private investigator vs detective

Criminal Investigator vs. Detective: What is the Difference?

Detectives and investigators are essential to solving crime. On a daily basis, these professionals work to gather evidence and collect the facts around committed crimes. They may interview suspects and victims, observe suspicious activity, examine criminal records, and detail their findings in reports that are used in court. At the end of the day, criminal investigators and detectives are problem-solvers, putting together moving puzzle pieces that help to keep offenders off the street.

For those aspiring to enter a career in criminal justice, these are two incredible options. However, like many, you may be wondering about the difference between investigators and detectives. What makes the criminal investigator title unique, and what does a detective career entail? Are these job titles one in the same? Where do private detectives fit in? These are all important questions to ask.

After all, you must investigate your options before launching a career.

While investigators and detectives have many overlapping job duties, their day-to-day jobs can look very different. These professionals work side-by-side, but in parallel, addressing different types of crimes.

What is a Detective?

A detective is a type of investigator that works directly with a law enforcement agency. For example, you can find detectives working with local police departments as well as federal bureaus. Therefore, detectives have the ability to exercise legal jurisdiction and arrest criminals.

Detectives are recognized as high-ranking police officers. They typically handle more serious crimes than other officers in their department. For example, a detective might investigate a homicide, versus small shoplifting cases.

Criminal Investigators vs. Detectives

A criminal investigator may also work for a law enforcement agency, and is a title that’s generally seen as synonymous with detective. The differences between criminal investigators and detectives, however, can vary depending on each department or agency.

For example, in some places, detectives are employed in larger agencies (e.g. at the state-level) while criminal investigators are employed in local departments, such as at the city-level. However, sometimes the difference between these titles lies in their specialization: Some workplaces offer the detective title for those who handle homicide and/or missing person cases; further, the criminal investigator title is given to those who handle a broader range of investigations (such as fraud and other felonies).

Ultimately, the difference between detectives and criminal investigators varies by place of work. In terms of their daily responsibilities, however, they both carry out many similar tasks, such as:

  • Gathering evidence around a crime
  • Interviewing suspects and witnesses
  • Preparing arrest and search warrants
  • Detaining criminals
  • Developing investigative reports
  • Overseeing crime scenes

Caseloads for detectives and criminal investigators might include:

  • Abduction
  • Arson
  • Assault
  • Fraud
  • Homicide
  • Robbery
  • Terrorism

In large departments or agencies, detectives may specialize in one of the above crimes.

It is important to remember that both career titles are referring to investigation within law enforcement agencies, whether they are in uniform or in plain clothes. Detectives and criminal investigators are public authorities, therefore, and must abide by certain regulations, standards, and decrees. They also carry a high degree of legal authority, which might involve conducting search warrants, seizing property for investigation, and arresting suspects. This is not the responsibility of all types of investigators.

There are also private investigators, often referred to as private detectives, who do not carry legal authority and investigate separate crimes. Private investigators may work alongside or in tandem with law enforcement detectives, but their work varies significantly.

What is a Private Investigator?

A private investigator, also called a private detective, is a type of investigator that is employed by a client, such as an individual person or an organization. With this in mind, private investigators examine and explore more personal and civil issues in question. For example, a private detective may be hired to assist in the investigation of:

  • Financial issues
  • Matrimonial cases
  • Civil suits
  • Background checks
  • Suspect behavior

The main difference between private investigators and law enforcement detectives is who they are employed by, the types of cases they handle, and their legal authorities. Otherwise, these professionals carry out many of the same day-to-day tasks, such as:

  • Interviewing people to gather information
  • Searching online, public, and court records to uncover clues
  • Conducting surveillance on suspect persons or locations
  • Collecting evidence
  • Checking for civil judgments and criminal history

Private detectives and investigators typically do their work remotely, from a computer, in order to collect and examine records. However, some investigators will conduct surveillance of people or locations in question, in order to gain live evidence.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, private detectives must be mindful of the law: “Because they lack police authority, their work must be done with the same authority as a private citizen. As a result, detectives and investigators must have a good understanding of federal, state, and local laws, such as privacy laws, and other legal issues affecting their work. Otherwise, evidence they collect may not be useable in court and they could face prosecution.”

For this reason, private detectives often work alongside law enforcement departments to solve crimes together. Private investigators may help gather the evidence for a crime, or determine potential suspects of a crime, but the actual arresting and delivery of justice would be handled by local officials.

So, if you want to become the modern-day Sherlock Holmes, you are likely looking at the career of a private investigator. However, if you are looking to become a local authority, a career as a detective may be better suited for you.

Launching an Investigative Career

In order to become a detective today, you typically must start within the police force. Most detectives must check off all the requirements and qualifications expected of police officers, followed by advanced training in investigation in order to become promoted to this title. However, an education in criminal justice can provide aspiring detectives with a leg-up in the career journey.

You can learn about becoming a detective in Connecticut here.

Private investigators do not always need to start within law enforcement, although this can be great leverage when launching this career. Many employers require a 2- or 4-year degree in criminal justice (or a related field) in order to get started. Various states have specific requirements for private investigators. You can also learn about the requirements in Connecticut here.

No matter which pathway you choose to take, a criminal justice degree can be a great launching point for your investigative career. A criminal justice school will provide you with in-field training and the knowledge needed to become an expert in this field.

If you are looking to get started in Connecticut, consider Goodwin University. Learn about our criminal justice program here.