How To Become A Criminal Investigator

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Are you a puzzle-solver by nature? Do you have a deep sense of justice and want to do right by your fellow man? How does a higher-than-average salary sound to you? 

If all this seems appealing, then the criminal investigator (CI) position might be right up your alley.

This job is one of the most vital in ensuring that we can all live in a relatively safe society. When a serious crime is committed, the criminal investigator is responsible for analyzing data, studying crime scenes, and interviewing suspects to make sure that the perpetrator is caught and brought to justice. Without them, it would be very possible to get away with horrible things, and nobody wants to live in a place like that. 

In this article, we will explore everything that you will need to become a criminal investigator and if it is the perfect job for you.

What Exactly do Criminal Investigators Do?

Criminal investigators are responsible for collecting evidence, data, and witness testimonies to determine the facts needed to solve crimes. They also analyze crime scenes to gain clues about the suspect. 

These types of open cases could take weeks or months to close, and many times they have to work with police, detectives, forensic scientists, and other law enforcement officers. While criminal investigators can apprehend a suspect on their own, usually, you will be expected to work with a team. This is to ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the right perpetrator is caught. The opinions and evidence gathered by other people that you work with will also be useful to your investigation. 

As a criminal investigator, it is possible to work at all levels of law enforcement, including local, state, or federal levels. You will investigate serious crimes such as homicides, assaults, and robberies. Depending on what you specialize in, you could also be involved in forensic cases or even cybercrime. 

It is important to note that you will not be given the large, important cases in the beginning. A CI’s responsibilities (and wages) generally increase with the amount of experience you have. Once you have a track record of successfully closing cases, you will be rewarded with tougher ones to solve. 

Where Do They Work?

Criminal investigators typically work for the police departments of certain districts or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). You might spend most of your time working at a desk when you first start your career and move out in the field as you successfully close more and more cases. 

It also depends on what you decide to specialize in. Forensic CIs might spend most of their time out in the field analyzing crime scenes, while Cybercrime CIs will remain in front of a computer during the day. 

You will be given cases on a rotating basis and will work on them until the criminal responsible is apprehended, or the case is dropped completely. Generally, you will have no say on which case is given to you. However, some CIs go on to become private investigators, where they have more autonomy over the cases they choose. 

Other duties for a criminal investigator might include:

  • Writing case reports about findings at a crime scene
  • Collecting voice recordings and video as evidence
  • Obtaining warrants to apprehend criminals
  • Preparing all collected evidence for trial
  • Presenting said evidence in front of a jury

Is it the Right Job for You?

You must bring a high level of curiosity and resourcefulness to this position. You will be expected to look for small pieces of evidence at a crime scene or find any logical gaps in case files. As a CI, you will have to use whatever proof you have on hand to solve the case, no matter how much or how little. 

Although many criminal investigators find their job mostly rewarding, it can also be a very stressful job and even dangerous. Your full attention will be required for the entire shift, and you might have to be quick to act at a moment’s notice. The CI might also have to deal with individuals capable of violence or enter a crime scene where violence had taken place. 

Here are some other important traits if you would like to pursue this career:

Analytical skills: Criminal investigators must use logic and critical thinking to make wise decisions and come to the proper conclusions

Adaptability:  You must be able to adjust your way of thinking at a moment’s notice since you are in an environment that is constantly changing and new data is always being introduced

Excellent communication skills: CIs will usually come in contact with criminals and potential witnesses whom they will have to persuade to give accurate information. Knowing which questions to ask, as well as how to ask them, is also vital.

Physical Fitness: You might be required to pursue and/or apprehend potential suspects. In some cases, CIs have to restrain criminals until the necessary backup arrives.

Surveillance skills: Criminal investigators have to learn how to blend into their environment and monitor situations or people without raising suspicion.

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What Kind of Education Should I Get?

As long as you have a high school diploma or its equivalent (i.e. GED), you can be hired as a criminal investigator. There are also other avenues you can take, whether that means pursuing a degree at a university or obtaining a certification in a more specialized area.

All in all, the complete time it takes to become a full-fledged criminal investigator is between 3-6 years, depending on whether you would like to pursue more education or certifications to improve your job prospects. 

Training

No matter what route you decide to take, most criminal investigators start their career training at a police academy. After you have obtained your high school diploma or bachelor’s degree, you are required to take the law enforcement entrance exam. After you pass, you can participate in the academy training. 

These training programs usually take about six months. You will then receive further on-the-job training upon entering the police force and will usually partner with a more experienced officer. You will learn how to work on different types of cases and develop a first-hand understanding of investigation techniques. 

You will also take classes on evidence collection, civil and criminal law, forensics, and investigative procedures. These classes will give you the knowledge and insight you will need to succeed in this position.

Bachelor’s Degree

If you would like to earn a university education before attending police academy training, one of the best degrees for criminal investigators is a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice. If you would like to focus on something else, related majors include Criminology, Psychology, or Forensic Science. 

Getting your bachelor’s degree will require more money, of course, as well as more commitment. A typical BS program requires around 120 credits and takes about four years to complete. If you would like to work for the federal government, they usually will require this type of degree. 

Certifications

Certifications are similar to bachelor’s degrees in that they are not required to become a CI, but they might help you in the hiring process. They can also boost your credibility as well as your earning potential. 

There are two popular certifications that criminal investigators pursue:

The first type is from the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI). If you decide to become a legal investigator, you will specialize in helping attorneys prepare cases for trial. Your responsibilities include gathering evidence, reviewing police reports, and recommending experts that could testify in court.

The second is the Professional Certified Investigator from the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS). Once you have this certification, it means that you have in-depth knowledge of security investigations. This type of investigation includes looking over suspicious emails or logins as well as security breaches of companies and/or agencies. 

Schools, Location, and Tuition

Below is a list of colleges that offer either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Criminal Justice or Criminology. BA degrees will focus more on “soft sciences,” such as law, history, and sociology. With a BS degree, your classes will have more of a math and science focus and will include crime statistics, the judicial system, and forensic psychology. Either program will benefit you if you would like to become a criminal investigator. 

This list is not exhaustive, so be sure to do your due diligence and perform your own research before choosing the right school for you.  

School Name / Location / In-State Tuition / Out-of-State Tuition

Adelphi University / Garden City, NY / $42,475

University of Pennsylvania / Philadelphia, PA / $61,710

University of Maryland – College Park / Prince George County, MD / $10,955 / $38,636

Michigan State University / East Lansing, MI / $14,750 / $40,562 

California State University – Long Beach / Long Beach, CA / $6,846 / $18,726 

Texas State University  / San Marcos, TX / $11,135 / $22,559 

West Virginia University / Morgantown, WV / $8,976 / $25,320 

University of South Carolina / Columbia, SC / $12,688 / $33,928 

University of Delaware / Newark, DE / $15,020  /$36,880 

Boston University / Boston, MA / $59,816

Courses

  • Forensic Psychology
  • Interview & Interrogation
  • Criminal Evidence
  • Introduction to Law Enforcement
  • Behavioral Science
  • Cross-Cultural Communications
  • Juvenile Delinquency
  • Criminal Evidence
  • Cyber Crime
  • Leadership in Criminal Justice

Career Overview for a Criminal Investigator

Overall employment for detectives and criminal investigators is projected to grow by 3 percent from now until 2031. About 68,500 openings are also projected each year. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“While a desire for public safety may result in a need for more officers, demand for employment is expected to vary depending on location, driven largely by local and state budgets. Even when crime rates fall, demand for police services to maintain public safety is expected to continue.”

Of course, this is good or bad, depending on how you want to look at it. On the one hand, it means that, even in times of peace, crime will continue. Then again, that means there will always be a need for criminal investigators and law enforcement. 

How Much Will I Get Paid?

Per the BLS, in May 2021, the median annual wage for criminal investigators and detectives was $83,640. That is higher than those in related industries, such as police and sheriff’s patrol officers, who only average $64,610. 

Those Criminal Investigators in the top 10 percent of earners receive over $105,540. 

If you decide to become a CI for the federal government, the median annual wage is $93,970.

Benefits for criminal investigators include paid time off, flexible spending accounts, and a comprehensive medical program with vision and dental. There is also the option to retire at a younger than the average age. 

The five best states with the highest demand for criminal investigators are Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Arizona.

Below is a list of the same five states as well as the average hourly and annual wages:

Texas: $39.76 / $82,700

California: $51.75 / $107,650

New York: $51.92 / $107,990

Florida: $39.35 / $81,850

Arizona:  $42.38 / $88,140

The Criminal Investigator: Job Summary

Becoming a CI is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes your job can be very stressful as you may have to run down criminals, remain objective while observing the aftermaths of violent crimes, and occasionally work very long hours.

On the other hand, if you would like a sense of purpose that comes with bringing criminals to justice, as well as a job that is both challenging and rewarding, then look no further than the criminal investigator (the higher-than-average salary and benefits aren’t bad either).

Pros:

  • One of the most intellectually stimulating jobs available
  • Lots of opportunities for advancement or becoming self-employed as a private investigator
  • Good compensation and benefits with a chance for earlier-than-average retirement
  • Great chance to work as part of a team
  • Solid, positive impact on society

Cons:

  • This job can be stressful as well as physically demanding
  • There is an emotional toll that can come with dealing with certain cases or viewing certain crime scenes

If you’ve already graduated from high school or earned your GED, you can take steps to become a criminal investigator right now! Start studying to take the law enforcement entrance exam for your district of choice. You could also begin looking at colleges or universities that offer a BA or BS in Criminal Justice or Criminology. 

We also have other related occupations that you might be interested in on our website. Take a look at our article on how to become a police officer. Be sure to check back in the coming days for other articles on excellent careers.

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