While police officers work in many different roles, all have the responsibility of serving and protecting the community. Some are beat cops, patrolling designated neighborhoods and watching for signs of criminal activity. Others, such as homicide detectives, are called out to investigate murders and bring criminals to justice.
If you’re interested in becoming a homicide detective, it’s important to know that it can be a challenging career. It requires keen critical thinking skills and strong emotional resilience as well as ethical decision-making. However, this career can also be incredibly rewarding. Homicide detectives protect their communities and help surviving family members find closure after the wrenching loss of a loved one.
What Do Homicide Detectives Do?
Before deciding to pursue a career as a homicide detective, it’s important to understand exactly what such a professional does daily. Homicide detectives are a crucial part of the criminal justice system and are exposed to some of the worst actions of human beings, including murders and other violent crimes.
The specific tasks of homicide detectives vary from one case to the next. However, they generally include the following:1
- Take control of the crime scene, prevent contamination and examine the victim
- Document the murder scene, recording all evidence before moving any items
- Canvass the area, looking for potential eyewitnesses and fleeing suspects
- Ensure the proper, legal treatment of suspects to prevent violations of their rights
- Review case files, analyze evidence reports from forensic lab technicians, interview witnesses and look for clues to solve the case
- Assist in the prosecution processes of cases that go to court
Some homicide units also specialize in solving cold cases, which are murder cases that have remained open for several years. Often, these cold cases are finally resolved through new DNA evidence. Other homicide detectives investigate potential suicides, fatal non-traffic-related accidents and deaths of suspects or inmates in custody.
What Are Important Skills and Characteristics of Homicide Detectives?
Homicide detectives must have a diverse range of skills and characteristics, which are continually refined as each detective gains experience over time. Two of the most important skills are critical thinking and problem-solving. Much like putting together a puzzle, solving a case requires the ability to analyze information and evidence.
Another important skill for detectives is the ability to communicate effectively and understand human behavior. Detectives often interview family members and associates of victims and suspects as well as the suspects themselves. A skilled detective must be able to read between the lines, sensing when interview subjects are holding back and encouraging them to share what they know.
Finally, an unwavering commitment to ethical decision-making, judgment and behavior is crucial for law enforcement officials of all kinds. Detectives and other officers are in positions of authority in the community, so it’s essential for them to remain committed to not abusing that power.
Is a Degree Required To Become a Homicide Detective?
While requirements vary in their details, the process of becoming a homicide detective often begins with a bachelor’s degree. Some police departments require a bachelor’s degree to apply to their police academy, although others require only a high school diploma. However, even when a degree is not required for patrol officers, it may be required to ascend to the role of homicide detective.
As for what degree program to choose, a degree in justice studies or criminal justice is recommended. A Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies will introduce you to the fundamentals of criminal and civil law, including the court system, the corrections system and the role of law enforcement. You’ll also explore topics in threat assessment and community planning.
Furthermore, a degree program in justice studies will teach you important skills beyond criminal justice. You’ll develop your critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. You’ll have opportunities to refine your communication and interpersonal skills and hone your understanding of servant leadership and ethical judgment. A bachelor’s degree program can do more than teach you what to think – it can teach you how to think in your field.
While earning a graduate degree isn’t necessary for becoming a homicide detective, earning a master’s in criminal justice or similar degree could give you a competitive edge to accelerate your promotion from officer to detective.
Are There Other Requirements for Becoming a Homicide Detective?
There is no uniform pathway to becoming a homicide detective. The process can vary from one state to the next and even from one police department to the next. In general, however, candidates must meet certain eligibility requirements before beginning their journey to this career.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next step is successful completion of a training program at a police academy in the state where you plan to work. Participating in a police academy will include a blend of classroom instruction, physical fitness and hands-on training.
In order to be accepted to a police academy, you’ll need to meet the minimum eligibility requirements. Some common eligibility requirements are as follows:
- Age: Aspiring officers must generally be at least 21 years of age. Some recruits are admitted to the police academy if they will turn 21 before graduation.
- Citizenship: Agencies typically require applicants to be United States citizens or permanent residents who have applied for citizenship.
- Residency: Most police agencies require aspiring officers to live within the jurisdiction.
- Education: While a high school diploma or a GED is generally the bare minimum, some agencies do require a bachelor’s degree.
- Driver’s license: Officers must be able to drive while on patrol and when responding to calls for help. You must have a valid license in good standing.
- Physical fitness: Each agency establishes its own minimum physical fitness requirements for entry to the police academy. Officers must be prepared for daily actions that call for physical fitness.
In addition to meeting these minimum requirements, aspiring homicide detectives must not have any disqualifiers that would prevent them from entering the academy and becoming officers. Like eligibility requirements, disqualifiers vary from one agency to the next. In general, some common disqualifiers include the following:
- Felony conviction
- Certain misdemeanor convictions
- Illegal drug use
- Dishonorable discharge from the military
- Poor driving record (including DUI/DWI)
- Past or current gang affiliations
- Poor credit history or history of financial problems
What Is the Demand for Homicide Detectives?
Unfortunately, crime is not expected to go away completely. Of course, officials constantly work to decrease the rate of violent crime, but crime rates are constantly changing.2
There will always be a demand for qualified detectives. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth rate for police officers and detectives is expected be about 5% from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the national average.3
If you’re ready to make a positive difference in your community by becoming a homicide detective, follow the path to your degree at Grand Canyon University. Earn your Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies online, then improve your career qualifications further by earning a Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Law Enforcement. Click on Request Info above to explore your future at GCU and learn more about how to become a homicide detective.
1Criminal Justice Career Studies, How to Become a Homicide Detective: Career Guide in April 2021
2NPR, Massive 1-Year Rise in Homicide Rates Collided With the Pandemic in April 2021
3Covid-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.