21 Strategies on How to Become a Homicide Detective

How to become a homicide detective: Living the life of a homicide detective is not as easy as it looks in your favorite crime drama. Being a good detective requires an extreme intellect, excellent communication, and a variety of other skills. Homicide detectives deal with deaths under a variety of circumstances including murder, suicide, manslaughter, and officer involved shootings. For many law enforcement professionals, it takes years of hard work to achieve the position. Luckily, if you want to become a homicide detective, you can accomplish your goal by putting in the work and getting the right education and experience.

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How to become a homicide detective

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If you’re interested in becoming a detective, there are several specializations you can consider based on the types of cases you want to solve. Although this can be a challenging career path, many law enforcement professionals choose to become homicide detectives to help victims’ loved ones and protect the public from criminal activity. Learning how to become a homicide detective can help you determine if this career path suits your interests, talents and career goals.

In this article, we explain what a homicide detective is and how to become one, explore their average salary, job outlook and skills and share frequently asked questions and answers about being a homicide detective.

1. What is a homicide detective?

A homicide detective, also called a homicide investigator, is a law enforcement officer who specializes in solving crimes that result in a person’s death. They may work for city, county, state or federal police departments, where they collaborate with patrol officers and forensics professionals to determine when and how these crimes occurred. They also communicate with witnesses, family members, friends and potential suspects to gather information about the sequence of events and who was involved. Homicide detectives often testify to their findings during court proceedings to provide the judge, jury and legal teams with important information about the case.

2. Graduate high school. Most precincts require you to be a uniformed officer before becoming a detective. A high school diploma or GED is required to begin working as a uniformed officer. Some precincts will even expect additional education or specialized police training on top of your high school education. Check with the precinct that you want to work for to see their education requirements.

How to become a homicide detective

3. Graduate from the police academy. In some jurisdictions, you’ll complete a police course at a local community college or state-sponsored police class before applying for a job as an officer. In other precincts, you’ll apply to become an officer first and then get sponsored by the district to complete academy training. Call the precinct or do a search online to see what the procedure is in your area and apply to the academy.

4. Complete a four-year degree in a related subject. While being a uniformed officer may only require a high school diploma or equivalent degree, to become a homicide detective it’s likely you’ll have to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. Choose a major in a related field of study such as criminal justice, criminal administration, law enforcement, criminology, police science, forensics, or crime scene investigation.

  • Other useful courses include law classes, computer classes, and police studies classes.
  • Some of the best universities for criminal justice include the University of Pennsylvania, the Northeastern University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the University of California at Irvine, and the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
  • Federal agencies like the FBI and DEA require a four-year degree.

5. Continue your police education as you work as an officer. Education is a career-long endeavor for most law enforcement officers and is a requirement in many police districts. Classes in new technical systems will provide you with additional knowledge that you may need to solve a homicide. Also, understanding of new and cutting edge forensic technology will aid you in your job.

  • You can take additional classes in communication, cultural diversity, technical studies, legal studies, and skill development.

How to become a homicide detective

6. Pass the detective exam. The most critical part of being promoted as a field officer to detective is passing the detective exam. While the test will differ depending on the precinct, tests like The National Detective/Investigator Test is used by many different police precincts across the country.

  • Typically a detective exam will include questions in areas such as criminal investigations, interviewing techniques, and relevant case law.
  • Your district sometimes provides a study guide or preparation courses.

7. Complete field training after the academy. While the police academy will teach you the basic foundations of being a law enforcement officer, it’s not enough to teach you the skills you’ll need on the job day-to-day. Field training is a crucial part of becoming a police officer and detective.

8. Get experience as a patrol or beat officer. Most precincts get their homicide detectives by promoting within, so getting experience as a uniformed officer is a must in most circumstances.  Also, the experience that you’re able to get on the street will help with your communication and intuition.

How to become a homicide detective

9. Investigate other types of crime. Since homicide is such a heinous crime, usually the best detectives fill the position. You’ll have a much better chance of getting a promotion to homicide detective if you’ve worked in a related investigative field such as auto theft, robbery, and larceny. Before applying to the homicide unit, consider becoming an investigator in one of these units.

10. Show enthusiasm to pursue investigative work to your superiors. To achieve the promotion to detective or investigator, it’s required that you’re professional, smart, and have a proven track record. While some officers thrive in public settings, others seem to be more inclined to investigative work. Always take opportunities to investigate and solve crimes in your precinct.

  • Promotion to detective will also require references from your superiors, so make sure that you show your enthusiasm and willingness to be a homicide detective.

11. Apply for a promotion to the homicide unit. If you’ve passed the detective test and meet the physical and mental requirements to become a detective, you can apply for a promotion to investigator or detective. Many precincts will require that you have a couple of years of experience before applying to the position. Go to your commanding officer and talk to them about officially applying for a promotion. They can provide you with the paperwork and have a conversation about the likelihood of you getting the job.

  • The Sacramento, California Police Department requires an 18-month probation period, followed by at least two years of service before you can apply for a promotion to detective.
  • In Washington D.C. officers need at least two years of service and must undergo specialized training.

How to become a homicide detective

12. Have excellent communication skills. Interpersonal communication skills are one of the most important tools for a successful homicide detective. Much of your job is spent talking to people, whether it be the families of a victim, a murder suspect, or other law enforcement officers. Effective communication combines many skills including the ability to completely listen to details, asserting yourself, and recognizing the emotions of the person you’re talking to. To become a better communicator, pay closer attention to what the person is saying both verbally and non-verbally, and stay in control of your emotions. In addition, be concise and complete with directions you give, and become better at being insightful to other people’s feelings and emotions.

  • Work on your communication skills by talking to a diverse group of people, and continually practice as a uniformed officer.
  • You may have to talk to grieving family members or an uncooperative murder suspect and have the ability to do both effectively.
  • Other than communicating, you’ll have to be good at understanding people’s motivations and perspectives.
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13. Possess good intuition and problem-solving skills. As a homicide investigator, you’ll have to make inferences and create leads based on evidence from a crime scene. The more experience you have, the more you’ll understand the basic principles of categorically different murders.

  • As a detective you’ll have to ascertain the truth from clues. These can include a knocked over chair, a broken window, the position of the victim, or other forensic evidence.
  • You must also have the ability to pay close attention to detail.

How to become a homicide detective

14. Maintain good organization. Create checklists for things that you need to do, or loose ends that you need to look into.  Having notes to reference back to and having your documents and evidence neatly organized will save you precious time.

  • Create different folders for new evidence and documents on your hard drive for each case.

15. Remain motivated, energetic, and prepare to put in long hours. While most homicide detectives have set hours like any other job, most are also on call 24/7. As a homicide detective, you’ll be expected to arrive at a crime scene at any time day or night.  Be prepared to change your sleeping schedule especially and prepare family or friends for your erratic schedule.

  • Always remember the importance of your role and the closure that you give grieving families.
  • Make sure to allocate time with family and friends, so you don’t get burned out.

How to become a homicide detective

16. Apply for homicide detective roles

Once you’ve gained experience as a police officer, you may be eligible to become a homicide detective. The process a police department uses to hire law enforcement officers varies. In some jurisdictions, police departments promote current officers to homicide detective positions. In others, officers choose to apply for a homicide detective role when one becomes available. Consider asking a supervisor how the department where you work selects candidates for homicide detective roles. Then, you can inform them of your interest in a promotion or ask them to notify you when the position opens so you can apply.

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17. Homicide detective skills

Here are some skills that may help you succeed as a homicide detective:

  • Objectivity: Working as a homicide detective involves sensitive circumstances that some people may find challenging to become involved with, so maintaining objectivity is an important skill for this job.

  • Critical thinking: Investigations often involve examining many complex details, and homicide detectives use critical thinking skills to understand these details and solve crimes.

  • Ethics: Law enforcement officers in this position abide by strict legal standards and professional standards, so maintaining an ethical approach to their jobs is critical to succeeding in the role.

  • Crime scene management: Homicide detectives work with other professionals in the field, such as forensics specialists, to inspect, manage and limit access to crime scenes.

  • Investigation techniques: Every crime is different, so homicide detectives choose from several investigative techniques when determining how to manage a case efficiently.

  • Legal procedure knowledge: Law enforcement officers of all types have a comprehensive understanding of local laws and procedures for enforcing them.

How to become a homicide detective

18. What are some traits of an effective homicide detective?

Many traits can make you an effective homicide detective, but there are certain characteristics that are common among people in this field. Homicide detectives are often curious problem solvers who enjoy a challenge and consider themselves more logical than emotional. They may feel confident performing multiple tasks at once and keep their work organized so they can take a structured approach to performing their duties. They believe in upholding the law and often have a passion for helping others.

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19. What are some of the primary duties of a homicide detective?

The specific duties of a homicide detective may vary depending on where they work and the types of cases they handle. Some general responsibilities for this role include:

  • Examining evidence

  • Interviewing witnesses

  • Serving warrants

  • Arresting suspects

  • Collaborating with other first responders

  • Preparing court documentation

  • Testifying in court

How to become a homicide detective

20. Is it safe to work as a homicide detective?

Like many career paths, there are some potential risks involved in working as a homicide detective. Although crime scenes and those involved in crimes may present a danger, detectives undergo specialized training as law enforcement officers so they know how to protect themselves and others from threats. They also learn methods for communicating with those involved to prevent potential safety issues and resolve conflicts tactfully.

21. What type of work schedule do homicide detectives have?

As first responders, law enforcement professionals often work non-typical hours to ensure police are available to the community at all hours of the day and night, including weekends and holidays. Some homicide detectives may work primarily during regular working hours, but others may work night shifts or have varying schedules. Many homicide detectives are also on call during certain hours, which means they don’t have to report for work unless an incident occurs that requires their expertise.

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