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Become a Special Victims Unit Detective: Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a special victims unit detective. Explore the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you'll need to start a career as a detective in the special victims unit. View article »

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  • 0:03 Special Victims Unit…
  • 0:37 Career Info & Skills
  • 1:38 Step 1: College Degree
  • 3:06 Step 2: Police Officer…
  • 3:33 Step 3: Police Academy
  • 4:18 Step 4: Promotion

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Video Transcript

Special Victims Unit Detectives

Detectives are criminal investigators who are typically assigned to a specific department within law enforcement agencies. Special victims unit detectives might investigate cases involving sexual assault, domestic abuse, or crimes against children or the elderly. Duties usually include collecting information, interviewing and arresting suspects, compiling reports, and testifying in court cases.

Detectives typically begin their careers by becoming police officers. Three to four years of experience is usually required.

Career Info & Skills

Special victims unit detectives work on a full-time basis, though some cases might require overtime, night or weekend shifts. Police work in general can be mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding. Detectives may be at risk for personal injuries and might experience confrontations with hostile individuals while doing their jobs.

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent (minimum); associate's degree or bachelor's degree programs available
Degree Fields Law enforcement, criminal justice, administration of justice
Experience 3-4 years of experience as a police officer usually required
Key Skills Physically strong, have excellent communication, leadership, and problem solving skills; must be willing to work in dangerous situations
Salary (2015) $77,210 (median annual salary for criminal investigators and detectives)
Career Outlook Between 2014-2024, police officers and detectives in general can expect a 4%, or slower-than-average, increase in employment.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Step 1: College Degree

There are no standard education requirements for police officers. Some departments require a high school diploma, while others prefer an associate's or a bachelor's degree. Although not always required, police officers seeking promotion to a detective's position can benefit from a postsecondary education. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs are available in criminal justice, law enforcement, or administration of justice. These programs cover topics in criminal law and investigations, ethics, forensic evidence, report writing, and intercultural relations.

Success Tips:

  • Develop communication skills. Police and detective work often involves speaking with suspects, witnesses, and others in the community. Law enforcement officers are also responsible for keeping notes, writing investigation reports and testifying in court, so good communication skills are essential. Courses in English, public speaking, and mass communication can help aspiring detectives learn how to transmit oral and written information clearly.
  • Learn a foreign language. Police officers and detectives who work in a multicultural district may assist the department by learning a language that is commonly used in the area, such as Spanish. Some criminal justice or law enforcement program require foreign language courses.

Step 2: Police Officer Application

The requirements for police officers vary by jurisdiction and are determined by civil service regulations. U.S. citizens who are at least 21 years old can usually apply as police officers. Eligibility depends on passing a background check and meeting physical requirements, including those related to fitness, hearing, and vision. Candidates may also need to pass polygraph tests, drug screenings, and written exams.

Step 3: Police Academy

Qualified candidates must attend a local, state, or federal police training academy. These programs, which typically last several months, include classroom lessons and firsthand training in arrest tactics, self-defense, the use of firearms, defensive driving, and alcohol testing. Recruits may have to pass final physical and written tests before graduating and being sworn in as police officers.

Success Tip:

  • Begin a fitness regimen before entering the academy. Physical training at the police academy is often challenging and strenuous, so candidates might want to start a rigorous fitness routine in advance to receive the full benefit of academy training.

Step 4: Promotion

In many departments, police officers who serve for three to four years may be promoted to detective. They often have to pass competitive civil service exams, which assess their experience, training, and skills. Following promotion, detectives may request transfers to special victims units from their superior officers. Within these units, special victims unit detectives may specialize and receive advanced training in domestic violence, sex crimes, and other areas.

Let's review. Special victims unit detectives usually begin their careers as police officers and may need an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a closely related area. Criminal investigators and detectives in general earned a median annual salary of $77,210 as of May 2015.

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