Investigator vs. Detective: What’s the Difference?

male and female criminal justice professionals smiling in office

Are you thinking about pursuing a career in criminal justice? If so, you might be wondering about the differences between an investigator and a detective. Either career path would be ideal for someone with a criminal justice degree who enjoys solving problems and thinking outside the box. Whether you choose to be an investigator or a detective, you can be confident that you’re helping to make a difference in your community.

In This Blog:

What Is the Difference Between an Investigator and a Detective?

The answer to this question depends on whether you are thinking of a private investigator or a criminal investigator. Both criminal investigators and detectives work for law enforcement agencies. Typically, detectives work on cases involving homicides and felonies, while criminal investigators work on a range of criminal and civil cases, such as fraud and missing persons.

There is a more significant difference between detectives and private investigators. A detective is employed by a law enforcement agency, such as a city police department. In contrast, a private investigator is hired by individuals and companies to conduct investigations.

Typical Caseload for a Law Enforcement Detective

A detective who works for a law enforcement agency at the local, state or federal level is typically a plainclothes investigator (rather than a uniformed patrol officer) who is responsible for responding to crime scenes. The detective collects evidence, interviews witnesses and investigates suspects. Detectives also testify in court when cases they were involved with go to trial.

Plainclothes detectives typically handle felony cases. For example, rather than investigating the shoplifting of a $10 item, they investigate more serious crimes, such as breaking and entering. A detective’s caseload might include the following types of cases:

  • Arson
  • Assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Robbery
  • Homicide
  • Abduction

At small police departments, detectives may handle quite a wide spectrum of cases. In larger departments, detectives typically specialize. For example, a detective who primarily investigates murder cases is a homicide detective.

Typical Caseload for a Private Investigator

Law enforcement agency detectives handle only criminal cases. In contrast, a private investigator (PI) can handle just about any kind of case. Possibilities include criminal and civil cases as well as personal matters, such as the following:

  • Child custody: PIs are hired for the purpose of determining custody arrangements to investigate whether one or both parents are caring for a child appropriately. The PI may report directly to the family court, or the PI might be hired by one parent with the intent of uncovering evidence to prove the other parent’s unfitness.
  • Infidelity: People who suspect that their spouse is being unfaithful may hire a PI to look for evidence of cheating.
  • Background checks: PIs who specialize in background checks are responsible for thoroughly assessing individuals such as job applicants.
  • Insurance fraud: Insurance companies often hire PIs to determine whether an insured individual is committing fraud. For example, a PI might find that a worker who is reported as injured and receiving worker’s compensation is in fact capable of performing the usual job duties.
  • Missing persons: When a family is missing a loved one whom law enforcement is unable to find, the family may opt to hire a PI to increase the chances of a successful recovery.
  • Corporate investigations: Companies may hire a PI to conduct a third-party investigation of vendors, employees or management to determine whether wrongdoing has taken place.

These are just a few examples of the variety of cases a PI may investigate. Private investigators may work for a PI agency or start their own agency. Some work directly for finance and insurance companies or armored car services.

Investigator vs. Detective: Which One Is in Higher Demand?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for private detectives and investigators to increase by about 8% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than average, accounting for the addition of an estimated 3,000 jobs in the field.*

Similarly, the Bureau predicts that the job growth rate for police officers and detectives will be about 5% from 2019 to 2029. The Bureau expects that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will hire about 40,600 officers and detectives from 2019 to 2029.**

How to Become a Detective with a Criminal Justice Degree

The process of becoming a police detective varies from one jurisdiction to the next. In general, you can expect to begin as a police officer and work your way up to the rank of detective. You must have at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is preferable (and sometimes required).

You must have a record that is free of any pre-determined disqualifiers. For example, felony convictions and drug use can prevent a candidate from becoming an officer. You must also be a United States citizen with a valid driver’s license, and you may need to be at least 21 years old.

Police officer candidates must typically go through a rigorous background check, including a polygraph, before being allowed to join the police academy. The police academy typically involves at least a few months of rigorous physical training and academic instruction. Academy recruits learn about laws, enforcement techniques, appropriate use of force and similar topics while undergoing training in firearms, self-defense and physical fitness.

If you successfully complete the police academy training, you may be offered employment with the police department. New officers are typically paired with veteran officers as they go through a period of on-the-job training. The better you perform your duties as a patrol officer, the more likely it is that you will be able to work your way up to the rank of detective.

How to Become a Private Investigator with a Criminal Justice Degree

There is no single path to follow to become a private investigator, and different states have different requirements. In general, however, the most competitive candidates for PI jobs are those with a bachelor’s degree. A criminal justice degree is ideal for this line of work.

With a degree, an aspiring PI is more likely to be hired by a PI agency, insurance company, law firm or similar organization. Investigation trainees may go through a period of on-the-job training. After acquiring some work experience, PIs may qualify to pursue state licensure or certification.

Note that nearly all states do require PIs to hold a license. However, in order to acquire a license, you may first need to gain work experience in the field. As a result, you may not be able to call yourself a private investigator right away. Instead, you can gain experience with an investigation agency or department within a larger company and then pursue licensure.

Another step to take after acquiring relevant work experience is to seek voluntary certification. The National Association of Legal Investigators administers certification exams to applicants who meet their requirements, such as having a certain amount of work experience and being licensed by the state. Obtaining this certification can help PIs advance their careers.

Regardless of exactly where in this particular field you envision yourself, you can begin working toward a rewarding future when you earn a criminal justice degree at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies program online and on campus.

Students will graduate with the critical thinking skills, legal knowledge, ethical framework and threat assessment skills that are critical for professionals in the criminal justice field. Click on Request Info above to begin planning your future with GCU.

*Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Detectives and Investigators in June 2021.

*COVID-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, Investigators and Detectives.

**Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives in June 2021.

**COVID-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, Investigators 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.

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