Responsibilities of a detective and a criminal investigator

Updated 30 June 2023

Careers in criminal justice require individuals who enjoy solving problems and thinking of unique solutions. Numerous roles allow you to examine situations and assist people in the criminal justice field. When considering a career in criminal justice, understanding the nuances between various roles in the police force can help you choose a position that best fits your skills and interests. In this article, we discuss the differences between a detective versus a criminal investigator, outline their job requirements and highlight each role's typical caseload.

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What is the difference between a detective and a criminal investigator?

Understanding the roles of a detective and a criminal investigator can help you determine the right career choice for you. A detective can work for a criminal investigations department, detective agencies and private organisations or freelance. Insurance companies and banks may hire these professionals to validate their customers' claims when performing fraud investigations. Detectives in law enforcement can participate in criminal investigations and analyse evidence to help victims achieve an appropriate outcome.

A criminal investigator gathers information and evidence to solve crimes. These professionals might search for and gather tangible evidence like fingerprints, DNA samples and weapons. They use their skills to record and evaluate various materials from victim and witness accounts. Criminal investigators can specialise in the following:

  • child abuse investigations

  • sexual assault investigations

  • cybercrime

  • fraud investigations

  • digital media investigations

Related: What is criminology? (Plus how to become a criminologist)

Roles of a detective

The roles of a detective can include:

  • looking for information, witnesses and evidence

  • meeting with clients to gain a better understanding of the case

  • conducting background checks

  • photographing suspicious activities

  • finding lost persons or animals

  • documenting and verifying information

  • examining court records

Skills of a detective

A detective may require these skills when working in the criminal justice field:

  • Critical thinking: This is necessary when solving problems and making decisions in various circumstances.

  • Effective communication: The ability to ask questions, actively listen to responses and pay attention to details.

  • Patience: This is necessary for long hours of observation and gathering facts.

  • Confidentiality: Sources of information may need protection, and detectives use secrecy to guard confidential information until they solve a case.

Roles of a criminal investigator

The roles of a criminal investigator include:

  • interviewing and monitoring suspects and witnesses

  • analysing medical, personal and criminal records

  • obtaining evidence from forensics professionals

  • getting warrants for arrests and searches

  • adhering to legal requirements when performing duties

  • collaborating with other law enforcement personnel

Related: What are critical thinking skills and how are they used?

Skills of a criminal investigator

Agencies prefer individuals who are detail-oriented and excel at solving complex puzzles. This allows them to utilise these talents to organise their work, communicate with colleagues and investigate crimes. These professionals require technical skills, such as:

  • Understanding of law: These professionals require a thorough knowledge of the law to assist them when collecting evidence to present in court.

  • Research and writing skills: Criminal investigators gather background information about a case and write and document evidence.

  • Communication skills: These professionals interview various parties and require listening effectively and assessing individuals' body language to identify truthful information.

  • Technical skills: These professionals can use surveillance and analytical tools to collect and assess the evidence.

Related: 18 different types of evidence used in criminal courts

How to become a detective

Consider the following five steps to becoming a detective:

1. Define your professional objectives

Start by defining your professional goals to determine what services you want to provide as a detective. For example, you can work exclusively with private clients, assisting them in obtaining evidence for divorce or finding missing people. An alternative is collaborating with company professionals to help solve complex corporate challenges, such as commercial piracy or fraud. If you're interested in working in law enforcement, consider the following roles you can transition to as a detective:

  • detective inspector

  • detective chief inspector

  • detective constable

  • detective superintendent

  • detective sergeant

Related: How To Become a Detective in the UK

2. Participate in self-defence training

You can encounter situations that require you to defend yourself as a detective. Training can provide you with expert knowledge of self-defence techniques and assist you in ensuring your safety at work. If you want to create a business and hire other private detectives, consider including self-defence training as part of the company's employee benefits package.

3. Obtain a licence as an investigator

A private detective licence can help you strengthen your qualifications and portray yourself as a trustworthy professional who invests in your talents. You can obtain a Security Industry Authority licence (SIA) which enables you to network with other detectives, improve your reputation and gain new clients through recommendations. If you want to work in law enforcement, you can pursue an alternate training path through the Police Now National Detective Programme, which teaches key skills for the role. To be eligible, a candidate requires a minimum of a second-class upper at an undergraduate level.

4. Obtain a driver's licence

A driving licence allows you to travel throughout the city or country searching for evidence for your clients, investigating crime scenes or speaking with witnesses. As a private detective, your work may involve observing people from your vehicle for extended periods. A valid driving licence may be a requirement for potential employers.

5. Get work experience

Consider searching for a job that allows you to assist a detective with experience. You can gain from their knowledge which might help you start your new career. Connect and maintain relationships with your mentor's clients to expand your professional network and prepare you to become a private detective.

You can register yourself as self-employed and seek clients. Owning an agency often differs from working for one, so consider weighing the benefits and drawbacks before committing to it full-time. If you feel uncertain, consider working part-time in an organisation and working for one client at a time after work hours.

Related: 7 types of self-employment (with tips and benefits)

How to become a criminal investigator

Here are four steps to becoming a criminal investigator:

1. Acquire relevant qualifications

If you're interested in becoming a criminal investigator, consider participating in the Professionalising Investigation Programme (PIP). PIP allows you to develop standard investigative skills that you can apply in law enforcement. There are various incremental PIP levels:

  • PIP 1: A candidate interviews witnesses or victims, gathers and assesses the evidence and collaborates with other investigators to determine whether someone is guilty of an offence.

  • PIP 2: The candidate uses their skills to gather evidence and investigate complex crimes and can transition to specialists, such as a child abuse investigator.

  • PIP 3: This level enables candidates to develop into skilled senior investigators.

  • PIP 4: Candidates develop into strategic investigators to review complex, organised or major crime investigations.

Related: A guide to 14 different jobs within the police force

2. Gain professional experience

Some agencies provide internship roles, allowing applicants to gain practical experience and improve their chances of finding a position once they graduate. Consider applying for police officer jobs or a police academy since most agencies require criminal investigators with prior law enforcement experience.

Related: How to become a criminal investigator (including skills)

3. Refresh your CV

Ensure all your contact details, including your phone number and email address, are accurate. Create a professional summary detailing your qualifications and any new credentials you acquired since your last job application. These include your educational background, professional qualifications, employment history and certifications.

4. Apply for a criminal investigator role

After gaining relevant experience, you can search for a position as a criminal investigator. Ask your management team if there are any openings. This enables management to know you're interested in the job even if there aren't any openings, which might persuade them to consider you in the future. You can also look for positions as a criminal investigator at other agencies or ask people in your professional network about such openings.

Related: 33 HMRC criminal investigator job interview questions

Typical caseload of a detective

General detectives can handle any case. They may be criminal, civil or personal. A detective can handle the following cases:

  • Child custody: A detective can investigate custody agreements to determine whether one or both parents are providing a child with the best care.

  • Cold case: Detectives can handle criminal cases that investigators haven't solved because of a lack of evidence.

  • Background checks: An organisation can hire a private detective to conduct background checks of individuals during the hiring process.

  • Organisational investigations: Businesses can use a detective to carry out an independent investigation of suppliers, staff members or management to identify any occurrence of misconduct.

  • Insurance fraud: An insurance firm may hire a detective to determine whether an insured person is committing fraud.

  • Missing persons: If police enforcement cannot locate a missing family member, the family can employ a private detective to maximise the likelihood of a successful recovery.

Typical caseload of a criminal investigator

Criminal investigators primarily handle felony cases. These professionals can handle the following cases:

  • arson

  • homicide

  • forensic investigations

  • kidnapping

  • robbery

  • burglary

  • vandalism

  • gang violence

  • sexual assault

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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