How to Become a Homicide Detective: Career Guide
Homicide detectives perform crucial work in law enforcement, such as investigating deaths caused by criminal activity, examining crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, and pursuing suspects. These professionals form a major part of any police department and work for local, state, and federal agencies.
Law enforcement is a demanding field, characterized by long hours, stressful work, and potentially unsafe working conditions. However, for those who desire to serve the public and use their intellect to solve crimes, working as a homicide detective can be a rewarding career path.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for police officers and detectives to grow 5% between 2018-2028, which is about the same as the national average for all occupations. Our guide offers a general overview of how to become a homicide detective, including education requirements, necessary skills, on-the-job training, and potential salary levels.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
While TV and movies offer a highly dramatized version of murder investigations, real-life detectives perform tasks familiar to most viewers: they interview witnesses, gather evidence, apprehend suspects, and assist in prosecution.
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 may have occurred.
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; like all law enforcement officers, detectives must be prepared for physical harm and the potential to use deadly force if necessary.
Steps to Become a Homicide Detective
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.
Become a Police Officer
Almost all homicide detectives begin their careers as police officers before eventually being promoted to the rank of detective. Becoming an officer requires applicants to pass a variety of tests and screening processes, including both written and physical exams, interviews, a psychological screening, and a criminal background check. Candidates may also need to submit to polygraph and drug tests.
The most significant requirement to become a homicide detective is on-the-job experience. 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.
Become a Detective
After gaining enough experience, officers can apply to become a detective. Larger police departments may have sections specifically dedicated to investigating homicides.
Homicide Detective Job Training
Aspiring detectives can often gain on-the-job training during college through internships and other hands-on learning opportunities, which offer the chance to work under close supervision at a police department or other law enforcement agency. While typically not required to become a detective, internships offer valuable professional experience and the opportunity to make professional connections in the field.
Before becoming detectives, police officers pick up many of their most important skills through on-the-job training, learning 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.
Law enforcement officers can also build professional skills by completing additional education and professional certification training. Often available through police departments, these training opportunities build specialized knowledge in areas such as interrogations and interviewing. Professional development results in an expanded toolkit for aspiring detectives, and completing training and certifications may make it easier to advance to the rank of detective.
Other 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 to crime scenes and 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.
Salary and Career Outlook
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.
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 among all 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 detectives of all types can expect to earn a median annual salary of $81,920. The work can be challenging and physically dangerous, but detectives also enjoy generous benefits and the ability to retire at a far younger age than most other career paths.
- What type of schedule do homicide detectives work?
- Homicide detectives may work irregular schedules due to the unique needs of law enforcement. Almost all detectives work full time, and overtime hours are very common. Detectives may need to be on call for shifts at any time of day, given that criminal activity rarely follows a conventional schedule. Certain tasks, such as conducting surveillance of suspects, may need to take place at irregular hours.