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.

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Should I Become a Special Victims Unit Detective?

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

Police detectives, including those who work in special victims units, work on a full-time basis, though some cases might require overtime, night or weekend shifts. Aspiring detectives must have extensive experience and training in law enforcement. Police work can be mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding. Detectives are exposed to personal injury risk and might experience confrontation with hostile individuals in their job.

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Career Requirements

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 Strong written and verbal communication, problem-solving abilities, leadership skills, physical strength, willingness to work in dangerous situations
Salary $79,870 (median annual wage for all detectives and criminal investigators, 2014)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Obtain a College Degree

Detectives typically begin their careers by becoming police officers. 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 it may not be required, a police officer seeking promotion to a detective position can benefit from having postsecondary education. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs are available in criminal justice, law enforcement or administration of justice. These programs cover topics such as investigations, ethics, forensic evidence, criminal law, report writing and intercultural relations.

Success Tips:

  • Develop communication skills. Police and detective work largely 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 schools require foreign language courses as part of a criminal justice or law enforcement degree program.

Step 2: Begin the Application Process

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 acceptable hearing, vision and fitness abilities. Candidates may also need to pass polygraph tests, drug screenings and written exams.

Step 3: Attend the Police Academy

Upon meeting all application qualifications, 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 areas such as firearms, defensive driving, alcohol testing, arrest tactics and self-defense. 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: Earn a Promotion

In many departments, a police officer who serves for 3-4 years in the patrol unit is eligible for promotion to detective. These officers are often required to pass competitive civil service exams, which assess their experience, training and skills. After receiving promotion, detectives may request a transfer to the special victims unit from their superior officers. Within the unit, detectives may specialize and receive advanced training in domestic violence, sex crimes or another area.

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