How to Become a Homicide Detective: Career Guide

How to Become a Homicide Detective: Career Guide

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Homicide detectives perform crucial work in law enforcement, from investigating suspicious deaths, examining crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, and pursuing suspects to responding to traffic accidents and rendering aid in crucial situations. These professionals form a major part of any police department and work for local, state, and federal agencies. As a homicide detective, you will rely on everything from your communication skills to your inductive reasoning to crack a case.  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for police officers and detectives will grow by about 5% between 2019-2029, which is on par with the national average for all occupations. The median pay for detectives, on the other hand, was well above average at about $86,940 per year as of 2020, according to the BLS. 

Want to know more about becoming a homicide detective? Read on to learn more about how to enter this field, including the education requirements, required skills, on-the-job training, and potential salary levels for detective jobs in criminal justice.

What Is a Homicide Detective?

While TV and movies offer a highly dramatized version of murder investigations, real-life detectives perform their day-to-day tasks with fewer theatrics than you might expect. You know the job of a homicide detecitve is to solve murder case, but what you might not realize is there are various aspects of a homicide case the detective is responsible for. 

Some detectives work on new cases, while others try to track down resolutions to cold cases. In general, their duties include:

  • Gathering evidence
  • Processing crime scenes
  • Canvassing for witnesses 
  • Interviewing witnesses, victims, and first responders
  • Corroborating witness statements
  • Conducting online research
  • Apprehending suspects
  • Preparing evidence for court
  • Testifying at trials

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What Does a Homicide Detective Do?

The job of a homicide detective most commonly begins at a crime scene, where they work alongside forensic specialists to examine evidence. Detectives also spend a significant amount of time interviewing witnesses to form an educated guess about how a homicide happened and who may be responsible.

After identifying suspects, detectives make arrests and perform interrogations to gather further information about a murder. If a case goes to trial, they may assist the prosecution by testifying in court; this process can include describing their investigation, any relevant evidence gathered, and the behavior of suspects.

Like most careers in law enforcement, homicide detectives can work highly irregular hours that often vary based on the circumstances of a case. Detectives must be prepared to work more than 40 hours per week, and overtime is common. Homicide work can be both mentally and physically demanding.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is being a homicide detective dangerous?

Homicide detectives face inherent dangers due to the nature of their work, and the career can be physically demanding and stressful. Police officers and detectives face some of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries compared to all other occupations, and detectives must be prepared to use deadly force if the need arises. Homicide detectives also face significant mental and emotional strain from the stress of dealing with violent crime and death.

Is homicide detective a good career?

A career as a homicide detective offers strong salary potential and job security, and detectives of all types can expect to earn a median annual salary of about $86,940. The work can be challenging and physically dangerous, but detectives also get offered generous benefits and have the ability to retire at a far younger age than they would in most other career paths.

What type of schedule do homicide detectives work?

Homicide detectives often work irregular schedules due to the unique demands of a role in law enforcement. Almost all detectives work full time, and overtime hours are very common. Detectives may need to be on call at any time of day, given that criminal activity rarely follows a conventional schedule. Certain tasks, such as conducting surveillance of suspects, may also need to take place at irregular hours.

How to Become a Homicide Detective

Get an education

Learning how to become a detective requires a knowledge of procedure, interrogation, and other related skills. While a college degree is typically not required to become a homicide detective, earning an associate or bachelor’s degree can help you advance through the ranks more easily. Investigators often earn degrees in law enforcement, criminal justice or a related subject. Many states also require candidates to undergo training at a police academy. 

Written communication skills are particularly crucial for homicide detectives. It may not be what comes to mind when you think about tracking a murder suspect, but communicating clearly in reports can make or break a case. And, you may eventually rely on the information in your written reports in court during trials. A focus on topics like forensics and science should be paired with English and communications courses to be prepared for detective work.  

Become a police officer

Almost all homicide detectives begin their careers as police officers before eventually being promoted to the rank of detective. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you will most likely have to attend a training academy that includes instruction in local, state, and constitutional law. You will also get some hands-on training and supervised experience in everything from traffic control to first aid and firearm use.  

Becoming an officer also requires you to pass a variety of tests and screening processes, including both written and physical exams, interviews, a psychological screening, and a criminal background check. You may also need to submit to polygraph and drug tests.

Gain on-the-job experience

Before becoming a detective, a police officer can pick up many of the most important skills through on-the-job training, including the essential principles of investigation, interviewing, and interrogation. Police officers often work closely with detectives, which offers a chance to observe and learn from experienced professionals. Through their work in the field, officers gain the skills needed to document details of cases, analyze evidence from crime scenes, and handle suspects.

While college and academy courses build essential skills in areas such as crime scene investigation, interrogation, and interviewing, officers must hone their skills through professional experience. After gaining enough experience, officers can apply to become a detective. Larger police departments may have sections specifically dedicated to investigating homicides.

Helpful Skills and Experience

While homicide detectives perform unique work with few professional analogues, they employ many of the same soft skills as workers in other industries, though commonly put to different uses.

Communication plays a vital role in police work, as detectives must communicate effectively with other law enforcement personnel, suspects, interview subjects, and the public. They must also be able to express their thoughts clearly in writing in order to document details about an investigation.

Along with communication skills, detectives need a strong sense of empathy to help them understand the perspectives of different people involved in a homicide investigation. Exercising empathy can make interview suspects more forthcoming and may also help detectives interrogate suspects more effectively.

A keen eye for detail can serve as one of the most useful tools for a homicide investigator. Detectives must pay close attention during crime scene investigations and be able to put together pieces of evidence to pick up details the rest of the public might normally overlook. They also need to pay close attention to suspects’ reactions when observing body language and other involuntary responses.

Homicide Detective Salaries

The BLS reports that police and detectives of all types earn a median annual salary of $63,380; however, the median annual salary for detectives is $81,920. As with almost any career, homicide detectives generally earn higher salaries with more experience. The BLS reports that the top 10% of police and detective earners make an annual median salary of $106,090.


The BLS projects jobs for police officers and detectives to grow 5% between 2018-2028, which is at pace with the national average for all careers. The necessities of public safety ensure that jobs for detectives will remain in demand, though the publicly funded nature of the job means demand for detectives may vary by location and state and local budgets.

Given the competitive nature of the field, departments often seek out detectives with specialized skills, such as military training or fluency in a second language.

Homicide Detective Average Annual Salaries by State

Detective salaries vary by state. Here are the median salaries for detectives and criminal investigators by states, according to the BLS

New Hampshire$84,240
New Jersey$106,120
New Mexico$80,010
New York$97,000
North Carolina$65,060
North Dakota$80,500
Rhode Island$88,990
South Carolina$62,240
South Dakota$71,350
West Virginia$91,710

Who Would Make a Good Homicide Detective?

If you want to become a homicide detective, you’ll need to learn to wear a lot of different hats. Being a homicide detective requires a confluence of many different skills and traits. Are you empathetic and detail oriented? Love to do research and talk to people? You’d be good at being a homicide detective if you’re a puzzle solver who also knows how to build a connection of trust with other people quickly. And, you must have some patience, both with the people in the field and with your career. You won’t enter law enforcement as a detective right away.  

What Other Law Enforcement Careers are There?

In addition to detective work, you might be interested in exploring other careers in law enforcement. Other protective service professions include:

  • Corrections officer
  • Bailiff
  • Private investigator
  • Crime scene investigator
  • Crime lab technician
  • Air marshal
  • FBI agent
  • Secret service agent
  • Deputy sheriff

Where Can You Earn a Criminal Justice Degree?

If you want to be a homicide detective, you may only need an associate’s degree and some experience in the force to qualify. An AA is a two-year program that gives you a foundational understanding of the criminal justice system and can prepare you for entry-level jobs in law enforcement. 

For jobs at the federal level, including working for the FBI, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a field like criminal justice and perhaps also a master’s degree in criminal justice or another related field. These programs are generally available from four-year colleges (both public and private). 

Can You Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice Online?

Yes, you can. You don’t have to study in person to earn a degree in criminal justice or a related degree. In fact, many of the best bachelor’s programs in criminal justice offer flexible online schedules and even part-time enrollment. This allows you to earn your degree while you work, raise a family, or tackle other important endeavors.

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