule does an investigator work?

      Investigators usually work at least 40 hours a week and must be willing to work various shifts, including holidays, nights, and weekends. Overtime is common, as is being relocated. Travel may be required with little advance notice.


    • Are there any continuing education requirements for criminal investigators?

      Because technology constantly evolves, criminal investigators must keep up with the latest industry news and developments. However, the continuing education or training required generally depends upon the organization for which the investigator works.


    Professional Resources for Criminal Investigators

    ASSOCIATION OF STATE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE AGENCIES
    Professional association devoted to sharing ideas for better law enforcement and connecting industry leaders.

    FEDERAL CRIMINAL INVESTIGATORS ASSOCIATION
    Professional resource for Federal Criminal Investigators, organizing advocacy and educational efforts.

    IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT
    ICE’s guide to becoming a criminal investigator, including details about the application process and job responsibilities.

    INSPECTOR GENERAL CRIMINAL INVESTIGATOR ACADEMY
    Training, audit, and evaluation materials used by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

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