Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator

A crime scene investigator (“CSI”), which is also known as a forensic science technician, is responsible for collecting evidence at crime scenes, then examining it using accepted scientific techniques. This is a field of law that is rapidly expanding, and if you are looking for a career that will allow you to combine your love of science with a passion for rooting out the truth, becoming a CSI might be for you. Read on to learn more about becoming a crime scene investigator.

What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?

A crime scene investigator’s job begins with walking around the scene of a crime, searching for physical evidence. Such evidence may be in the form of blood, bodily fluids, hairs, fibers, fingerprints, footprints, weapons, and items that may contain the DNA of anyone involved. He or she will carefully take photographs and notes, documenting the crime scene.

All of these things must be properly collected so as not to contaminate the evidence, packaged and preserved according to scientific standards, and documented and transported in a manner that will preserve the chain of evidence, so that it can be counted as fact during a trial.

Finally, members of a CSI team will process the evidence, documenting their findings in a clear and easy-to-understand manner for later use.

Professional Requirements to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

While some law enforcement agencies hire crime scene investigators with a certificate from a technical school, most require candidates to hold a college (either associate’s or bachelor’s degree) in forensic science and crime scene investigation. However, a degree in criminal justice, with a concentration in crime scene investigation or forensics, provides a broad education in the three crucial areas of technology, forensic science, and law enforcement.

Additional Education and Experience

Because this is a somewhat complex career, there are a number of steps to take on the road to becoming a crime scene investigator:

I.  Earn a degree

Earning a Bachelor of Science degree in the area of Criminal Justice – with a focus on forensic science – will give you a strong foundational scientific and legal education. Such programs involve courses in law, investigation, psychology, research, and ethics.

II.  Attend the Police Academy

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), most CSIs are also sworn police officers. This is not necessarily a requirement in many departments, though many candidates find that law enforcement agencies in many areas hire first from their roll of current employees. Going through, and completing, a police academy program may give prospective CSIs a leg-up in their application process.

III.  Work Experience

After a certain point in their education process, prospective CSIs may be able to serve an internship with a local CSI division. This valuable on-the-job type training is invaluable in learning about the collection and processing of evidence, and other tips, from experienced professionals. Even after being hired as a CSI, most new investigators spend time being closely supervised, before working cases independently.

IV.  Certification

Even if you’ve been hired as a CSI after earning your degree, obtaining certification in various specifics of crime scene investigations will enable you to prove your abilities. This may lead to advancements in your career. The International Association for Identification (“IAI”) offers a certification program, which requires applicants to already have at least one year experience working in a related field.

The IAI certification test has a minimum passing score of 75%, and the certificate is valid for five years. Some states have their own certification process. It is important to look into this prior to applying for a position at a department in that state.

V.  Continuing Education

As with many professional careers, a crime scene investigator may be required to continually update his or her knowledge. This is because techniques and standards evolve over time. Continuing education is commonly accomplished through online classes, short-term in-person courses, seminars, and workshops. Certificates or proof of attendance is issued for these courses, which must generally be provided to the employer.

Where Can You Work as a Crime Scene Investigator

Although these duties are slowly being given over to civilians with the necessary scientific background, most CSIs are still employed by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Working Conditions for a Crime Scene Investigator

As a CSI, you can expect to work long hours – often in very stressful situations. Some of the working conditions to expect include:

  • Working long shifts, day or night, as well as on holidays and on weekends, and being on-call when off duty
  • Working in any location where a crime has occurred, including areas that may be unsafe and/or unsanitary; in every type of environment, from cramped spaces, to rough, brushy terrain, to the swamp
  • Working n all types of weather
  • Wearing protective clothing, including gloves, eyewear, and other safety equipment
  • Carrying heavy equipment
  • Working with death, including body parts, bodily fluids, and remains in every state of decomposition, causing offensive smells
  • Working in intensely emotionally-disturbing environments
  • Working with a wide range of people, including law enforcement and lab personnel, and attorneys

Crime Scene Investigator Salary

According to the BLS Occupational Employment and Wages report, for May, 2017, the median wage for a CSI is just under $28 per hour, with a mean annual wage of just under $58,000. On the higher end of the salary spectrum – for those with greater experience, expertise, and seniority – the annual wage approaches the $100,000 mark.

Employment Outlook for Crime Scene Investigator

According to the BLS, employment for crime scene investigators (referred to in the Bureau’s handbook as Forensic Science Technicians) is projected to experience a growth rate of 27% between 2014 and 2024. This is a much faster growth rate than for all other occupations.

This growth rate is sustained by the fast-paced growth in technology, as well as in a need for law enforcement and crime solving.

Essential Information

Degree Level Minimum Bachelor’s degree; graduate degree to advance
Degree Field(s) Criminal justice, forensic science, investigations
License/Certification Certification to advance; continuing education required
Key Skills Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, attention to detail, composure, speaking and writing skills
Number of Jobs (2016) 15,400
Job Outlook
(2016-2026)
17% (Much faster than average)
Median Salary (2017) $57,850 per year

$27.81 per hour

On the Job Training Moderate term of on-the-job training

Source: BLS

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