Police detectives have an enormous responsibility. They play a crucial role in strengthening public safety and facilitating justice. Whether they’re solving a crime or locating a missing person, their work can save lives, prevent further harm, and help bring a sense of closure to people.
If you want to pursue a career as a police detective, it’s important to consider the skills and education you’ll need for such an important job.
What Skills Do You Need as a Detective?
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Police detectives analyze and synthesize evidence from multiple sources, including witness statements and reports from a forensics lab. They evaluate the strength of a developing case, pinpoint and assess problems, and determine what to do next.
Attention to Details
A detail that initially seems insignificant may become an important part of a case. Detectives can’t be sloppy in their work and risk overlooking critical details. They also need to stay updated on all of the rules and regulations of their work.
Detectives often make quick decisions in the course of their job, such as whether or not to pursue a line of questioning. They need to make decisions rapidly even in high-pressure situations, and their choices must demonstrate good judgment, sound thinking, and integrity.
During the course of their job, detectives talk to witnesses and other relevant parties, interrogate suspects, and testify in court. They also interact with people who are experiencing strong emotions, such as grief and anger.
Written communication is another important part of the job. Detectives regularly write reports that must be clear and accurate.
Detectives must understand and control their own emotions, behave with patience, and figure out the right way to approach different people. They also need to defuse difficult situations and help restore peace.
What Degree Do You Need?
Starting as a Police Officer
Before you can work as a police detective, you need to become a police officer. The educational requirements for a police officer will generally be, at minimum, a high school diploma or its equivalent. However, a police department may also demand additional education or experience.
One example is the New York City Police Department. To be considered as a candidate for the NYPD, you need at least 60 college credits and a minimum grade point average of 2.0; the alternative is at least two years of active service in the U.S. military. Earning an associate’s degree is one way to gain the requisite number of college credits.
Because requirements for education and experience vary from one department to another, it’s important to check the specifics before applying. The hiring process will also involve a thorough background check and multiple examinations, including an entrance exam, a character assessment, a psychological evaluation, and a test of physical aptitude. Furthermore, you’ll need to complete a training course at a police academy.
From New Police Officer to Detective
After you become a police officer, you’ll usually need at least a few years of experience working as a uniformed patrol officer before you can apply to become a detective.
The police department will evaluate the strength of your candidacy in multiple ways. They’ll assess your performance as an officer so far, including whether or not you’ve received a promotion, earned a commendation, or shown any other special merits. They’ll likely require you to take an exam for the detective position, such as the National Detective/Investigator Test. Also, your education will play a critical role in making you a more competitive candidate.
To become a detective, you may need at least an associate’s degree. Even if it isn’t strictly required, it can give you an edge over other candidates. A bachelor’s degree can put you in an even stronger position. Some detectives even go on to obtain an advanced degree, or they enhance their career prospects by earning certifications in certain topics.
What should your education focus on? Police departments may look for college-level coursework or a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or a related field. Psychology, sociology, political science, and forensic science are also useful areas of study for furthering your career. In addition, you may benefit from learning a foreign language at a proficient level, improving your ability to communicate well with different communities.
When thinking about your career, consider specialties you may want to prepare yourself for, possibly through additional coursework, a double major, a certification, or an advanced degree. For example, let’s say you want to work for an investigative unit that specializes in digital crimes. Because so many crimes involve the use of computing devices and networks, it may help your career prospects to study computer science, digital forensics, or a related field.
Financial crimes are another example of a detective specialty. If you study accounting or finance, you may become a more desirable candidate for investigative units that specialize in fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, insider trading, and similar crimes.
Keep in mind that it can take a while for you to work in a specialty that you want. Much depends on the size, policies, and number of vacancies at your police department or agency. For example, if you’re hoping to work on homicides, you may not be assigned to those cases as a new detective. Your department may first want you to work on other kinds of cases and gain more experience and knowledge.
What Are Your Job Prospects as a Detective?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, police and detective jobs currently have a rate of growth that’s slower than average. However, there’s an average of 68,500 job openings in the field each year, because current police officers and detectives retire or switch occupations.
At this point, you may not be sure how you want your detective career to shape up. Regardless, investing in your education beyond the minimum requirements opens up a greater number of possibilities for you. A degree demonstrates various skills and personal qualities, including dedication, focus, and an aptitude for learning. It can also help your career advance with promotions and specialized work.