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A detective’s main job is to uncover evidence and search for clues in order to make determinations and discoveries. These professionals frequently use their skills to solve crimes, but their work is not always so urgent. Some are hired primarily to watch and observe certain people, or to make discoveries about missing friends or long-lost relations. In corporations, detectives often keep busy by scouring financial records and digital files looking for possible wrongdoing. Though the settings can be different, the spirit of the work — piecing together pieces to create a whole picture — is usually consistent.
Police and Law Enforcement Work
A detective in a police agency or law enforcement bureau is usually a somewhat elite officer who works to solve crimes and apprehend wrong-doers. Detectives frequently visit crime scenes, interview witnesses, and review lab reports and suspect profiles. They will assist other investigators in narrowing down a suspect or piecing together an unknown series of events, and are sometimes responsible for making arrests. In some cases, detectives must testify in court about their findings, beliefs, and processes.
Not all detectives are affiliated with the police, however; many do business as private investigators, often within independent firms. These people often solve mysteries or settle personal disputes on a per-project basis. Discovering a biological parent often falls into this realm, as does setting up surveillance on a spouse — these activities often take a bit of sleuthing, but would not be appropriate for the police. Should a private investigator uncover evidence of an actual crime, however, he or she is usually required by law to turn those findings over to law enforcement.
This is not to say that private detectives have no role in crime solving. Many will investigate details of a crime, but usually only after a case has gone “cold” or when there is not enough evidence for law enforcement to continue investigations. A family of a missing or deceased person might engage the services of a private investigator to continue making inquiries, for instance. These inquiries might pose possible solutions to a crime or provide enough evidence for police to reopen a case.
Large corporations occasionally hire detectives to conduct internal investigations in cases of suspected fraud or embezzlement. Going directly to the police in these situations can be embarrassing for a company and can draw unwanted publicity, particularly if there is not actually any wrongdoing. A detective will be able to piece through the paperwork to determine if anything is amiss; once corporate leaders know that something is wrong, they can more confidently turn over the evidence to the appropriate authorities.
Law firms may also keep detectives on staff to help attorneys investigate opponents. In major trials, there is often a lot of paperwork and electronic data that needs to be sorted, scrutinized, and evaluated. While lawyers can do this work, a detective’s expertise is better suited to identifying potential “question areas.” Litigators can then probe these questions in more depth at trial or in depositions.
Training and Necessary Education
In most cases, detectives need to have at least a high school diploma in order to get started, though a college or university degree is often considered an asset. Degrees in criminology, forensics, or even business are often among the most useful. For many, though, hands-on experience is worth more than book learning. Most detectives start out as rookie police officers or work as assistants to private detectives in order to build up their basic skills.
For many detectives, success on the job is mostly about personal intuition and logical abilities. A charismatic personality and the ability to communicate effectively with people who may not want to share information is usually essential. The more advanced the work, the more important it also becomes for a detective to have some technological savvy — using cameras, understanding computer forensics, and operating a wiretap are all important parts of the job.