Detectives Jobs / Careers


School Subjects:

  • English
  • History
  • Govt.

Personal Skills:

  • Leadership/management
  • Scientific/technical

Work Environment:

  • Indoors and outdoors
  • One location with travel

Min. Education Level:

  • High school diploma


  • $18,000 to $30,000 to $40

Certification or Licensing:

  • Required by all U.S. states


  • Faster than the average


Detectives are almost always plainclothes investigators who gather difficult- to-obtain information on criminal activity and other subjects. They conduct interviews and surveillance, locate missing persons and criminal suspects, examine records, and write detailed reports. Some make arrests and take part in raids.


The United States inherited much of its law enforcement tradition from England. During the early history of the United States, criminal investigation was often handled by bounty hunters, sometimes called stipendiary police or “thief-takers”. These early detectives were paid a reward or fee by governments, private individuals, or businesses (such as insurance companies) for apprehending suspected criminals or returning stolen property. Many were petty criminals themselves.

The early 19th century saw growing social unrest and criminal activity in the United States as the country moved from an agrarian to an industrialized, urban economy. By the mid-1800s the upsurge in crime led to public calls for greater government action. The first police department in the United States was formed in New York City in 1844. Before long many cities and towns across the country also established organized police forces, including special investigative divisions. The investigation of crimes, however, was still commonly handled by stipendiary police and thief takers. Although police departments were created with the hope of reducing crime, numerous scandals within their own ranks soon erupted. Corruption within local police departments was a continual problem and by the early 1900s became a motivating cause for police reforms and for the establishment of state police agencies, including state investigative divisions.

Also notable during the 19th century was the growth of private investigative firms. Probably the most famous was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, formed by Allan Pinkerton in the early 1850s. The agency became famous for its ability to apprehend train robbers, kidnappers, thieves, and forgers. Unlike stipendiary police and thief takers, who were often viewed as criminals, agents of Pinkerton’s firm had a reputation for honesty and integrity. The company’s reputation, along with Pinkerton’s rejection of rewards in favor of a set daily fee for his agents, helped establish professional standards for detective work.

In 1865 the U.S. Secret Service was formed. Although later associated with the protection of the president and other officials, the secret service was created to investigate counterfeit money Another federal agency, the Bureau of Investigation (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI), was created in 1908 by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt. It began by investigating criminal activity on government property, crimes by government officials, antitrust cases, and numerous fraudulent schemes.

In the 20th century the federal government established a number of other investigative agencies. During Prohibition thousands of detectives were employed by the Treasury Department to enforce the government ban on alcoholic beverages as well as to investigate the escalating crime surrounding the sale of liquor. Today, narcotics squad detectives, employed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, are charged with a similar duty

The field of criminal investigation has been revolutionized by advances in technology Of great impact was the use of fingerprinting for the identification and detection of criminals. Fingerprinting began to be widely used by police departments in the early 1900s. Methods of analyzing bloodstains, saliva, and hair and skin traces, as well as precise ways of matching up various inorganic substances, such as paint and cloth fibers, have also aided detectives. More recently voice printing and the genetic technique of DNA printing have shown promise for more sophisticated detection.

The Job

The job of a police detective begins after a crime has been committed. Uniformed police officers are usually the first to be dispatched to the scene of a crime, however, and it is police officers who are generally required to make out the initial crime report. This report is often the material with which detective begins an investigation.

Detectives may also receive help early on from other members of the police department. Evidence technicians are sometimes sent immediately to the scene of a crime to comb the area for physical evidence. This step is important because most crime scenes contain physical evidence that could link a suspect to the crime. Fingerprints are the most common physical piece of evidence, but other clues, such as broken locks, broken glass, and foot prints, as well as blood, skin, or hair traces, are also useful. If there is a suspect on the scene, tom clothing or any scratches, cuts, and bruises are noted. Physical evidence may then be tested by specially trained crime lab technicians.

It is after this initial stage that the case is assigned to a police detective. Police detectives may be assigned as many as two or three cases a day, and having 30 cases to handle at one time is not unusual. Because there is only a limited amount of time, an important part of a detectives’ work is to deter mine which cases have the greatest chance of being solved. The most serious offenses or those in which there is considerable evidence and obvious leads tend to receive the highest priority. All cases, however, are given at least a routine follow-up investigation.

Police detectives have numerous means of gathering additional information. For example, they contact and interview victims and witnesses, familiarize themselves with the scene of the crime and places where a suspect may spend time, and conduct surveillance operations. Detectives sometimes have informers who provide important leads. Because detectives must often work undercover, they wear ordinary clothes, not police uniforms. Also helpful are existing police files on other crimes, on known criminals, and on people suspected of criminal activity If sufficient evidence has been collected, the police detective will arrest the suspect, sometimes with the help of uniformed police officers.

Once the suspect is in custody, it is the job of the police detective to con duct an interrogation. Questioning the suspect may reveal new evidence and help determine whether the suspect was involved in other unsolved crimes. Before finishing the case, the detective must prepare a detailed written report. Detectives are sometimes required to present evidence at the trial of the suspect.

Narcotics squad detectives, officially called DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) special agents, have similar duties as police detectives, but their focus is on violators of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Among the duties of a narcotics squad detective are investigating major drug cases, conducting surveillance, operating undercover in drug activities, and apprehending suspects. They also confiscate drug supplies and assets gained by drug trafficking, write detailed reports, and testify in court.

Criminal investigation is just one area in which private investigators are involved. Some specialize, for example, in finding missing persons, while others may investigate insurance fraud, gather information on the back ground of persons involved in divorce or child custody cases, administer lie detection tests, debug offices and telephones, or offer security services. Cameras, video equipment, tape recorders, and lock picks are used in compliance with legal restrictions to obtain necessary information. Some private investigators work for themselves, but many others work for detective agencies or businesses. Clients include private individuals, corporations concerned with theft, insurance companies suspicious of fraud, and lawyers who want information for a case. Whoever the client, the private investigator is usually expected to provide a detailed report of the activities and results of the investigation.


High School

Because detectives work on a wide variety of cases, if you are interested in this field you are encouraged to take a diverse course load. English, American history business law, government, psychology sociology chemistry and physics are suggested, as are courses in journalism, computers, and a foreign language. The ability to type is often needed. To become a police detective, you must first have experience as a police officer. Hiring requirements for police officers vary but most departments require at least a high school diploma.

Postsecondary Training

In some police departments a college degree may be necessary for some or all positions. Many colleges and universities offer courses or programs in police science, criminal justice, or law enforcement. Newly hired police officers are generally sent to a police academy for job training.

After gaining substantial experience in the department—usually about three to live years—and demonstrating the skills required for detective work, a police officer may he promoted to detective. In some police departments, candidates must first take a qualifying exam. For new detectives there is usually a training program, which may last from a few weeks to several months.

Narcotics squad detectives are required to have a college degree, usually with at least a B average. Only U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 34 are considered. Candidates must be in excellent shape and have uncorrected vision no worse than 20/200 in both eyes (corrected to at least 20/40 in one and 20/20 in the other). All candidates are required to undergo an extensive background check. Experience in the military law enforcement, a foreign language, navigation and aviation, computers, electronics, or accounting is helpful.

Private detective agencies usually do not hire individuals without previous experience. A large number of private investigators are former police officers. Those with no law enforcement experience who want to become private investigators can enroll in special private investigation schools, although these do not guarantee qualification for employment. A college degree is an admissions requirement at some private investigation schools. These schools teach skills essential to detective work, such as how to lift and develop fingerprints, pick locks, test for human blood, investigate robberies, identify weapons, and take pictures. The length of these programs and their admissions requirements vary considerably Some are correspondence programs, while others offer classroom instruction and an internship at a detective agency Experience can also be gained by taking classes in law enforcement, police science, or criminal justice at a college or university.

Certification or Licensing

Licensing for private investigators varies from state to state, but in general applicants must pass a written examination and file a bond. Depending on the state, applicants may also need to have a minimum amount of experience, either as a police officer or as an apprentice under a licensed private investigator. An additional license is sometimes required for carrying a gun.

In almost all large cities the hiring of police officers must follow local civil service regulations. In such cases candidates generally must be at least 21 years old, U.S. citizens, and within the locally prescribed height and weight limits. Other requirements include 20/20 corrected vision and good hearing. Background checks are often done.

The civil service hoard usually gives both a written and physical examination. The written test is intended to measure a candidate mental aptitude for police work, while the physical examination focuses on strength, dexterity, and agility.

Other Requirements

Among the most important personal characteristics helpful for detectives are an inquisitive mind, good observation skills, a keen memory and well-developed oral and written communication skills. The large amount of physical activity involved requires that detectives be in good shape. An excellent moral character is especially important.


There are few means of exploring the field of detective work, and actual experience in the field prior to employment is unlikely. Some police departments, however, do hire teenagers for positions as police trainees and interns. If you are interested in becoming a detective, you should talk with your school guidance counselor, your local police department, local private detective agencies, a private investigation school, or a college or university offering police science, criminal justice, or law enforcement courses. In addition, the FBI operates an Honors Internships Program for undergraduate and graduate students that exposes interns to a variety of investigative techniques.


There are more than 250,000 detectives in the United States. A large percentage of these work for police departments or other government agencies, such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 1998, approximately 61,000 detectives worked as private investigators, employed either for them selves, for a private detective firm, or for a business.

Starting Out

If you arc interested in becoming a detective, you should contact your local police department, the civil service office or examining board, or private detective agencies in your area to determine hiring practices and any special requirements. Newspapers may list available jobs. If you earn a college degree in police science, criminal justice, or law enforcement, you may benefit from your institution’s placement or guidance office. Some police academies accept candidates not sponsored by a police department, and for some people this may be the best way to enter police work. To apply for a position as a narcotics squad detective, contact the local office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or the national office in Washington, DC.


Advancement within a police department may depend on several factors, such as job performance, length of service, formal education and training courses, and special examinations. Large city police departments, divided into separate divisions with their own administrations, often provide greater advancement possibilities.

Because of the high dropout rate for private investigators, those who manage to stay in the field for more than five years have an excellent chance for advancement. Supervisory and management positions exist, and some private investigators start their own agencies.


Police detectives in supervisory positions earned average annual salaries of $48,700 in 1998, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The lowest 10 percent earned $28,780 or less, while the highest 10 percent earned over $84,710 annually Compensation generally increases considerably with experience. Police departments generally offer better than average benefits, including health insurance, paid vacation, sick days, and pension plans. Starting salaries of narcotics squad detectives generally range from $22,000 to $35,000, depending on the candidate previous experience.

The salary range for private Investigators is much greater. New detectives commonly earn from $10 to $12 an hour, although other compensation, such as depreciation payments for automobile use and reimbursement for gasoline, may he offered. Private investigators who are self-employed have the potential for making much greater salaries. Hourly fees of $50 to $150 and even more, excluding expenses, are possible. Detectives who work for an agency may receive benefits, such as health insurance, but self-employed investigators must provide their own.

Work Environment

The working conditions of a detective are diverse. Almost all of them work out of an office, where they may consult with colleagues, interview witnesses, read documents, or contact people on the telephone.

Their assignments bring detectives to a wide range of environments. Interviews at homes or businesses may be necessary Traveling is also common. Rarely do jobs expose a detective to possible physical harm or death, but detectives are more likely than most people to place themselves in a dangerous situation.

Schedules for detectives are often irregular, and overtime, as well as night and weekend hours, may be necessary. At some police departments and detective agencies, overtime is compensated with additional pay or time off.

Although the work of a detective is portrayed as exciting in popular culture, the job has its share of monotonous and discouraging moments. For example, detectives may need to sit in a car for many hours waiting for a suspect to leave a building entrance only to find that the suspect is not there. Even so, the great variety of cases usually makes the work interesting.


The employment outlook for police detectives is expected to increase faster than the average for all other occupations through 2008. U.S. Department of Labor estimates call for an increase of approximately 90,000 detectives, but this number also includes police officers and special agents. The number of new jobs will depend greatly on the level of government spending for law enforcement initiatives. Many openings will likely result from police detectives retiring or leaving their departments for other reasons, job openings for narcotics squad detectives are expected to continue attracting a large number of applicants.

The employment outlook for private investigators is also predicted to be about as fast as the average, although it is important to keep in mind that law enforcement or comparable experience is often required for employment. The use of private investigators by insurance firms, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses is on the rise. An area of particular growth is the investigation of the various forms of computer fraud.

For More Information

For information on the careers of private investigators, contact:

National Association of Investigative Specialists

PO Box 33244

Austin, TX 78764

Tel: 512-719-3595


American Federation of Police and Concerned Citizens

3801 Biscayne Boulevard

Miami, FL 33137

Tel: 305-573-0070

For information on employment opportunities, contact:

U.S. Department of Justice

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

P0 Box 28083

Washington, DC 20038-8083

Tel: 202-307-7977

Web: http://www.usdoj gov/dea

Contact the IACP for Information about careers in law enforcement:

International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

515 North Washington Street

Alexandria, VA 22314-2357

Tel: 703-836-6767


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