How To Become a Detective (Plus FAQs)

Updated April 26, 2023

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Becoming a law enforcement detective takes experience, dedication and a mixture of hard and soft skills like communication, interpersonal and investigative skills. Detectives may also work long hours, taking on responsibilities to solve criminal cases and protect communities. If you're considering a career in detective work, there may be specific requirements for your state or local jurisdiction.

In this article, we discuss what a detective does and how to become a detective, then we answer frequently asked questions about detective work.

What does a detective do?

A detective is a law enforcement specialist who investigates crimes, locates missing persons, arrests suspects and helps prosecutors gather evidence for court cases. They usually work for public law enforcement groups, such as police departments, sheriff's offices or government investigative agencies. Some may work as private investigators (PIs) for private investigation agencies rather than a government employer. Common duties include:

  • Investigating criminal activity and promoting crime prevention

  • Questioning witnesses and suspects and filing appropriate documentation for police records

  • Reviewing records, videos or other evidence that might reflect illegal activity

  • Conducting or supervising a crime scene search

  • Communicating with crime victims regarding arrests and required court-hearing information

  • Testifying in criminal court cases

  • Performing patrol, emergency and routine tasks within assigned jurisdictions

Law enforcement detectives and private investigators often have similar tasks with one key difference. Individuals or companies hire private investigators, while detectives are civil service employees responsible for preventing and investigating crimes. Private investigators often collaborate with law enforcement detectives to gather and confirm the facts of a case.

Related: Detective vs. Investigator: What's the Difference?

How to become a detective

Becoming a detective usually requires a college degree and specific training set by the state, county or city jurisdiction where you desire to work. Here's some key information about the requirements to fulfill to become a detective:

1. Attend police academy training

All police detectives are experienced law enforcement officerspolice academy training is a requirement. Entry-level police training usually takes between five and eight months and involves both physical components, such as endurance, strength and weapons training, and classroom instruction on topics like ethics, investigation and community policing. 

Many states also require law enforcement detectives and private investigators to have two- or four-year college degrees. Some states require an associate degree or higher in criminal justice, forensics or a related field. Other states may only require a high school diploma and a certain amount of experience working in law enforcement. Advanced degrees and certificates are rarely a requirement, but they can help you compete for promotions.

2. Enhance your skillset

Some of the most important skills for aspiring detectives to develop include:

  • Evidence collection

  • Interviewing

  • Basic human psychology

  • Active listening

  • Critical thinking

  • Research

  • Surveillance

  • Decision-making

  • Problem-solving

  • Emotional intelligence

Working as a detective also requires advanced investigation skills, so it's beneficial to pursue a role in an investigation unit of your police department. You could work in cybercrime, homicide, fraud or missing persons to gain relevant experience.

Related: Detective Job Requirements

3. Build law enforcement experience

After you've completed the main requirements of your state or agency, you can build your law enforcement experience. Some states and law enforcement agencies may require up to five years of documented work experience, while others may only request two to three years of experience plus a degree.

Here are some entry-level law enforcement jobs that may help you develop key skills. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit

  • Border patrol agent: Border patrol agents enforce immigration laws and may investigate instances of drug smuggling and terrorism. These agents earn a national average salary of up to $52,168 per year.

  • Correctional officer: These officers work in correctional facilities, supervising residents and securing the facility. Correctional officers typically earn up to $55,423 per year.

  • Crime analyst: Crime analysts review data, such as police reports, mapping data and police logs to recognize patterns in criminal and law enforcement activity. They earn an average salary of between $40,836 to $98,496 per year.

4. Apply for a detective position

While departments in different areas may have slightly different requirements for transitioning from a police officer to a detective position, here are some key components to the application process:

  • Background check and drug testing: Most departments require aspiring detectives to have a background free of criminal charges or illegal drug use. Expect to complete a criminal background check and a drug test.

  • National Detective and Investigative Test (NDIT): Many states may require detectives to possess a state license or certification, which may often mean passing the National Detective and Investigative Test (NDIT). Research your jurisdiction or agency requirements regarding licenses or other credentials.

  • Physical fitness test: Police departments usually require you to be physically strong and agile. You may undergo a physical fitness test, which can include an obstacle course and basic exercises like running and push-ups.

  • Psychological evaluation: The police psychological exam generally gauges your emotional and mental fitness for the position by testing qualities like integrity and judgment. You can expect to fill out a questionnaire and complete an interview with a psychologist.

Related: Top Interview Questions for Detectives

Detective specialties

As you consider a career as a law enforcement detective, there are several areas for expertise, including:

  1. Juvenile detectives work with cases that involve children and teenagers, either as suspects or victims, often collaborating with other government agencies such as Child Protective Services (CPS).

  2. Commercial detectives investigate cases involving commercial losses, such as instances of automobile theft, fraud and robbery.

  3. Homicide detectives investigate deaths, confirm when and if there is foul play involved and track down suspects.

  4. Technical investigators or cybercrime detectives investigate computer hackers and other online crimes, including online financial crimes.

  5. Narcotics detectives monitor drug activity and gather evidence to arrest drug trafficking suspects.

  6. Forensic detectives analyze physical and digital evidence from crime scenes.

  7. Fraud detectives investigate identity theft, forged checks, fraudulent workers' compensation claims and other money-related crimes.

  8. Special victims' detectives investigate child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, sexual assaults or exploitation.

  9. Robbery detectives investigate bank robberies, serial robberies and extortion. Robberies involving federal jurisdiction may include working with the FBI.

  10. Gang detectives investigate violent street gangs' illegal activities such as drug, firearm, robbery and property crimes.

  11. The detective support and vice division may handle serious crimes such as human trafficking, hate crimes and missing persons.

Read more: 10 Types of Detectives (With Salaries and Job Outlook)

Detective career path opportunities

Working as a detective comes with significant challenges and rewards. Investigating cases often involves months of meticulous research, surveillance and evidence analysis. There are also strict ethical guidelines for detectives, as it's critical that they assess all evidence objectively and make just decisions that align with department standards. This dynamic career can also be rewarding, as it presents the opportunity to help people facing extremely challenging circumstances, such as identity theft, threats of violence or missing family members.

Read more: Pros and Cons of Being a Detective (Plus Helpful Tips)

Frequently asked questions

Is being a detective dangerous?

Working as a detective can come with a level of risk, and the ability to perform in dangerous situations can be critical to succeeding in the role. Even with the risk that detectives and law enforcement officers may face, they have training in the proper protocol for dealing with risky scenarios, such as threats of violence.

Do detectives arrest criminals?

Detectives may arrest criminals when the evidence supports it, but they rarely make arrests as part of routine patrols. Detectives may collect and analyze evidence from a crime scene and only make an arrest if the evidence clearly connects to a specific suspect.

Are there career advancement opportunities for detectives?

Police detectives can continue to advance in rank within their agencies, eventually becoming deputy chiefs or chiefs of police. Criminal investigators can also advance in their careers, some branching into cybersecurity or government roles including those with investigative agencies.

Related Articles

What Is a Private Investigator? (Plus Salary)

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