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Detective Job Description, Career as a Detective, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training High school plus training

Salary Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Detectives investigate, prevent, and solve crimes against people and property. Many work for police departments, while others are employed by business and industry. Detectives use modern techniques and tools, including computers and elaborate communications systems, to prevent and solve crimes ranging from shoplifting to mass murder.

Police detectives observe criminals' actions, develop sources of information, and assist in the arrest of criminals. They often work undercover. Dressed in civilian clothes while on duty, they go to places that a suspect is known to frequent so they get to know the suspect's habits and actions. For example, detectives assigned to a gambling case might spend time at a suspect's favorite bar, posing as other gamblers and trying to learn as much as possible about the case. The detectives might also find informers in the neighborhood who have information about the suspect. Having gathered enough evidence against the suspect, the detectives can make the arrest with the help of police reinforcements.

Some detectives work for private detective agencies or individual clients. They are often former police officers, although some are trained by the private agencies themselves. Because they are not part of the police force, they have no power to make arrests. Private investigators gather information from police sources, interview witnesses, and observe suspects. Lawyers and other companies hire investigators to gather information for court trials and to investigate fraud, the passing of bad checks, and other matters. Many insurance companies hire private detectives to investigate insurance claims. Parents may hire them to locate missing children.

Some private detectives work as bodyguards for people who are in personal danger. Store detectives guard against customer shoplifting and employee theft, while bouncers ensure that order is maintained in restaurants, nightclubs, and other places of entertainment. House detectives, or hotel detectives, protect patrons from disturbances and evict troublemakers.

Education and Training Requirements

High school diplomas, or the equivalent, are required for both police and private detectives. High school courses in English, science, math, social science, and physical education provide good preparation for the field. Foreign languages, journalism, and typing are also helpful. An increasing number of police departments require a year or two of college coursework, including classes in police science, criminology, and law.

Many detectives work for police departments, investigating criminals' actions, gathering facts for cases, observing suspects, and assisting in arrests. (Frank H. Conlon/Getty Images News/Getty Images.)

Police detectives start as police officers. Applicants for positions as police officers usually must be at least twenty-one years old, meet certain height and weight requirements, and be in good physical condition. After they have demonstrated that they have the skills necessary for detective work, they may be assigned to detective duty on a probationary basis. Some police departments require that detectives pass an exam.

Most police detectives are trained for six weeks to several months, depending on the program. Those who successfully complete the training program will probably be assigned to detective work permanently. They may be required to take refresher courses periodically to update their skills and techniques.

Because many private detectives are former police detectives, their education and training requirements are similar to those of police detectives. Private detectives also learn skills on the job from experienced private detectives.

In some states, private detectives must be licensed and participate in specially designed training programs. Each state requires a firearm permit.

Getting the Job

Job seekers can apply directly to police departments to take the police department entrance exam. Private detectives with credentials can apply to detective agencies, hotels, restaurants, law firms, manufacturing firms, and department stores.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Skilled and experienced police detectives can advance to chief of detectives or chief of police. Private detectives can advance to senior positions in detective agencies or become supervisors of security or detective staffs in private companies. Good detectives can start their own detective agencies.

The employment outlook for detectives is very good. Although job opportunities in police forces will be limited, openings in the private investigation field will grow faster than the average for all jobs through 2014. Companies, hotels, and restaurants increasingly use private detectives to protect their own and their customers' property. Investigators who specialize in Internet crimes, such as identity theft, spamming, e-mail harassment, and illegal downloading of copyrighted materials, will have many job opportunities.

Working Conditions

Detectives' work may be exciting and dangerous or routine and safe, depending on their assignments. Police detectives investigating narcotics smugglers may be exposed to the threat of physical violence or death. On the other hand, private detectives working as security guards may only check employee identification cards and handle routine complaints. The work of most detectives falls between these two extremes.

Detectives often work irregular hours, including nights and weekends. Although they may have to work more than forty hours a week on certain cases, they are generally given time off to compensate for their overtime.

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries for detectives vary widely and depend on experience, location, and the responsibilities of the job. In 2004 the median salary of police detectives was $53,990 per year, with the top ten percent earning more than $86,010 per year. The median salary of private detectives was $32,110 per year. The most experienced, successful private detectives earned more than $58,470 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

National Association of Legal Investigators
908 Twenty-first St.
Sacramento, CA 95814-3118
(916) 441-5522

National Association of Police Officers
750 First St. NE, Ste. 920
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 842-4420

Detectives may receive benefits such as paid sick leave and vacations, life and health insurance, and pensions. Detectives who run their own agencies must provide their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service