What is a Crime Scene Investigator?
The Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) collects and preserves a variety of evidence from an active crime scene. The crime scene investigator is most often a law enforcement professional responsible for the identification, collection, preservation, and cataloging of physical evidence at the crime scene.
What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?
Although many people assume that the crime scene investigator is responsible for the performance of tests of various types of physical evidence, forensic professionals and scientists are most often responsible for the performance of these tasks.
However, some CSIs do perform forensic work tasks. However, most crime scene investigators limit their tasks to the crime scene. They collect evidence like fingerprints, DNA, firearms, or photographic evidence.
The crime scene investigator label often describes various positions within an agency. Specific qualifications apply to each crime scene investigator role. For example, a crime scene investigator may hold the title of 1) crime scene leader, 2) DNA expert, 3) crime scene technician, 4) fingerprint specialist, 5) forensic photographer, 6) ballistics expert, 7) forensic science technician, or 8) forensic sketch artist.
The crime scene investor may work at a federal, state, or local municipal government or law enforcement agency. He or she may work at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), state police department, or local sheriff’s office.
Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator
Before pursuing the prerequisite courses to become a crime scene investigator, research different positions offered by law enforcement agencies or other employers of interest. Research helps the future crime scene investigator to determine an action plan for educational programs and internships.
Step #1 – Understand the CSI Role
Before pursuing any education program, it is essential to understand the particulars of the role. Understand what working as a crime scene investigator entails to ensure this position is a good fit:
- Search for information presented by real-world crime scene investigator. The work of a crime scene investigator differs from the depiction of the crime scene investigator in movies and TV.
- Recognize that crime scene investigators are often “on-call.” They must agree to work whenever their employer requires the investigation of a crime scene. This can involve working on holidays, nights, early morning, or weekends.
- Realize that the crime scene investigator works in a variety of conditions and environments. Some crime scene investigations may be life-threatening or unhealthy.
- Understand that crime scene investigators must deal with offensive scents or images as a part of their work.
- Know that the crime scene investigator must work under pressure. He or she must develop skills to accurately and efficiently preserve crime scene evidence.
Step #2 – Know the duties of each crime scene investigator position opening
Each crime scene investigator job differs from the next. Before pursuing a crime scene investigator educational program, search for a variety of online postings. Compare the crime scene investigator position descriptions to obtain a good idea of the types of CSI jobs offered.
The duties of a crime scene investigator may include:
- Document crime scenes through diagrams, measurements, sketches, and photographs.
- Handle crime scene evidence, including the collection of evidence from an origin.
- Package crime scene evidence to avoid possible tampering.
- Label evidence with precision.
- Follow the legal chain of custody after taking evidence from the crime scene.
- Witness and/or document autopsies.
- Prepare thorough reports on evidence findings.
- Testify about the evidence findings in court.
Step #3 – Understand how to apply crime scene investigator skills.
Some law enforcement or municipal agencies hire civilian crime scene investigators, but others mandate the crime scene investigator to become a sworn-in as a police officer.
Specialized crime scene investigator roles may require the candidate to obtain specific qualifications. Others don’t require these additional qualifications or job skills.
Each prospective crime scene investigator should evaluate his or her personal interests, abilities, and qualifications to identify the proper avenue to pursue:
- Specialty crime scene investigation roles include medical examiners, crime lab analysts, forensic psychologists, and forensic engineers.
- Some law enforcement agencies that require their CSIs to become sworn officers may require these officers to train for a certain period of time before they qualify for CSI roles. These officers may also be required to perform law enforcement duties in addition to crime scene investigator-specific duties.
- A law enforcement or municipal agency that promotes crime scene investigators from within its officer pool usually provides these employees with additional training and education when promoted.
- Civilian crime scene investigators are likely to receive job training upon hire. They must meet the educational and skills requirements before submitting an application to these employers.
- Civilian crime scene investigators are seldom offered a full-time job. They may need to agree to work on-call, for lower compensation, fewer benefits, and fewer opportunities for promotion.
Step #4 – Realize that the prerequisites and skills for employment vary by employer.
Each employer develops specific crime scene investigator candidate requirements. If the candidate wants to work in a certain sector or region, it is essential to research the skills and qualifications needed by each employer.
If the future crime scene investigator is new to the workforce, it may be necessary to stay flexible concerning job location. An area with a low population, such as a rural community, may have very low levels of crime. There may be fewer jobs but less rigorous requirements. An urban area with a large population, such as a city, may have more large agencies and higher levels of crime. These employers are likely to demand more education (and crime scene investigator program degrees). Skills needed to work as a forensic photographer may be transferable to another crime scene investigator role.
Evaluate the turnover rate of the market for crime scene investigators. CSIs face daily stress on the job. The job requires psychological and physical resilience and flexibility.
Work Environment for a Crime Scene Investigator
A crime scene investigator prepares to work:
- On-call at any time of the day or night.
- Long shifts: the crime scene investigator must collect and catalog the evidence at the crime scene with care.
- In any location where a crime has happened: some locations may be unsanitary or unsafe.
- Using safety equipment (or heavy equipment), wearing necessary protective gloves, clothing, eyewear, footwear, etc.
- In a variety of environments: outdoors, in a variety of terrains; in residences; or in commercial locations. The crime scene investigator must perform his or her work anywhere.
- In any weather conditions.
- With human remains—in all states of decomposition—as well as body parts and fluids.
- In proximity to disturbing images or offending smells.
- With many types of people, including other law enforcement professionals, legal personnel, and laboratory technicians.
- With care, using the required processes and methods, even when the crime scene investigator is under time constraints.
- With technology, constantly learning new methods and technologies necessary to the crime scene investigator role.
The crime scene investigator must be an organized and disciplined individual. Visiting crime scenes each day may be emotionally challenging to the crime scene investigator.
Academic Requirements for the Crime Scene Investigator
Each employer establishes the educational or academic requirements for the crime scene investigator: Some employers accept a two-year degree and others require a bachelor or master’s degree program with coursework in criminal justice, science, and mathematics.
As above, students with an interest in working as a crime scene investigator should begin researching employers and opportunities now. For instance, if you are interested in working as a crime scene investigator in a certain county or city, it is sensible to contact the local municipal government, police department, or sheriff’s department. These employers may train crime scene investigators as civilian CSIs or as sworn police officers. Importantly, in some areas, the police officer does both police work and crime scene investigation.
Future crime scene investigators may require several years’ experience to work as a CSI. For this reason, it is a sound strategy to plan ahead.
As a future crime scene investigator, maintain a clean record. The crime scene investigator will be required to submit to background checks. Although a pristine record is not required by all employers, the crime scene investigator candidate will be asked about any legal issues, including minor traffic court matters.
To prepare for a career as a crime scene investigator in high school:
- Gain confidence and build public speaking skills by joining the debate team.
- Participate in activities that teach “thinking on one’s feet,” such as Model United Nations.
- Take science, such as physics, biology, and chemistry, and mathematics courses, such as statistics.
- Enter science fairs, create projects that showcase an understanding of scientific methods, and use skills to “solve mysteries.”
Add more depth to prepare for a career as a crime scene investigator in college and/or graduate school:
- Select biology, chemistry, physics, or a related science major in an undergraduate program.
- If the college or university offers a degree in forensic science, select a program with a minimum of 24 semester hours of biology or chemistry and mathematics.
- Choose law enforcement, crime scene processing, and criminal justice electives.
A master’s degree program in forensic science may be required to qualify as a crime scene investigator in some jurisdictions. Select a program that focuses on research and laboratory science. A program that offers courses in ethics, crime scenes, quality assurance, and physical evidence—and offers interaction with real-world forensic laboratories—is ideal:
- The crime scene investigator/criminalist must pass an American Board of Criminalists examination.
- The crime scene investigator will be required to take continuing education credits throughout his or her career as a CSI.
Key Skills Required for a Crime Scene Investigator
Crime scene investigator is one of the most popular vocations for individuals interested in forensic science. As a crime scene investigator, the professional gathers evidence and analyzes all of the crime scene’s details. In today’s competitive workplace, it is common for a future employer to require a bachelor or master’s degree in forensic science (or a related undergraduate program).
The employer may also require on-the-job training. Most agencies also require their employees to be certified by the Crime Scene Certification Board.
Some of the key skills required for an effective crime scene investigator include:
1. Excellent analytical skills. Most crime scene investigators have finely-honed analytical skills. They create theories about how the evidence collected at the crime scene works together. The crime scene investigator understands the scientific method and has working knowledge concerning devices and chemicals used to gather evidence in the profession. Although the crime scene investigator doesn’t collect all of the evidence, he or she may order tests and tracks results.
2. Excellent communications skills. The crime scene investigator must have excellent verbal, written, and presentation communications skills. He or she is often one of the first professionals at the crime scene. It is up to the crime scene investigator to cordon off the area to protect the evidence. The crime scene investigator discusses evidence with law enforcement professionals and pieces together witness statements with the evidence. The crime scene investigator may act as an expert witness to describe the crime scene at a court trial. Because the crime scene investigator must take careful notes and prepare detailed case reports, he or she must have excellent written communications skills.
3. Confidence. The crime scene investigator must be poised and confident under pressure. He or she may be called to investigate horrific crime scenes involving fires, kidnappings, or murders. The crime scene investigator must stay calm and remain focused on collecting the evidence. It is also important for the crime scene investigator to present a disciplined and matter-of-fact appearance to citizens and members of the press.
4. Problem-solving skills. The crime scene investigator must enjoy solving problems. He or she must have science acumen, critical thinking, and analytical skills to correlate witness testimony and evidence. The crime scene investigator develops a story based on his or her interpretation or theory of the event. The crime scene investigator’s insight helps other law enforcement professionals and the prosecutor’s office to consider the criminal’s motive(s).
What to Look for When Choosing a School
It is important to select an accredited college or university program in forensic science. Search for programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
Each student should look for the program that best meets his or her needs:
- By researching the future career path, reviewing course offerings, discussing opportunities with the program chair, or communicating with alumni of the program, the student can find the best fit for his or her crime scene investigator career goals.
- Contact the college or university financial services department to learn about tuition and housing costs. Ask questions about financial aid and work-study programs if necessary.
After the crime scene investigation is completed at the crime scene, the evidence is collected. If murder is suspected, the corpse is sent to a forensics laboratory for additional examination.
Forensic scientists working together to solve the crime come from many different areas of specialization. Criminologists, genetic biologists, molecular biologists, toxicologists, pathologists, serologists, computer scientists, accountants, anthropologists, odontologists, linguists, entomologists, engineers, environmental scientists, artists, photographers, and others may be called to the scene.
For instance, a forensic pathologist has a bachelor’s degree and an M.D. in forensic medicine. Other forensic scientists specialize in forensic chemical science, e.g. 1) chemistry, 2) narcotics, 3) explosives, 4) toxicology, 5) pharmacology; forensic physical science, e.g. 1) physics, 2) ballistics, 3) image processing, 4) speaker recognition, 5) lie detection, 6) instrumentation; forensic biological science, e.g. 1) biology, 2) serology, 3) DNA finger printing, 4) osteology, 5) odontology, 6) anthropology; forensic documentation, e.g. 1) ink analysis, 2) paper-fiber analysis, 3) cyber forensics, 4) handwriting analysis, 5) credit card fraud.
Forensic scientists work together to solve all types of crimes. Solving crimes requires fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Job Growth and Career Opportunities
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS) forensic science technicians’ roles are predicted to grow approximately 17 percent between 2016 – 2026, or faster than the average predicted growth for all U.S. occupations. Importantly, this fast projected growth will add just 2,600 new crime investigator positions during the period.
BLS predicts that future crime scene investigators with master’s degrees are best prepared to compete for these career opportunities.
Crime Scene Investigator Salary
BLS reports that the median yearly wage for a forensic science tech was approximately $57,000 in 2016. The lowest 10 percent of forensic science technicians earned less than $34,000. The highest 10 percent of forensic science technicians earned more than $97,000:
- The federal government paid the highest wages (almost $108,000 per year).
- Testing laboratories ranked second in wages (about $60,000 per year).
- State governments, not including hospitals and educational institutions, ranked third in wages (about $57,000 per year).
- Local governments, not including hospitals and educational institutions, ranked fourth in wages (about $57,000 per year).
- Diagnostic and medical labs ranked fifth in wages (about $36,000 per year).
Crime scene investigators may be required to work day or night shifts. Overtime may be necessary because they must be on call to gather and analyze crime scene evidence.
Why Become a Crime Scene Investigator?
Those who enjoy solving complex puzzles are drawn to the idea of becoming a crime scene investigator. People with scientific and analytical acumen may be attracted to a crime scene investigator career. Professionals with keen technical and observational skills may enjoy solving a challenging crime and assisting prosecutors in a successful conviction.