police officer vs. criminal investigator

Police Officer vs. Detective: What’s the Difference?

Law enforcement is at the heart of our communities, working to protect and safeguard both people and property. In general, law enforcement professionals investigate and apprehend those who break the law. Their primary goal is to maintain public order and safety, and keep civilians out of harm’s way. Within the field of law enforcement, there are different professionals working together to ensure public safety. This includes police officers and detectives.

If you are considering a career in law enforcement, it’s likely that you’ve considered both the above career paths. Police officers and detectives are some of the most prominent figures in our communities, and there is a growing need for both types of authorities.

While police officers and detectives share a similar objective – protecting the greater good – their jobs vary quite a bit. Between daily responsibilities and training requirements, the differences between detectives and police officers are worth researching ahead of getting started in a career.

Let’s compare and contrast the two law enforcement paths.

What is a Police Officer?

A police officer is a uniformed officer that patrols communities and public areas for law violations, safety threats, and emergencies. Police officers observe people and activities in their assigned area, arrest anyone suspected of crimes, or issue citations for those violating the law. It is important to note, however, that there are different types of police officers. Some can work in a specific area of crime, such as drugs and narcotics, while others may work in special units, such as SWAT. Most often, when you see police officers in your community, they are working for a local department or agency.

What is a Detective?

A detective, otherwise known as a criminal investigator, is a type of officer who gathers facts and collects evidence related to criminal cases. The chief duty of a detective is to investigate the cause of serious crimes like assault, homicide, and fraud. This often involves interviewing suspects and victims. In public sectors, a detective is a higher rank for a police officer, and therefore requires more experience and training to land this type of role.

Police Officer vs. Detective Job Duties

What does a police officer do, and how does that differ from a detective career?

In general, police officers working in state and local law enforcement offices will:

  • Patrol assigned areas in their community
  • Respond to emergency and non-emergency calls
  • Regulate traffic, enforce traffic laws, and issue necessary citations
  • Obtain and serve warrants for search or arrest
  • Detain people suspected of committing crimes
  • Help and engage with members of their community
  • Collect and secure evidence from crime scenes
  • Write detailed police reports, such as for crimes or accidents
  • Testify in court about arrests and crimes

Meanwhile, detectives and criminal investigators have the following job responsibilities:

  • Examine crime scenes for evidence, clues, and remnants
  • Work with forensic scientists to understand the evidence at hand
  • Interview victims of crime, as well as witnesses
  • Interrogate criminals and suspects of crime
  • Follow and observe people suspected of crimes
  • Follow up on police reports
  • Write detailed reports about their investigations
  • Prepare cases and testify in court proceedings

While some of their job duties overlap, there is a clear distinction between what police officers and detectives do. Police officers help keep the public safe by preventing and punishing crimes. Detectives conduct deep investigations of crime, to keep the public educated and safe from serious offence.

What are Other Differences Between Police and Detectives?

Another key difference between police officers and detectives is their rank and authority. Most often, the title of detective is earned through the promotion of a police officer. Therefore, detectives have a higher rank in their department or agency. Depending on the workplace, this could also cause detectives to have higher authority, but this depends on the jurisdiction.

In line with the higher rank, detectives typically see higher pay than police officers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, detectives and criminal investigators earn $83,640 annually, on average across the nation. Meanwhile, police and patrol officers earn an average of $64,610 per year.

It is also important to note that not all detectives work in the public sector. Private detectives and investigators fall within a separate category of the field, as they are hired privately by individuals or organizations (rather than law enforcement authorities) to investigate personal matters. Private detectives earn an average of $59,380 per year in the United States.

Police Officer vs. Detective Skills

Police officers and detectives both require strength, determination, report writing and communication skills. However, the specific skills that are used most on their jobs differ slightly.

Police officers also need to have qualities such as:

  • Physical fitness
  • Sound judgement
  • Ethics and empathy
  • Good interpersonal skills
  • Conflict management skills
  • Decision-making skills in emergency situations

Detectives also need to have skills in areas like:

  • Critical-thinking
  • Observation and attention-to-detail
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Organization

Police Officer vs. Detective Job Requirements

Now you may be wondering, how does one become a police officer? How does one advance from police officer to detective? What are the job requirements, and how do they differ for each occupation?

The requirements for police officers and detectives will vary by state, jurisdiction, and individual employer. Some officers at the federal level, for example, require bachelor’s degrees. Some states only require police officers to have academy training. It is important to research the specific requirements of the state in which you wish to work. You can learn about Connecticut’s police officer requirements here.

Typically, becoming a police officer involves:

  • Earning a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Meeting the state’s minimum requirements for age and citizenship
  • Completing background checks and medical examinations
  • Passing physical and emotional or mental assessments
  • Graduating from your state’s Police Training Academy

As noted above, many federal agencies require police officers to have a college degree. If you are seeking to become an FBI agent, DEA agent, or even warden in a national park, it is recommended that you pursue a relevant college education, such as a criminal justice degree or public safety degree. College coursework can also help you qualify for – or give you a leg up when applying to – entry-level police officer jobs.

Now, how does one get promoted to earn the title of detective?

In order to become a detective, you must also meet your state or department’s specific requirements. In Connecticut, for example, one must be a municipal law enforcement officer or state trooper in order to qualify for a (public) detective position. Private detectives in Connecticut, on the other hand, are typically required to have five years of investigative experience or 10 years as a police officer.

As cited by Indeed, after meeting the basic requirements of your state or jurisdiction, aspiring detectives should:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field of study (such as criminal justice or forensics)
  • Successfully complete the National Detective/Investigator Test to stand out to employers
  • Earn specialized certifications in investigation, such as a Certified Fraud Examiner or Certified Forensic Analyst

Doing the above can underline your dedication to the profession and highlight your advanced competencies and knowledge in this line of work.

Are you Ready to Launch Your Career?

As you weigh the careers police officer vs. detective, ask yourself which better aligns with your career aspirations. Further, what aligns with your talents and interests? If you prefer to work directly in the community, and having a direct impact on the modern criminal justice system and calls for reform, a career as a police officer may be the right job title for you. However, if you prefer to work behind the scenes and make a difference in the lives of victims and their families, a career as a detective may be your true vocation. No matter what, you will be making an incredible career choice.

And the best part is, you don’t have to decide this now. You can choose to become a police officer and work your way up to a detective position, if and when you are ready. You can start preparing today by pursuing an education in the criminal justice field. Learn about Goodwin University today, a leader in criminal justice, public safety, and security education.