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What does a Detective do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

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.

Private Investigators

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.

Corporate Detectives

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.

Important Characteristics

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.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon355487 — On Nov 17, 2013

By anon226595 — On Nov 01, 2011

I'm kiyah and I'm in eighth grade. I will do anything to be a detective, but people keep saying I'll never be a detective.

By magoche — On Nov 09, 2010

Are private investigators and private detectives the same thing? Is there any difference between the two?

By anon124123 — On Nov 04, 2010

i can someone please tell me what detectives carry when they are in the job. It would really help.

By anon85865 — On May 22, 2010

Try working for a law firm. I did. I worked in a collections firm doing skip tracing and and asset searches help me to obtain my PI License. I did it for eight years. It depends on your state. I only have to have 2,000 hours of experience to get a company license. Of course I had much more than that. If you want to do surveillance then you may have to intern with an agency. I love it!

By anon82281 — On May 05, 2010

-Smallbiggie- Get your grades up and you may qualify for a loan or scholarship.

By anon74368 — On Apr 01, 2010

To anon56678 in Los Angeles, CA: you can join LAPD and be a police officer first then after four years you can become a detective without going to detective school or anything.

You do need to graduate high school though so uyou need to make sure you do. It is required to join LAPD. I'm 100 percent sure you can do it.

By anon56678 — On Dec 16, 2009

I'm a ninth grader and i want to get into the job of being a detective. my grades are not high up there. what could i do?

By anon48218 — On Oct 10, 2009

Laura! You do not need to go to a "good" college to be a detective. Go to a technical college and study criminology or criminal justice and get your degree. You can make your grades better now by focusing on school instead of friends or boys or whatever it is you kids do these days. If this is really what you want to do then you need to get your head in it. Research what it takes to be a detective and study hard!

By anon28572 — On Mar 18, 2009

I love chistphor meloni off of law & order:svu. He iz awesome. From alexiz fontenot.

By smallbiggie — On Dec 24, 2008

Hi im laura, im a student and in 10th grade. i only want to be a detective. its a dream and something im sure id be good at. but frankly i don't have money for a good college. and school grades aren't really high up there. so what can i do? this is the only job i ever wanted, what do i do?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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