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What does a Homicide Detective do?

By D. Jeffress
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

A homicide detective investigates murders and tries to solve many of the mysteries surrounding unexplained deaths. Most of these people work for police departments, though they can operate as independent contractors, too; the basic job description is usually about the same for both. The main goal is always to solve the case — that is, to identify what happened, how it happened, and who is responsible. Interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence, and puzzling through the facts are all important parts of the job. It sometimes happens, of course, that answers just can’t be found, but even in these cases, the detective’s work in building up a file and checking out all possible avenues of answers is very important.

Investigative Work

Conducting investigations is the bulk of any homicide detective’s work. This often starts at the scene of the crime, but it doesn’t have to. Some detectives work on cases that are years or decades old, which makes visiting the original scene difficult if not impossible. A lot of the work comes in terms of following clues, piecing together event sequences, and trying to nail down what, exactly, happened when the victim or victims died.

Interviews with witnesses, if there are any, can be a very important element, and the victim’s friends and acquaintances may also be questioned. Paperwork, including going back through the victim’s receipts, credit card charges, and phone records, is also essential. The detective is basically trying to reconstruct the days and hours leading up to the death.

Evidence Collection

Detectives also look for evidence that can lead to the arrest — or at least identification — of the killer or other accomplices to the crime. This can include everything from blood samples and measurements taken from the crime scene to artifacts found in the victim’s home or office. Relevant evidence is anything that will help bring the facts to light, and it can be harder to identify and make sense of than many people realize. A homicide detective has to not only know what to look for, but also understand how to collect and store evidence so that it can be admissible in court. Most jurisdictions have strict rules about how evidence has to be collected and handled so that there isn’t any confusion about its validity or significance.

Logical Reasoning

Not all of the detective’s work is done in the field, and in fact most of the major breakthroughs that happen come about as a result of deep thought and logical reasoning. While detectives must be skilled at investigation and evidence collection, these efforts don’t mean much if the investigator can’t piece his or her findings together in a convincing and meaningful way. He or she must follow his or her instincts and take the time to think through the many pieces of the puzzle. This side of the job is rarely glamorous, and it can often be very frustrating and slow.

Testimony and Legal Recountings

In the event that a homicide detective’s findings lead to an arrest or conviction, he or she may be called to testify in court or provide other statements of the case and its facts. Courts often depend on detective testimony to help judges and juries make sense of what occurred. Testimony is frequently made in person, but written statements and briefings are sometimes also required.

Filing and Paperwork Requirements

Police detectives usually have an important role when it comes to case filings. Their investigations and reports often make up the bulk of the “official” case file, and they can be determinative when it comes to whether an investigation will proceed and when it will end. These professionals must usually abide by rather strict requirements, including but not limited to proper case identification and the use of specific language.

Private investigators are less bound by these rules, but filing is nevertheless very important for them, too. Most detective agencies use sophisticated case management systems that allow investigators to keep track of their evidence and other findings. Both private and police detectives keep case files for many years, often as a permanent record of what was discovered and when. Using a streamlined system that makes identification easy is, therefore, very important.

Detectives Within the Police Force

Most of the time, suspicious deaths are handled first and foremost by the police. Police investigators are usually the first to respond to the scene of the crime and will usually write up a preliminary report of their findings. If it seems that more information is needed, an officer who has been specially trained as a homicide detective is usually assigned. His or her main job is to help the police wrap up the investigation, and to find answers where none are obvious.

Police detectives generally work alongside other law enforcement officials. In most cases, they can include other officers and investigators in their work, and typically have access to local police resources. Getting search warrants, using interrogation rooms, and accessing official forensics labs are just a few examples of the things they can do.

Private and Contract Professionals

In many places, homicide detectives may also be available for private hire. These professionals do not work for the police, but rather are contracted by clients individually. Many work for private detective agencies, though they can also work independently. People hire this sort of detective when they want to investigate a death that the police are either not interested in or have already closed the case on.

The biggest difference between a police and a private detective is the objective of their work. While the police officer wants to close the case for the public good, the private detective is looking to satisfy an individual client. Police detectives are usually able to make arrests, too, while private contractors are typically only hired to discover information. That information is sometimes turned over to police and used to make arrests, but may also simply be used for the client’s peace of mind.

Getting Started in the Field

Becoming a homicide detective usually requires quite a bit of training and expertise. A university degree is almost always needed, and fields such as criminal justice, forensics, and criminal psychology are among the most attractive. In order to work for a police department, hopeful detectives must usually also complete special police academy courses, and they may be required to work as a regular officer for a set period of time before being promoted to detective.

It is usually easier to go into private practice, though different jurisdictions have different rules about what someone must do in order to hold him or herself out as a detective. Some places want proof of training, for instance, or require special detecting licenses. Many of the best private homicide detectives are former police officers who have either retired into private practice or chosen to leave in order to have more flexibility in their scheduling. Detectives with police experience are usually able to charge more for their services, as their training and expertise largely speak for themselves.

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Discussion Comments
By anon312590 — On Jan 08, 2013

My son died six months ago and I think the cop and the detective who had my case didn't do their jobs right. They waited six months just to tell me my son just drowned. I'm not buying that because the details of the story don't make sense.

I want my son's death to be solved the right way. I'm just a mom and I insist my son did not drown because he called me. Because I left a message, he called six months later to say they were closing the case. A lot of friends and family have told me to get a homicide detective so that's what I'm doing.

By mitchell14 — On Dec 21, 2010

I think that in many places these days, more than a college degree might be part of law enforcement's homicide detective requirements. every field is growing more competitive very quickly, and this is no exception. Also, more and more colleges and universities offer criminal justice degrees, and related subjects, on both a bachelor's and a master's degree level. I imagine many places would want a detective with this higher level of education and training.

By stolaf23 — On Dec 20, 2010

@watson42, I think that is because even before homicide detectives became a big topic for television, private eyes were very popular subjects of short stories, novels, and movies. The idea of solving crimes and hunting down criminals seems so romantic to many of us, the reality of it is what seems unlikely.

By watson42 — On Dec 18, 2010

@stolaf23, the same assumption is often applied to anyone who works as a private investigator. They seem as though they would be constantly solving serious mysteries, or following very dangerous people to uncover important secrets. In reality, most private investigators rely on things like divorce cases and inheritance disputes. Every so often a more interesting criminal case might come along, but it is rare for many private investigators to have them that often.

By stolaf23 — On Dec 18, 2010

If you watch any crime solving television shows, it might seem that homicide detectives have an exciting job full of thrills, chills, and daily challenges. However, the reality is that the police force in general is something of a dull and painstaking job. There are many rules and regulations for the homicide investigation process; while they are often broken on television, breaking these rules in real life nearly always leads to a seemingly guilty defendant being able to walk away free.

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