Becoming a homicide detective

How to Become a Homicide Detective


By Phil Geliebter
Detective, Abington Police Department, and GMercyU Criminal Justice Adjunct Professor 


A homicide detective, sometimes referred to as the “murder police,” is the pinnacle of police work and the career ladder for detectives. Homicide detectives work as members of a team to solve what is the ultimate crime: the taking of another person’s life.

In this article, we'll cover: 

What Does a Homicide Detective Do?

Some law enforcement agencies have a group of detectives dedicated to major crimes, such as homicide. In smaller departments, detectives work on all kinds of cases. These detectives, who handle a variety of non-specialized crimes, are often referred to as “line detectives.'' Usually these detectives are assigned cases as they come in by a supervisor through “the wheel,” or by rotation. It’s not uncommon to hear “Who’s up next on the wheel?” as these cases come in.  

The line detectives are proficient in interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects, as well as photographing and processing evidence at crime scenes. They also may prepare documents for court cases and testify in court.

Larger agencies have specialized units dedicated to specific kinds of crimes, such as sex crimes, financial crimes, narcotics, or homicide.

Homicide Detective Requirements

In almost all cases, homicide detectives work their way up through the ranks of their law enforcement agencies, and almost all law enforcement agencies require a college degree. See more detail below.

Steps to Becoming a Homicide Detective

Step 1: Obtain a college degree.

Majoring in Criminal Justice — and choosing a program at a college or university that offers both classroom and experiential learning — will help set you up for success in the field.

Step 2: Attend a police academy.

This is a necessary step to becoming a police officer. 

Step 3: Pass relevant tests.

Candidates must pass a physical agility test, a written examination, and in most cases, successfully pass an oral interview with the law enforcement agency that is hiring them.

Step 4: Gain experience as a police officer.

After graduating from the police academy and securing a position in law enforcement, a police officer will serve on the streets, working with suspects and victims. This is crucial on-the-job training where an officer’s academic learning is molded by experience. Learning how to interview people and deal with difficult situations is an integral part of becoming a good law enforcement officer.

Usually, a police officer has extensive experience working on the streets before they become a detective. Different law enforcement agencies have different procedures for becoming a detective. In many agencies, it is done through a testing process and is considered a promotion. Other agencies require an interview process.

Skills Needed to Become a Homicide Detective

Homicide detectives are frequently chosen because they have demonstrated their ability to solve difficult cases in other detective units that they have served in. Continual training is needed to keep up-to-date with new techniques and legal requirements. It is necessary for detectives assigned to special units to have additional and periodic training specific to the type of crimes they are investigating and the techniques and tools used to investigate those crimes. Tools and techniques are continually evolving and changing, so a good detective must stay current with those tools and techniques. DNA, computer and mobile phone data retrieval, and cellular phone tracking are all areas that are changing and evolving.

In general, successful homicide detectives have strong problem-solving and communication skills, the ability to work under pressure and in high-stress situations, and a passion for helping the community.  This line of work is not for the faint of heart; candidates will need to be able to stomach whatever you might encounter at a crime scene.

Start Your Journey to Becoming a Homicide Investigator at GMercyU

As shared above, the first step to becoming a homicide detective is earning a college degree. GMercyU’s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree will help prepare you for the field by introducing you to patterns of criminal behavior, the philosophy of punishment for crimes, and the American legal system. During your senior year — included in your tuition — you can attend the Montgomery County Police Academy to earn your Act 120, an essential step to becoming a police officer.

As a GMercyU Criminal Justice major, you’ll learn to investigate an active crime scene, break down a drug conspiracy, and examine the behavior of a sexual predator. You’ll also learn to identify and analyze crimes using criminological theory, forensic science, and the latest in crime scene investigations. You can also take a class inside a detention center as part of GMercyU’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program® — you’ll meet with incarcerated “inside students” and exchange perspectives and ideas on prison reform, social inequalities, and more. 

Now that you’ve learned how to be a homicide detective, learn more about GMercyU’s Criminal Justice program and how it can set you up for career success.