How to Become a Missing Persons Investigator

Learn how to become a missing persons investigator. Research the job duties and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in public and private investigations.

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Do I Want to Be a Missing Persons Investigator?

Private detectives are often hired to locate missing persons. Law enforcement agencies also have missing persons units. Both public investigators and police officers can work for these units at the local, state, or federal levels.

Missing persons investigators at law enforcement agencies often focus on finding kidnapped, missing, or runaway children. Investigators can also locate missing adults, but, in many cases, investigators are not allowed to provide confidential information about a reportedly missing adult's current whereabouts. Private investigators often have more freedom to reveal location information about a reportedly missing adult.

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours in order to complete their investigations, including nights and weekends. Investigators working with the police will likely work full-time, but again, have irregular shifts, depending on the case. Regardless of employer, work as an investigator or private detective can be physically demanding and include an element of risk. Many of these individuals are armed in order to protect themselves from harm, should the need arise.

Job Requirements

Law enforcement investigators are usually required to complete police training and postsecondary coursework as well as build related work experience. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that private investigators do not have uniform education or experience requirements. Most states do require private investigators to obtain licenses, and licensing requirements may include a certain amount of postsecondary training and field experience. The following table shows the major qualifications needed for starting a career as a missing persons investigator for both public and private employers:

Common Requirements
Degree Level No degree is required but relevant postsecondary coursework and academy training is needed*
Licensure Private investigator state licenses, weapons permits (if desired)**
Experience Generally three years' experience with conducting investigations, interviewing suspects and/or running surveillance missions**
Key Skills Able to remain patient during long surveillance sessions, maintain a high level of integrity, be creative with using available resources, be comfortable communicating with law enforcement, be capable of listening to clients, possess an inquisitive nature and able to find solutions to difficult problems*
Computer Skills Capable of finding information about missing persons on social media websites, knowledgeable about missing persons databases and familiar with conducting background searches through specialized software programs*
Technical Skills Comfortable taking pictures with cameras, able to follow people inconspicuously, knowledgeable about GPS and other tracking systems, familiar with surveillance cameras and capable of watching suspects through binoculars*
Additional Requirements Capable of remaining in one place for extended periods of time, willing to work odd hours and comfortable working indoors and out*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **State-run private investigator licensing information websites.

Step 1: Complete Initial Training Programs

Individuals who want to work as missing persons investigators at local police departments will need to complete police academy training first. Each state has different academy requirements, but information from the BLS and police science training programs show that most trainees learn about emergency planning, state laws, resource management, firearms safety, patrol procedures, emergency medical services, civil rights and self-defense.

People who want to become private detectives might consider completing private investigations certificate or vocational training programs. These programs teach students about techniques for interviewing suspects, methods for gathering investigation information, undercover investigation strategies, privacy laws, surveillance strategies, field notes, fraud investigations, research strategies, liability issues, specialty investigations and legal concerns. Students also learn how to conduct investigations professionally so that all evidence gathered could be used within a court of law, if necessary.

Success Tip:

  • Pursue bachelor's degrees for federal positions. Federal law enforcement officers might also become involved in a missing person case. According to the BLS, most law enforcement positions within federal agencies require applicants to hold bachelor's degrees. Degrees could be in fields such as law enforcement or criminal justice. Coursework in criminal justice programs may include criminal law, policing, correctional facilities, criminal justice research and criminal procedures.

Step 2: Build Investigations Experience

At the local level, missing persons investigators are often detectives, but to become a detective requires first building law enforcement experience as a police officer. Federal investigators also need prior work experience related to criminal justice or law enforcement, and information from the BLS shows that federal agent applicants require a minimum of three years' experience in the field.

Private investigators often need to build-up suitable work experience in order to obtain state licenses. Obtaining private investigator licenses is mandatory throughout the majority of the country. Most states require that private investigators have at least three years of related experience, which could include experience from law enforcement, working under licensed private investigators or investigating cases for insurance companies.

Success Tip:

  • Develop a broad range of experience. Although someone may want to become a missing persons investigator, missing persons cases could involve investigations into white-collar crimes, insurance fraud, identity theft or corporate espionage. Therefore, it might be a good idea for investigators to gain as much cross-training as possible before they focus on the missing persons field.

Step 3: Obtain Missing Persons Training

After building up enough experience in general investigations, public law enforcement detectives may pursue missing persons training. Some agencies may provide on-the-job training, but others might require investigators to attend formal classes. Course topics can include procedures for initial responses, community support, AMBER alerts, methods for working across jurisdictions and strategies for utilizing all missing persons databases.

There are some college courses that provide missing persons investigations training. Many of these courses are designed for emergency services providers or currently employed law enforcement agents. Private investigators may still be eligible to take these classes, but those who do not possess backgrounds in law enforcement may struggle in these courses.

Step 4: Get Required Licenses or Permits

Most states do not require public law enforcement agents to obtain a license, provided those individuals fulfill law enforcement training requirements. Private investigators, on the other hand, generally require licenses. Most states have age requirements for private investigator licenses, and the minimum age requirement ranges from 18-25, depending on the state. In most cases, license applicants must have a clean record, possess proof of U.S. citizenship and, in some cases, pass drug tests.

Upon meeting license eligibility requirements, most states require applicants to pay fees and pass private investigator exams. Exams can include questions about state laws, surveillance techniques, strategies for undercover agents, evidence handling and legal terminology. Private investigators who wish to carry guns may have to apply for weapons permits. To be eligible for weapons permits, individuals might have to complete gun safety courses, in accordance with state laws.

Success Tip:

  • Keep licenses and permits active. Private investigators must maintain their licenses and weapons permits. License renewal may require paying additional fees, submitting paperwork and showing proof of fingerprinting. Applicants may also have to pass background checks. Weapons permit renewal requirements may include recertification tests. For example, during the two years that a firearms permit is active, California requires permit holders to take requalification exams every 4-6 months.
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