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A detective is a person, usually employed in a state agency and sometimes by private parties, to investigate and solve crimes through the methods of crime scene forensics, ballistics, canvass questioning, surveillance, suspect interrogation, and the production of evidence for legal proceedings.

This individual, be it male or female, whose role it is to expressly interview eyewitnesses, inspect the crime scene, search for fingerprints or bodily fluids to be later used in laboratory tests, examine ballistic evidence, and lead an arrest is now considered a vital part of the justice system in most developed and developing nations across the world and has been mythologized as much in fiction and pop culture.


The detective, as well as the public police officer, is only a recent vocation and concept in society - only necessitated by the rule of law and the rise of governments which were not absolute monarchies such as liberal democracies or communist dictatorships.

When the introduction of evidence became more critical than legal argument alone in a criminal trial, the role of the detective began to rise in prominence alongside the use of the judiciary system to redress crimes instead of ritual violence, clergy arbitration, or martial intervention. The specialization of a detective from that of any police officer grew with the use of search warrants, the requirement of suspect admission or compelling evidence for a conviction, and eyewitness testimony for presentation during a trial.

As the technology that could identify crime scene evidence has evolved, the requirements for a detective have risen now to often require higher-level education and experience with forensics, ballistics, and psychology. With the advent and admissibility of DNA as evidence as well as the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, the role of the detective is in risk of being shared with, or even supplanted, by the crime scene unit and laboratory testing.

North America

Employed by most major cities' police departments in large numbers, detectives are divided into various areas of expertise and crime in law enforcement including:

  • Vice (Prostitution and in some areas, Pornography)
  • Narcotics (Illegal use of substances)
  • Organized crime (Large groups engaging in racketeering or illegal business)
  • Robbery (Robberies of businesses and burglary)
  • Homicide (Murders and manslaughters)

Larger police departments also have specialist departments such as:

While the names of the specific divisions may vary in the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico, their roles remain largely the same. This universal specialization, along with the use of extradition treaties and bounty hunters, has boosted attempts across municipal, state, and national borders to share information and pursue criminals who escape one jurisdiction for another.

Detectives are typically assigned in pairs over an extended period of time and work on a caseload or case-by-case basis depending on the priority of each reported crime as determined by a superior police officer, such as a precinct captain, task force leader, police chief, national law enforcement agency, or even political leader. Informants are often used in areas such as organized crime, robbery, vice, or counterfeiting. They will issue requests for information from the public by posters or via the media with monetary rewards in large cases or those which require more evidence or a suspect, often with the promise of anonymity.

In most medium and large law enforcement departments, a detective holds a special rank of detective, which is above the entry rank (usually deputy or officer) but below supervisory ranks such as corporal or sergeant. Smaller towns will simply name all members of their law enforcement sheriffs, especially those in the western and southern United States. A detective can however, be promoted to a higher rank and retain their job as a detective or supervise other police officers. State-level or province-level law enforcement agencies also retain detectives, but typically under a different rank such as state trooper.

Law enforcement agencies on the national level such as the FBI or the RCMP also employ individuals with the same function and status as detectives but are given other titles such as federal agent, Mountie, member, special agent, marshal, or others.


The European Union is now working on even greater amounts of cooperation between the many law enforcement agencies of its constituent nations. This is in addition to the long pioneering efforts of the United Kingdom and France especially in the field of law enforcement. Western European law enforcement departments have either kept pace with or even outmatched North America in their use of detectives and their effect on both lowering the crime rate and solving crimes that were committed. The murder rate in the U.K. is less than 2 per 100,000 annually compared to nearly 6 per 100,000 annually in the U.S.

One of the most important innovations in detective work, Interpol, was created and rests in Europe - which was one of the first and still the largest attempts to create a vast worldwide database of alleged crimes and criminals.

Other Locales

Many newer democracies and military dictatorships still rely upon the use of secret police or martial law to instill a high degree of fear in the populace as a method of crime prevention. They also possess a less developed educational system and less rule of law, all of which makes the role of detective less necessary.

Some police departments in Asia and Africa, especially China and India, have grown less paramilitary and now employ either trained detectives or untrained police officers with the same function. However, the dual threat of an overwhelming backlog and a stifling atmosphere of corruption will pose severe challenges for clear detective work to be conducted as a part of routine law enforcement work either on the local or national levels.

Private Investigator

Alongside this, individuals with roughly the same qualifications would work in a private capacity for citizens willing to pay them to address crimes or personal problems that escaped police attention or rested outside government jurisdiction. Private investigators, also known as P.I.s or private eyes, often work in investigation or security firms, a lone freelancer, or specifically in-house for a business or private citizen. Often, this would involve the investigation of thefts, which many police departments were unequipped to handle at first, or of the client's personal, political, or business rivals. Sometimes, private detectives are called upon to produce evidence required for civil trials by their clients. Many private investigators are retired detectives or intelligence agents themselves hiring out their skills.

These private investigators now help prove infidelities for divorce proceedings, work for businesses to prevent thefts or leaks of information, or to pursue felons or cases which cross jurisdictions. To varying degrees, private investigators are both highly respected and highly reviled for the liberties they take to accomplish their goals.

Detectives in Fiction

As a literary protagonist, the detective has come to equal and even outgrow the adventurer, such as Jason or Allan Quartermain, or the warrior, such as Gilgamesh or . Early examples of the archetype's importance came with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes which became the epitome of the private investigator as well as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

The 20th Century brought more changes to the character of the detective in mystery stories, to the point that a subgenre named detective stories appeared. American fiction made its own mark with the fedora-wearing "gumshoe" who would often resort to force to resolve a case, creating another type of mystery fiction, called crime noir. This continued with TV detectives such as Colombo or Thomas Magnum. Even modern era superhero characters such as Batman, Black Canary, or The Question have a heavy detective or investigative part of their persona - implying that a superior intellect is just as critical as superior physical abilities. The portrayal of detectives employed by a police department also increased and were glamorized as a contrary but effective pair of do-gooders in TV shows such as Starsky & Hutch and Nash Bridges or movies such as the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon series. TV shows portraying groups of detectives accompanied the popular ethic of teamwork as well in shows such as In the Heat of the Night, 21 Jump Street, or Homicide.

As an attempt to reconcile the incredible advances in forensics with the role of the detective, television shows such as the CSI franchise in which the laboratory technicians themselves become part of a task force of detectives. Another group of TV programs, Law & Order attempts to be more procedural and deemphasizes the personal lives of the detectives in favor of focusing on the intricacies of the crime as well as the steps involved in bringing a detective's findings to a trial and jury. The grittier side of detective fiction, especially the corruptibility of the protagonist, was shown in The Shield.