Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Working in the field of law enforcement means that you have the opportunity to apply for or get promoted to different positions. One of the attractive jobs in the field is that of the criminal investigator. This is a position that involves many duties, the performance of which requires the possession of certain skills, knowledge and abilities.

criminal investigator jobs, duties, and skills

The popularity of the criminal investigator is also due to movies and series, where we see well-educated and witty men and women solve difficult and tangled cases, working with modern equipment and in collaboration with other experts. If you want to know what truly to expect if you become one and what is necessary in order to be hired, have a look at the simple guide we have compiled for you below.

Career requirements for criminal investigators

In order to become a criminal investigator, the candidate needs to fulfill three main requirements:

  1. Have the necessary education
  2. Obtain the relevant experience
  3. Get promoted to the position

While the requirements of becoming a criminal investigator may vary between the different agencies, there are a few essentials that need to be met.

  • Education

Having the necessary education is the first step on the path of becoming a criminal investigator. Theoretically, a high school diploma or an equivalent may be sufficient with some agencies. Having a high school diploma means that you can start an entry-level position at a local or state law enforcement agency, usually as a police officer and then work your way to the desired position of a criminal investigator.

If you want to stand a better chance, however, it is good to invest a bit more into your education. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree are a great advantage and are sometimes even a requirement by the employers. A master’s degree in law enforcement or criminal justice can mean better pay and easier advancement on the career path.

Some of the appropriate majors for the position of a criminal investigator include criminal justice, law enforcement, homeland security, and computer science. You should be looking for programs that include courses in criminology, criminal law, investigative techniques, community-oriented policing, substance abuse and the like.

  • Experience

The second step in becoming a criminal investigator is gaining the necessary experience. The position is primarily assigned to officers with the following ranks: Law Enforcement Officer II, Law Enforcement Officer III, and Law Enforcement Manager II.

The career path starts at the level of a police officer/patrol officer. You should know that the hiring process is rather long and contains several steps. Generally, agencies require the candidate to be US citizen, 21 ears old, have a valid driver’s license and high school diploma or the equivalent. The candidates pass several tests – a written exam, physical ability test, psychological check and polygraph test. The background check is an important part of the process as it is important for the prospective police officers to have clean past with felonies, no serious misdemeanor, drug abuse, domestic violence and the like.

After serving for several years as a police officer, you can be promoted to the position of a criminal investigator. Some state and federal agencies hire entry-level criminal investigators without requiring any law enforcement experience.

Former military and law enforcement officers may meet the requirement for experience. Parole and probation officers are also allowed to use their experience in some states. Some agencies allow a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice to substitute the requirement for experience.

  • Get promoted

With the necessary education and experience you have the actual chance to get promoted to the position of a criminal investigator. It is good to show your superiors your intention of becoming a criminal investigator and work towards achieving it. Showing efficiency in the performance of the duties and tasks you are assigned with gives you better chances for career growth.

You can become a criminal investigator after finishing a probation period, taking a promotion exam or adding additional qualification, such as a degree in criminal justice or forensics.

Once you become a criminal investigator, you should be ready to undergo continuous training and testing in order to show that you keep up with the requirements and new trends of the job. Firearms proficiency testing and physical agility exams are performed at regular intervals.

Common duties and tasks of criminal investigators

The main task of the criminal investigator is to conduct investigations of criminal cases. This involves series of duties and tasks that need to be performed. The criminal investigator works 40 hours per week, however they are often on call and may have to work during the weekend, in the night or on holidays.  This means that you should be able to work overtime. In many cases, the criminal investigator works alone but in collaboration with other investigators. There are instances where criminal investigators have partners or work in a team.

Some of the main tasks and duties that the criminal investigators need to perform include the following:

  • Interview suspects and witnesses
  • Examine crime scenes and obtain evidence
  • Obtain evidence from suspects
  • Photograph, mark and note the place where evidence and other objects were located on the crime scene. This may include weapons, footprints, tire tracks, blood, etc.
  • Testify in court as a witness
  • Communicate with the officer in charge at the crime scene, as well as with the medical examiner and other involved experts.
  • Prepare and analyze police reports
  • Examine records and files to find information about the suspect or similar crimes

As a whole the work can be described as investigative, enterprising and social. Investigative as it includes working with data, information, making assumptions and reaching conclusions. Enterprising as it involves starting and finalizing projects, leading teams. The work is also social as the criminal investigator communicates with different types of people – suspects, victims, witnesses, colleagues and should be able to deal with them in the most appropriate way. Besides, the job is actually providing a service to the community – solving a crime.

Necessary skills and abilities for becoming a criminal investigator

In order to become a criminal investigator, each candidate needs to have specific skills, abilities and knowledge. They can be acquired through education and perfected in the course of their law enforcement work experience. Some of the skills and abilities are related to social interaction and communication, others are purely linguistic, while the knowledge can be very specific for the job. Here is a list of what a good criminal investigator should be able to do or know. Of course, you are not expected to have all of these talents at a perfect level.

The main skills for a criminal investigator include:

  • Communication skills – being able to understand what other people are saying, while giving them their full attention. Asking question in order to clarify all points. Being able to talk with different groups of people and influence them when needed. Understanding the reactions of others and what causes them is also an important skill.
  • Reading and writing skills – the criminal investigator should be able to write clearly so that the text is understood by all who need it. They should also be able to read and understand police reports without difficulties. Knowledge about English language, its structure, grammar, spelling is a must.
  • Managing skills – being able to manage their own time as well as the time of the others. Being able to lead a team, to participate in strategic planning, resource allocation and human resources management.
  • Ability to multi-task – at some points, you might be requested to work on several cases. Therefore, you need to be able to prioritize and also pay attention to details. The ability to find the relevant information and grasp its meaning is also an important asset for the position.
  • Ability to identify patterns – noticing a common detail between crime scenes or methods is of paramount importance. Ability to identify specific figures or forms among other unnecessary material is also important.

In addition to these various skills and abilities, criminal investigators should have specific knowledge about laws and legal codes. They should be familiar with court procedures, existence of precedents, government regulations and agency rules in order to do their job efficiently. Criminal investigators should know how to work with specific equipment and how to apply given policies and procedures in order to protect data, people or property.

Types of criminal investigators

Criminal investigators may specialize in a certain type of crimes. Often the specialization is determined by the needs of the agency or department they work for. There are several main “specialties” that include homicide, property crimes, human trafficking, narcotics, financial crimes, internet crimes against children, major crimes, violent crimes, etc. Often one crime may demand the work of criminal investigators from different branches.

Here are a few details about the most popular positions:

  • Homicide

This is investigation of cases that involved the death of a person when foul play is suspected. The criminal investigator usually works alone on one case but can also work in pairs. The investigator visits the crime scene to collect evidence, interviews suspects and witnesses, family and friends of the deceased. Work with other professionals is also included – for example with local prosecutors. Giving testimony in court is also part of the job responsibilities.

  • Cyber crimes

Criminal investigators working in this field usually have strong knowledge of computers and education in the field of computer sciences. Their tasks may include monitoring chat rooms to prevent crime against children or investigating cases of possible identity theft, internet-based scams or infringement of intellectual property.

  • Narcotics

Drugs are another major field of investigation and criminal investigators work at a local, state and federal level to cope with the problem. The sale and purchase of illegal narcotics is the main focus of the job. Quite often criminal investigators have to conduct undercover operations or infiltrate in drug trafficking groups. Giving testimony about the operations is part of their duties as well.

Salary and job outlook

The data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the mean annual wage for the position of a criminal investigator is $83,320. The payment, however, varies depending on several major factors:

  • Location – there are some states that pay a much higher average salary compared to others. Some of the best-paying states are Alaska ($116,130), California ($103,810) and New Jersey ($100,980). Note, however, that these are not the states that employee the highest number of people in this position. There is more demand for criminal investigators and law enforcement officers in general in the states with larger population such as Texas, California and New York.
  • Employer – there is a difference in the payment for the position, depending on whether the criminal investigator works for a federal, state or local agency. The highest paying employer is the federal executive branch with $106,040.
  • Years of service – depending on the experience, a criminal investigator receives between $37K to $110K per year according to the data provided by PayScale.
  • Education – having a higher degree in a relevant field may also contribute to receiving a better payment.

Nearly all criminal investigators have medical benefits and the majority also get a dental coverage.

The career opportunities include moving up to a next pay band, changing positions or becoming a supervisor. You can choose between practitioner and management roles. In other words, once becoming a criminal investigator you can develop your career both vertically – grow to a next level, or horizontally – move between departments and different positions (investing homicide, cybercrime, etc.).

What is the difference between detective and criminal investigator?

If you are browsing the job openings for law enforcement positions, you will come across open positions for detectives and criminal investigators. These, actually, are not different jobs. The difference in the name comes from the title the different agencies use for the position. Agencies that have uniformed positions such as police departments, sheriff’s departments, state patrol, have the job title of detective. Law Enforcement agencies that do not have uniformed positions such as FBI, Secret Service state divisions of criminal investigation and other federal agencies, use the title of Criminal Investigator or Special Agent.

In other words, the job duties of a detective or a criminal investigator are the same, along with the requirements for the candidates for these positions. Whether you will have the title of a detective or that of a criminal investigator depends solely on the agency you will work for.

If you have a passion for investigative work, ability to solve difficult cases and strong attention to details, then the job of a criminal investigator is the right for you. It is a good way to pursue a stable career in law enforcement and grow both horizontally and vertically within the system.