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What does a detective do?
There are two types of detectives in the UK: police (public) detectives and private detectives (also known as private investigators). Whilst the roles can share similar responsibilities, they are different. In this article, you will focus on how to become a police detective.
A police detective is also called a detective constable, warranted officer, serious and complex investigator or specialist investigator. They are a specialist accredited plain-clothes police officer who investigates and solves crimes involving drugs, theft, child protection, fraud, public protection, homicide, violence, counter-terrorism and cybercrime.
It is important to note that the term detective is not a rank within the police. It is a descriptor that indicates the training and competence (knowledge, skills and experience) involved in their specialist role. They are seen as equals in pay and rank to uniformed police officers.
Detectives can work in specialist departments, such as the criminal investigation department (CID) and various squads, e.g. drugs, fraud and firearms. Therefore, what a detective does will depend on their specialisms and the department in which they work. The particulars of each case they investigate will also influence their day-to-day tasks, as they are unique.
Detectives have many duties, including attending crime scenes and investigating, interviewing suspects, offenders and witnesses, examining records and managing their cases. The role also encompasses preparing case files and completing other paperwork. A detective’s main aim is to investigate and solve serious and complex crimes to bring justice to victims impacted by crime. They also play a part in prevention. A good detective can help remove dangerous criminals from the street and prevent or reduce further crimes.
Detectives will work with many people, including their uniformed counterparts, multi-agency teams, and police support staff. They will also liaise with other law enforcement professionals, victims of crime, suspects, witnesses, members of the public, government agencies, legal professionals (i.e. solicitors, barristers, judges and court staff), the media, other agencies and others relating to cases, e.g. schools and social services.
Detectives mainly work for one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales (39 in England and 4 in Wales). Scotland (Police Scotland) and Northern Ireland (PSNI) have single police forces for their entire countries. Therefore, a detective can work in any UK region, county or city if opportunities are available.
A detective’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including the department where they work and their allocated cases.
Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Planning investigative actions and managing complex cases whilst considering the risks and resources, e.g. costs and budgets.
- Completing risk assessments.
- Working with colleagues, crime scene investigators and local prevention teams.
- Visiting crime scenes and conducting investigations.
- Handling exhibits and dealing with forensic material.
- Using powers of arrest, apprehending and searching suspects, conducting raids and issuing special warnings.
- Assessing and recruiting informants.
- Supporting victims during investigations and acting as a point of contact.
- Identifying witnesses pertinent to the case.
- Obtaining witness statements.
- Conducting victim/witness interviews and suspect interrogations.
- Collecting information, evidence and intelligence from many sources, e.g. victims, witnesses, suspects and reports, and determining its credibility.
- Analysing and interpreting data and information.
- Examining documents and records.
- Recording and retaining evidence admissible in court.
- Liaising with internal and external agencies, e.g. courts, schools, social care and health teams.
- Giving evidence and testifying in court.
- Preparing case files, writing reports, and completing other required paperwork.
More experienced detectives may also be involved in managing and leading teams.
A detective can expect to work around 40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their cases. Some police forces may offer part-time or flexible jobs.
Being a detective is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours. There is usually a requirement to work different shifts, including evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays.
Being a detective can also involve long shifts. The length will depend on each police force’s policy. Travel is a requirement, as detectives will need to attend crime scenes and court and visit witnesses and other places to gather evidence, which may lengthen the working day.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a detective, especially if an individual is inquisitive and enjoys solving problems. Putting the pieces together and solving serious and complex crimes can give detectives a real confidence boost and be a rewarding experience. Detectives can go home at the end of the working day knowing their job makes a difference in bringing justice to victims of crime, preventing and reducing crimes, and contributing to a safer and happier society.
Boredom will never be a problem for detectives, as their work is very varied and fast-paced. They usually work on many cases at once and interact with many people during their working day. One day, they could attend a crime scene and the next, interview witnesses and present evidence in court. The role also gives detectives the ability to travel to a variety of locations and explore some new areas. There may also be opportunities to travel further afield, including overseas.
The salary and benefits package for detectives, even at entry level, is competitive compared to other career choices. The support, training and career development are also attractive, so there is plenty of opportunity for growth and progression in this career.
Even though there are positives to being a detective, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- Entry requirements and competition – becoming a detective is not easy. Individuals will need to be either a police officer or have a degree and apply for the national detective programme. There are specific entry requirements, the training is intensive, and individuals will need to pass tests and exams. It can be competitive, and some will not be successful.
- Physical demands – being a detective can be physically demanding, as the shifts can be long and unsociable, increasing fatigue. Individuals can spend all day travelling or on their feet in all weathers as part of the role. There may be instances where detectives must wear full protective clothing, e.g. at crime scenes, which may get hot and uncomfortable.
- Mental demands – being a detective can be mentally and emotionally demanding. They will have to deal with some disturbing cases, distressing crime scenes (involving blood, deceased individuals and decomposition) and emotional situations with victims, families and witnesses. Babies and young children may also be involved and this can be too much for some people. If an individual cannot cope with distressing and disturbing scenes or emotional situations, being a detective would not be the right career path.
- Work-related violence – unfortunately, detectives do face the risk of violence as part of their job (verbal and physical abuse). They may need to arrest suspects and deal with offenders who can be aggressive, especially when resisting arrest. Some suspects may have weapons, and there may be other life-threatening situations that detectives may come across. However, they are trained to deal with these types of incidents.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective detectives must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working on multiple serious and complex criminal cases is challenging and stressful. It is also physically and mentally demanding, the hours are long and unsociable, and there is a risk of violence associated with the role. However, there are many positives too, and bringing criminals to justice, helping victims and playing a part in reducing crime is extremely rewarding, despite the challenges.
When considering whether to be a detective and the type of role, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a detective
Some of the personal qualities a detective requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Sensitivity, understanding and empathy.
- Honesty and integrity.
- Tenacity, motivation, inquisitiveness and determination, as some cases can be frustrating and long.
- Knowledge of the law, court procedures and government regulations.
- Knowledge of public safety and security.
- Knowledge of health and safety, especially assessing risks.
- Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Negotiation skills, especially in challenging situations.
- Planning and investigative skills.
- Problem-solving and analytical skills.
- Judgement and observational skills.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Listening skills.
- Leadership skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- Having a good level of physical fitness and eyesight.
- Having a methodical approach.
- Having cultural awareness and respect for equality, diversity and inclusion.
- The ability to take personal responsibility and ownership.
- The ability to take criticism, be open-minded and act on feedback.
- The ability to work well in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to deal with traumatic situations.
- The ability to understand and tune into people’s reactions.
- The ability to make decisions, sometimes quickly, even in difficult situations.
- The ability to work well under pressure.
- The ability to develop meaningful relationships with various people from all different backgrounds.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient and professional in distressing, disturbing and challenging situations.
- The ability to be patient and remain calm and confident in challenging and stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
Qualifications and training
There are several different routes to becoming a detective: graduate, vocational, police officer and apprenticeship.
Qualifications and training
An individual does not need to be a police officer first before becoming a detective. There is an alternative route for graduates: the POLICE NOW National Detective Programme. However, they will need to meet the eligibility criteria, e.g. at least a 2:1 undergraduate degree from a UK university (or non-UK equivalent). They will also need to meet other requirements relating to age, nationality, residency and current applications, which can be found here.
The National Detective Programme is two years and includes a twelve-week Detective Academy. Individuals must pass the National Investigators Exam (NIE) in the first six months and achieve full Professionalising Investigation Programme Stage 2 (PIP2) accreditation by programme completion. Individuals will earn a competitive salary and benefits during training and development. Further details on the programme can be found here.
Upon completion of the programme, individuals will achieve a graduate diploma in Professional Policing Practice and can start work as a detective. They will become qualified once they successfully complete their probationary period.
There is also the specialist Detective Pathway (in-house training), which some police forces offer, e.g. the Metropolitan Police. Individuals will need a degree (in any subject) or be in their final year of study to apply.
Individuals will enrol on an intensive two-year Detective Degree Holder Entry Programme (DHEP), a vocational course involving on-the-job training and academic learning. Individuals will work towards achieving a graduate diploma in Professional Policing Practice whilst training as police officers.
Individuals can apply for this salaried programme with individual forces if there are opportunities available.
Police officer route
An individual can become a detective by joining the force as a police officer first, but it is not mandatory.
If already a police officer, an individual may become a detective via the force’s training programme. They must complete their probationary period first (usually two years) before being allowed to apply for the detective role. They must then complete a training course to become a trainee detective constable (TDC) and pass the National Investigators Exam (NIE) to be accepted.
There is also an apprenticeship route to become a detective for those who do not have a degree. Individuals can apply for a Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship and will usually need 4 or 5 GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A levels (or equivalent). However, this will depend on the entry requirements for each police force.
Further information on apprenticeships can be found on:
Work experience and volunteering
Having work and life experience that can help individuals develop essential skills for the detective role will be beneficial and make them stand out from the crowd. Individuals could apply to become a police community support officer (PCSO) before applying for police officer training to see if a career in the police is right for them. Alternatively, they may want to become a private investigator to develop investigative skills.
There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering as a special constable in the police can also help individuals understand what is involved in being in the police force and help them build their knowledge and skills. Individuals could also volunteer in the community with the public, e.g. charities, community schemes, religious groups and schools. It would be useful if volunteering roles involved working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and ethnicities. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
Any work experience relevant to law enforcement, security, investigating and working with the general public can be beneficial and help an individual work towards becoming a detective. More relevant work experience will boost an individual’s application and give them a competitive edge when applying for detective programmes and roles.
Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help detectives enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide training courses.
Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for prospective and current detectives include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Investigation skills (practical and theory).
- Gathering evidence.
- Negotiation skills.
- Interviewing skills.
- Equality, diversity and inclusion.
- LGBTQ+ awareness.
- Modern slavery.
- Conflict management.
- Sexual exploitation.
- Prevent and radicalisation.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Drug and alcohol awareness.
- Mental health and capacity.
- Data protection and the GDPR.
- Health and safety, e.g. risk assessment, work-related violence and hazardous substances.
- First aid.
- IT skills.
Professional bodies and federations, such as the College of Policing (England and Wales), Police Scotland College, Northern Ireland Police College, the Police Federation of England & Wales (POLFED), the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (POLICEFED-NI) and the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) can also advise on relevant training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become detectives, giving them the means to continue their professional development. There are also other specific police associations and charities.
The training a detective requires will depend on the police force they want to work for, the specialist area/department they want to work and continuing professional development (CPD) requirements. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify any qualifications and training that can help to become a detective and those needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on individual police forces’ websites and Blueline Jobs, Police Oracle Jobs, AllPoliceJobs, Join The Police, GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and other job sites.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities for detectives. Refresher training will also be required, as laws and standards are constantly changing, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Individuals will need to undergo background checks. Therefore, it is essential to declare any previous spent and unspent convictions. If they have any cautions, convictions or reprimands, other than some motoring offences, or they fail to supply details in the application form, their application may not be accepted. Some minor offences may not automatically exclude an individual from joining, but this will be decided during the vetting process.
Fitness, health and eyesight
Individuals who want to become a detective will require a good fitness level and pass a Job-Related Fitness Test (JRFT). They will need to be medically fit and meet the minimum acceptable medical standards for entry. They must also meet certain eyesight standards to be a detective.
Detectives must have a full UK manual driving licence (usually within six months of their start date). A good driving record and a clean licence will be preferred, as this will be in the vetting process. Some forces may also stipulate a maximum number of points, so it is important to check before applying.
Other factors can result in disqualification, e.g. substance misuse, offensive/intimidating tattoos, current County Court Judgements (CCJ)/Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVA)/bankruptcy, extreme political views, and business conflicts of interest. Each police force will detail its requirements on its website. Individuals should check the eligibility criteria carefully before applying, as some police forces may have additional requirements.
Where do detectives work?
Detectives will work for one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, Police Scotland or Northern Ireland (PSNI). The British Transport Police also have detective opportunities.
They will mainly work in police stations in offices and interview rooms, but may also visit many different places during their working day, such as:
- Courts to testify.
- Crime scenes in various indoor and outdoor locations.
- Residences of victims, suspects and witnesses.
- Commercial and industrial premises.
Some detectives may also work overseas.
How much do detectives earn?
A detective’s salary will depend on their experience, location (i.e. London supplement) and specialist area, for example:
- Basic starting salary – £24,780 per year, potentially rising to £41,130 within the first seven years (may include a location allowance too).
- A new full-time detective constable in the Met – £31,686 per year (including London allowances), increasing to £33,000–£34,000 on successful completion of the probationary period.
With experience and promotion through the ranks, there is the potential for the following annual salaries:
- Sergeants – £45,867–£48,129.
- Inspectors – £54,600–£59,064.
- Chief Inspectors – £60,234–£62,634.
- Superintendents – £72,075–£84,783.
- Chief Superintendents – £88,872–£93,651.
There is a pay scale structure for Police Scotland.
Police detectives also receive many benefits, including:
- 22 days’ paid annual holiday leave (28 days in Scotland), plus statutory holidays, rising to 30 days a year with length of service.
- Flexible working.
- A pension.
- Private healthcare schemes.
- Childcare schemes.
- Training and development.
- Paid sick leave.
- Subsidised leisure and sporting activities.
- Financial services and discounts.
- Parental leave.
- Access to trade unions.
- Access to occupational health.
These figures and benefits are only a guide, are subject to annual changes and may differ between police forces.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). The Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA) has a starting salary of £21,654–£23,350 a year, depending on the force.
Types of detective work to specialise in
There are various opportunities for detectives to specialise in different departments, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- The criminal investigation department (CID) – investigates more serious and complex crimes, such as murders, serious assaults, robbery, fraud and sexual offences.
- Drug squad – investigates crimes involving illicit drugs, including overseas drug trafficking.
- Public protection department – investigates and deals with crimes involving potentially dangerous persons, registered sex offenders, and other sex offenders.
- Child safeguarding/protection department – deals with crimes against children, e.g. child abuse. It is sometimes included in public protection.
- Firearms squad – investigates firearms offences, including responding to potential hostage situations.
- Fraud squad – investigates fraud and other economic and financial crimes.
- Counter-terrorism policing unit – prevents, deters and investigates terrorist activity nationally and internationally.
All different detective roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, all detectives will need to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life, work with colleagues and multi-agencies as a team, investigate, analyse and examine, question everything, and be empathetic, sensitive and understanding. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what the police force is looking for in a detective and the type of work a detective wants. Further training will usually be necessary for specialised departments, and competition can be fierce, as opportunities are limited.
If detectives do not carry out their role correctly, it can cause upset and distress to victims and their families. In worst cases, it may even result in suspects not facing justice and further crimes committed by perpetrators. Serious crimes can put other people’s lives at risk, as some individuals are a threat to society. Therefore, whatever the type of role, detectives must have the necessary competence and personal qualities to carry out the work professionally, safely and effectively. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, codes, technology, techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, detectives must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives detectives the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to be the best possible detective and progress in their career.
Professional bodies can help prospective and current detectives enhance their skills and overall career. The College of Policing (England and Wales), Police Scotland College, Northern Ireland Police College and various associations/federations offer support, guidance, CPD and events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for detectives. With more qualifications, training, experience and promotion, a detective can move up the ranks within the force or transfer to other police forces. They can decide to specialise and become a detective in different departments, e.g. CID, drug squad and firearm squad. Alternatively, they may choose to move to a non-detective post, e.g. teaching and training trainees.
Knowledge, skills and experience that come with being a detective can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could use their investigative skills and become a licenced private investigator and even start their own business. They could also become an accident investigator in other industries or apply for jobs in security/public protection.
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