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How many years of college would you need to become a special victims detective ?

#college #criminal-justice #law

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Matthew L.’s Answer

Hi Jenna.

Great question!

I'm not a police detective myself, but as a prosecutor, defense attorney and litigation attorney on serious personal injury cases, I've worked with hundreds of detectives over the last 30 years.

That said, every police agency has different grades of police officer. The most common and most basic level is generally the patrol officer. This is what you will start as after you get hired by a police force. And most states have several different police forces. Cities, counties and the state each has its own police force with patrol-level and detective-level officers in each agency. They may be called different things (like "Trooper") but the roles are similar.

Generally, you can only become a detective after you have been a patrol officer for a few years. Typically, you will be eligible to become a detective after about 3 to 9 years as a patrol officer. There may also be department tests to pass and additional educational requirements you must meet before you get promoted to detective.

Generally speaking, the patrol officers are the first to respond to a crime. They are dispatched by 911 or a similar dispatch department to the scene of a crime or accident. They are the first on the scene and it is their job to secure the scene so that evidence is not damaged or removed, to locate key witnesses, to summon medical help, and to alert supervisors that detectives or other specialist officers are needed. Usually (though not always) the patrol officer will do some preliminary investigation and reporting before turning the matter over to the detective(s) who are more experienced and have more specialized knowledge.

The detective is more of a specialist who does deep investigation into and who, with the help of other experts, actually solves the case. And then, if the situation requires it, the detective is the one who usually presents the evidence that a crime has been committed to a lawyer called the prosecutor or district attorney. The prosecutor, in turn, looks at the evidence and makes the determination whether or not he or she can prove the case in court.

If the detective has done his or her job well, the prosecutor has all she needs to make the case (witness statements, forensic reports, physical evidence, etc.). If the prosecutor believes she has the evidence to make the case, she will request a warrant for the arrest of the person who they suspect committed the crime and issue a document called an "Information" or something similar which outlines the various crimes that are being charged based on the evidence.

If, on the other hand, there is insufficient evidence or some key element is missing form the case, the prosecutor will tell the detective to go get more evidence or that the case just can't be prosecuted and that no charges can be filed. If a warrant is issued, the person will be arrested, questioned and then the matter will go to trial where the prosecuting attorney presents evidence of the crime to a judge or jury. The patrol officer(s) and detective(s) involved will be key witnesses at trial and will tell the court what they learned in their investigation.

To answer your specific question, some large police agencies in big cities or counties do have special detective groups or units, some of which do handle only particular types of crimes like the ones on TV. These specialty detective units may just work on special areas of law like drugs, accidents or violent crimes. In smaller agencies, it is more likely that detectives will be more "generalists" in that they handle whatever type of case that comes along. Could be robbery one day or a missing person the next.

Patrol officers need to know a lot about the law, constitution and rules of evidence to do their jobs properly. All evidence must be preserved and collected in a very specific way to make sure it is not contaminated or handled improperly. Corrupted or improperly documented and handled evidence may be held inadmissible in court. This means that the case may be dismissed or the defendant goes free. Defense attorneys are experts at poking holes in cases and helping their clients avoid conviction and jail. Detectives need to know the law and evidence rules even better than the patrol officers, because it is more likely that detectives will be the ones to collect the evidence and talk to witnesses.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Education - Generally you don't have to possess a college degree to become a patrol officer. Most states, counties and cities prefer that officers have some college or at least that they have graduated from a "police academy". A police academy is load of coursework that teaches you about evidence, law and other issues that police officers need to know. Once you graduate form the academy, you can apply to be a police officer. Most police agencies prefer that detectives have more college or even a four year degree. So you may have to back to school to get that degree to become a detective. Criminal justice is a common major for police officers who attend a 2 or 4 year college.

Additional Training - Additional expertise can also be helpful for detectives. By taking additional classes in forensic evidence, computers, forensic accounting, psychology, criminal profiling, interrogation techniques, or accident reconstruction, among many others, you can become more valuable to the department and can make detective sooner or be assigned to specialty units. This additional training helps detectives solve specialized crimes.

Timing - As noted above, you must be selected to be a detective and only the best officers become detectives. The ones who work harder, smarter and have the extra training will be first in line. Usually after 3 to 9 years you can expect to have a chance to be promoted to detective. And even though the larger departments need more detectives, they also have more officers who want to become detectives so it is more competitive.

The Work - Detectives in real life (not like the ones on TV or in the movies) spend a lot of time writing reports, doing surveillance, interviewing witnesses and investigating crimes. And many of their cases go no where. They may put in weeks or months of hard work and never solve the crime. Or if something gets messed up, the case may get dismissed by the judge or never brought by the prosecutor. And perhaps worst of all, often through no fault of the detective, the case may get plea-bargained down, which means the criminal defendant and his attorney agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for not having a trail. Prosecutors generally like to plea bargain cases because trials are time consuming and expensive and a lot can go wrong. It's easy to lose a criminal trial as a prosecutor, particularly if mistakes were made by the detectives or where evidence is just missing or can't be found.

Even before you get to college or the police academy, you may be able to get a job as an intern at a police station or prosecutor's office. This will give you first-hand experience into how a police department functions and if you really like it. Many departments have ride along programs where you can actually ride along with real officers on patrol.

You can also contact actual working detectives and find out what types of education they have, how they got into the department, how they got promoted, and what you should do. You can also talk to police academies and see what they recommend. You should also be able to sit in on classes at the academy or in a local criminal justice program to see if law and crime interests you.

Hope this helps. Good luck.

Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:

A Four Year Degree is a great start. Get it in something that detectives use and that other detectives won't have to make you stand out--computers, forensic science, psychology, etc.
Talk to working detectives and find out how they did it and what aspiring detectives in the future should focus on.
Get an internship in a police department or prosecutor's office. They may even let you do a "ride along" which is cool.
Contact local police academies and colleges that offer criminal justice programs. You should be able to sit in classes to see if you really like it.
Get great grades in high school so you can get into whatever college you want. Great grades in school and college translates to more job opportunities.
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Molly’s Answer

I have no idea how to directly answer this question, but you may be able to find some information using the Occupational Outlook Handbook: