How to Become a Homicide Detective: The Complete Guide

Learn what it takes to be a successful homicide detective.

What Will You Do in a Homicide Detective Career?

Yellow do not cross tape for homicide detective crime scene

Murder is the ultimate crime. No amount of wishing is going to bring someone back from the dead. That's why solving murder is so important for our society, and why it takes a special person to be an effective homicide detective.

When a murder is reported, homicide detectives and the CSI unit are sent out to evaluate the crime scene. They work together to examine the scene, talk with witnesses, and check for and collect evidence. While the CSI unit, with its state-of-the-art equipment processes evidence, homicide detectives interview witnesses and suspects. The sooner detectives act on information and evidence, the better their chances of solving a murder. Effective teamwork between detectives and their CSI unit is one of the main ways that police are able to solve murders.

The homicide detective in charge of the murder scene has certain duties and responsibilities. He or she will always do, or oversee, the following tasks:

  • Assess and manage the crime scene: the homicide detective takes control of the crime scene and examines the victim.
  • Document the scene: The investigator will conduct a walk-through, being careful not to disturb any evidence, and make a permanent record of the scene. It's important to record all evidence before moving or altering anything.
  • Scene processing: Homicide detectives photograph or videotape the scene; conduct a thorough crime scene search; make a rough sketch; dust for fingerprints; identify, document and collect trace evidence, fluids and fibers; and control evidence to maintain its integrity.
  • Canvass the area to identify and locate witnesses. More homicides have been solved by canvassing than by any other method.
  • Suspects: Proper handling of suspects minimizes legal roadblocks to a successful prosecution. At the same time, all suspects are granted the rights to which they are entitled.

When they're not at the scene of a crime, detectives review case files to look for clues or analyze the previous day's notes.

Homicide units are set up in a variety of ways, but it's common to have one or more homicide teams on a police force, supervised by a lieutenant, with each team having a sergeant in charge, and detectives working under him or her.

A homicide unit will also have a Cold Case Team. Cold cases (unsolved homicide cases) are resolved each year by the follow up of dedicated detectives. Cold cases are prioritized depending on collected DNA or other evidence, suspects and available witnesses.

Before 2000, many of the cold cases that now result in convictions would have remained unsolved. But recent advances in DNA technology and databases to store the data now allow detectives to cross-check evidence against other cases, review cases by talking to family members, follow-up on new leads, and talk to witnesses or accomplices who, sometimes years later, are more willing to talk about old crimes.

Cold case teams may also investigate shooting incidents involving a police officer (when an officer shoots someone or is shot him or herself) and incidents when someone was shot in custody and has life-threatening injuries when a police officer was involved.

Homicide Units use "murder clearance rates" (as defined by the FBI) as their primary measure of success. Some homicide units have a solid 80 percent solve rate, and that's due to the hard work of their homicide detectives. Homicide units are constantly looking for ways to improve their clearance rates.

There are four major categories of homicide:

  • Murder is the unlawful, willful killing of one person by another.
  • Manslaughter is the killing of a person by the negligence of another. Manslaughter is a still a criminal offense.
  • Justifiable homicide is the killing of someone while resisting another person who is trying to murder or commit a felony against that person. Justifiable homicide is a non-criminal offense.
  • Excusable homicide is the killing of another person by accident while doing any lawful act with proper caution. Excusable homicide is a non-criminal offense.

Homicide teams also handle cases such as suicide, non-traffic related accidental deaths, in-custody deaths, deaths of a suspicious or undetermined nature, and any incident resulting in life threatening injury (except for traffic accidents; life-threatening injuries caused by traffic accidents may be investigated by the Traffic Homicide Unit.)

A Day on the Beat

homicide detective career veteran at murder scene

The work that homicide detectives do can vary quite a bit from day to day, but the job can be broken down into street work, gathering evidence and records investigation.

When a body is found shortly after a murder, there are many clues to be gathered. Collecting, handling, storing and tracking of evidence is of prime importance, and it is imperative to prevent tampering with evidence. If there is any tampering with evidence, a murderer may go free on a technicality.

Even worse, if there is any false evidence, an innocent person may go to jail, spend years in prison, or even get the death penalty for a crime that he didn’t commit, and no one wants that. It's every homicide detective's job to follow evidence protocols so that clean evidence will lead to a prosecution and not implicate innocent people.

Other times, it's long after a murder that a body is found, and there are fewer clues to go on. In this situation, it's often only with modern DNA tests and the help of forensic experts that a homicide detective may be able to crack a case and bring a murderer to justice.

After completing his or her investigation, homicide detectives must file a report. Homicide reports must always be clear and accurate.

But homicide detectives can't be experts in all areas so they need to build relationships with colleagues with different areas of expertise. Depending on the case, homicide detectives may consult with medical examiners, forensic anthropologists, entomologists or ballistics experts, among others.

They also work with the public, work on surveillance, may process forensic or legal evidence, and sometimes testify at trial.

Getting Started in Your Law Enforcement Career

cop on walkie talkie

Good homicide detectives are in high demand.

If you want to become a homicide detective, you must first start as a police officer, normally working for at least three years as a patrol officer. During that time, you'll need to get top marks for your work and have your commanding officer put in a request for you to join the homicide division.

When you're up for promotion, you'll first take a competitive exam. If you pass, you can then choose to become either a sergeant who manages other patrol officers, or to become a detective and do investigative work.

Homicide detectives are certainly very important on any police force. But there are many other types of detectives in police departments across the country, and they share many of the same knowledge, skills, abilities, and job descriptions with their colleagues in the homicide unit. The field you work in will depend on your experience and interests, your location, and the needs of your particular department.

Here are some other types of police detectives you can be:

  • Arson
  • Assault and battery
  • Auto theft
  • Burglary
  • Computer crime
  • Domestic violence
  • Fraud
  • Juvenile crime
  • Missing persons
  • Narcotics
  • Organized crime
  • Robbery
  • Sexual assault
  • Vice

Education to Become a Homicide Detective

Since you'll first need to be a police officer before becoming a detective, like all cops, you'll need a high school diploma, or even an associate's or bachelor's degree for some of the higher ranks. Some law enforcement agencies may require additional training. At the very least, you'll need to go through the police academy, which can last for six months or more.

At the police academy, you'll learn about the following topics, and more:

  • Arrest and booking procedures
  • Driving techniques and practice
  • Firearms training, including marksmanship
  • Human relations, including cultural sensitivity training and stress management
  • Investigation techniques
  • Law and the legal system, including search and seizure, and evidence chain of custody
  • Physical training to build your strength and endurance
  • Tactics, including vehicle stops and building searches
  • Traffic enforcement and investigation

A successful homicide detective career is built on a solid foundation of the right education and on-the-job training. While police officers only need a high school education to begin their career, those who aspire to the higher ranks in the police department may benefit from a college education. So, if you're thinking of climbing the ranks, you should also consider that a degree in criminal justice may give you a leg up on the competition.

A degree in criminal justice will give you a strong educational background. Keep in mind that here are online options to make getting an education all the more convenient. Whether you want an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal justice, get your degree on-site or online.

Homicide Detective Salaries

The median salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $74,300*. However, salary varies greatly depending on where you work. Check the chart below for the median detective salary in your state. Keep in mind that as you gain seniority, your salary will increase and that the top earners make much more than the average.

Homicide detective salaries compared to other similar professions

Homicide detectives have interesting jobs, and they're well paid for the work they do. Compare the salaries of related professions below.

  • Homicide Detectives: $74,300
  • Correctional Officers: $39,780
  • Firefighters: $45,970
  • Paramedics: $31,020
  • Police: $56,810
  • Private Detectives and Investigators: $44,570
  • Security Guards: $24,410

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

Homicide detective salaries by state

Who Would Make a Good Homicide Detective?

Homicide detectives have many stories to tell, but their stories don't always portray the actual work they do to solve the ultimate puzzle. It's only with the proper training, years of experience, and the humility and wisdom to learn from your mistakes that you'll develop a system and intuition that work for you.

Although not all homicide detectives are the same, they do share some of the same personality traits. So, what makes a good homicide detective?

  • Curious, because you really DO want to get to the bottom of things
  • High ethical standards, because there's no place for corruption on the police force
  • Insightful, so you can draw conclusions that others don't
  • Like having a variety of tasks to perform; no two days are the same
  • Logical and systematic, with strong reasoning skills
  • Observant, as you'll pay attention to small details, and scrutinize information provided by your sources to determine whether it's credible or not
  • Organized, so you can be efficient and get your work done while not letting anything fall through the cracks
  • Practical and realistic, but results-oriented to get the job done
  • Strong personality; shrinking violets need not apply

Do any of these character traits describe you? If so, you may be like many other homicide detectives who, as demanding as the job may be, couldn't imagine doing anything else.

How Do I Know If This Would Really Be a Good Career For Me?

handcuffs on American flag

The common personality type that succeeds as a detective is enterprising, reliable and independent, and likes to solve puzzles. Detectives also need a lot of integrity, must be able to tolerate stress and pay attention to the smallest details. It also helps to have a strong stomach.

As you read above, you'll need a good knowledge of the law and the legal system, and keen insight into human psychology. Command of a foreign language like Spanish might be helpful if you work with special populations.

You'll also need to be a good listener, a critical thinker, and have great interviewing skills. Finally, it's very helpful—no: necessary—to have great reasoning skills and be top-notch problem solver (that last point goes without saying).

If this sounds like you, get the training you need to start the ball rolling. Or, if you want to advance your career, get a leg up on the competition with the criminal justice education that will set you apart from your peers.

Sources: *bls.gov (salary data is from the 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the last year for which data is available), seattle.gov/police/units/investigations/homicide.htm, coj.net/departments/sheriffs-office/investigations-division/homicide-unit.aspx, policeforum.org, www.joinlapd.com/academy.html, National Criminal Justice Reference Service