How To Become a Homicide Detective

three homicide detectives facing the camera

Although police officers work in many different roles, all have the responsibility of serving and protecting the community. Some are beat cops who patrol designated neighborhoods and watch 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 a career in law enforcement, you may be wondering, How long does it take to become a homicide detective? and What are the requirements to become a detective? This career guide will answer your questions and help you decide whether this career pathway could be a good fit for you.

In This Article:

What Does a Homicide Detective Do?

Before deciding to pursue a career as a homicide detective, it’s important to understand the responsibilities of these professionals. The specific tasks of homicide detectives vary from one case to the next. However, they generally include the following:

  • Take control of the crime scene, prevent contamination and examine the victim
  • Document the crime scene, recording all evidence before moving any items
  • Canvass the area, looking for potential eyewitnesses and 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
  • Testify in court

Some homicide units also specialize in solving cold cases, which are murder cases that have remained open for at least a few years. Often, these cold cases are finally resolved through DNA evidence. Other homicide detectives investigate potential suicides, fatal non-traffic-related accidents and deaths of suspects or inmates in custody.

Why Should You Become a Homicide Detective?

If you’re already interested in becoming a homicide detective, then there is a good chance it’s because you feel driven to make a positive difference in the lives of others in your community. People who have lost loved ones to acts of violence endure unimaginable hardship. It’s challenging to mourn a loved one and find closure unless there is justice for the family. Homicide detectives play a significant role in helping families obtain justice and closure.

The work that homicide detectives do is certainly not easy. They are exposed to some of the worst elements of society, and they meet the surviving family members on the worst days of their lives. It requires a great deal of emotional resilience.

Despite the challenges of the job, however, there are some positive aspects. In addition to making a positive difference for others and protecting their communities, homicide detectives may enjoy the intellectually stimulating challenge of investigating crimes. What’s more, law enforcement offers many opportunities for upward career growth.

Other compelling reasons to consider becoming a homicide detective include the following:

  • Solving crimes not only provides justice and closure but may also serve as a deterrent to other would-be criminals
  • Each homicide solved has the potential to contribute to the body of knowledge about criminal behavior and victimology, which may benefit future crime-solving efforts
  • The community as a whole benefits when future violent crime is deterred and violent crime rates in an area decline

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 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.

Homicide investigations can be complex, so detectives should also have strong organizational skills and the ability to write well. Having these skills can help a detective conduct a thorough investigation and effectively prosecute the suspect.

Finally, an unwavering commitment to ethical decision-making, judgment and behavior is crucial for all law enforcement officials. 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.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Homicide Detective?

If you’ve decided that a career as a homicide detective is the right choice for you, you’re probably interested in knowing how long it takes to become one. Unfortunately, there is no universal answer. The timeline varies considerably depending on the state, police department and individual.

For example, some departments might require that aspiring homicide detectives finish a degree that lasts four school years, whereas others might only express a preference for that credential. (Homicide detectives may be more likely than patrol officers to need a college degree, although a degree is recommended for both professionals.)

Furthermore, it’s common for homicide detectives to begin their careers as patrol officers and then work their way up to the rank of detective. Some departments might offer more opportunities for career advancement than others. For instance, if you choose to work in a large department in a major city, there may be more openings available for detectives than if you were to work in a smaller rural or suburban area.

Becoming a Homicide Detective

There are no federally established requirements that are applicable to every state and department. Instead, the requirements to become a detective who specializes in homicide cases will vary by state and department.

Before you begin journeying along your career pathway, you should consider where you might like to work. Then, research the requirements that are applicable to that municipality. First, explore the basic eligibility criteria, which typically include the following:

  • There is usually a minimum age requirement to become a police officer
  • Officers and detectives must hold a valid driver’s license
  • Applicants must typically be U.S. citizens or permanent residents
  • Applicants may need to meet basic physical fitness standards
  • You may be required to live in the same geographical jurisdiction as the department you hope to work in

In addition, you’ll need to meet the education requirements. Some departments require their patrol officers to hold a college degree, which means that all homicide detectives will be required to complete a specific number of school years. Other departments require only a high school diploma or GED. Remember that in order to become a homicide detective, it’s typically necessary to work your way up from the position of patrol officer. Even if your chosen department doesn’t require a college degree, earning one is highly recommended, as it may open the door to the advancement opportunity you seek.

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

These are the basic eligibility requirements and disqualifiers that are common across police departments. After earning your criminal justice degree, you will then need to go through the application process. The application process can be quite lengthy, and will typically include the following:

  • Background check
  • Polygraph exam
  • Drug test
  • Panel interview

If you successfully complete the application process, you’ll then need to attend the police academy. The length of police training programs varies considerably from one jurisdiction to the next, which is another reason why it’s not possible to offer a more precise picture of the timeline for becoming a homicide detective. During your training program, you’ll learn about federal, state and local laws, learn self-defense techniques, complete firearms training and undertake physical fitness activities.

After graduating from the academy, you may be offered a position at the police department. Expect to spend at least a few years as a patrol officer, gaining practical experience and on-the-job training. Then, you can begin to work on pursuing opportunities for advancement into homicide investigations.

Criminal Justice Degree Length and Curriculum

After high school, earning a criminal justice degree is the next step toward pursuing a career as a homicide detective. Expect to spend four years of full-time study completing a bachelor’s in justice studies or criminal justice degree. The curriculum will vary from school to school, but will generally include topics such as the following:

  • Criminal behavior and victimology
  • Policing, adjudication and correctional functions
  • Civil and criminal law
  • Criminal procedures and public policy

If you’re passionate about protecting your community and helping bereaved families find justice, consider earning your criminal justice degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies instills fundamental competencies in law, police procedures and criminal behavior. Fill out the form on this page to get started.

Approved by faculty for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on March 30, 2023.

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.