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The definition of detective grows and changes with the times. Technological advances have moved many detectives from the streets to the computer, while crime solving has become just a small sector of the market for detectives. There are two basic styles of detectives: public and private.
Public Detectives - Essentially, law enforcement agents fall into this category. They investigate activities related to criminal acts and suspected criminal activity. They fall under the category of public because their salaries come from taxes and government funding.
Private Detectives - Also referred to as private investigators (PI), these investigative professionals may work directly for the public, with many of them employed by large corporations.
Typically, the term detective is used in reference to private investigators. Using a variety of methods, investigators locate almost anything. Logic skills and an understanding of alternative solutions are required to be a successful investigator. Solving puzzles is an important part of the job, regardless of the application.
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The applications for investigative skills span all industries. Corporations use detectives to perform background checks, while consumers hire detectives to follow a suspected cheater or look up references on a nanny. Law enforcement detectives solve crimes after the fact, and work to prevent the commission of crimes. Many private detective firms also offer security solutions. Assessing the security measures in place to protect a building or adding technical security for a network can fall under a contract with the right detective agency.
Some of the most common tasks performed by private investigators include:
Missing Persons - The police department has limited resources to investigate a missing persons case, especially when there is no evidence of foul play. Private investigators offer an alternative, allowing the family of the missing person to continue looking long after the case no longer has priority with the police department.
Finding a Parent - Adopted children frequently wish to meet their genetic parents. Tracking down the birth parents from a closed adoption proceeding takes considerable time and effort. Most adoptees have no idea where to start. Investigators have access to resources that the average person can't access.
Recover Lost/Stolen Property - Unless the missing item is worth a considerable sum, the police force will not spend much time looking for the item. They are often hampered by jurisdictional boundaries. Private investigators have no issues with jurisdiction, though they may need to request the help of local law enforcement to retrieve the stolen object.
Detectives fill in a gap that is outside of the mandate of the the public police force.
Where and how an investigator works depends on the type of employment. Private Investigators that specialize in background checks spend most of their time at a desk, using computer databases and cross referencing information. Surveillance specialists spend most of their days in a vehicle observing a subject and writing reports.
A PI's work schedule is rarely traditional, though there are corporate positions offering a mostly 9-5 work day. Since dealing with a criminal element goes along with this career, the possession and use of firearms during the work day is common. A private investigator may be called out for emergency cases, security issues or surveillance projects at any time of the day or night. Even investigators employed by the local or federal police force are on call for emergencies. Federally employed investigators also may be asked to travel on very limited notice. Active, energetic job-seekers may find the unstructured nature of investigation to be a better fit than a more traditional career.