Established in 1973 to enforce the controlled substances laws of the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) keeps Americans safe from dangerous drugs and those who traffic them. In service of that mission, it’s a leading practitioner of several forensic subdisciplines, with its Office of Forensic Sciences providing expertise in friction ridge examination, forensic chemistry, and digital forensics. As subject matter experts, DEA’s forensic examiners are often called upon by other law enforcement, criminal justice, and intelligence agencies to offer their insight.
“When it comes to the science of controlled substances, we have a unique knowledge set that other agencies just don’t have,” says David Creelman, Program Manager and Chemist with the Office of Forensic Sciences at DEA. “They have to come here for that information. Whether it’s research or an enforcement operation, we partner with them and work with them.”
To work in forensics at the DEA is to work at the cutting edge of forensics. It also contributes to a safer, more just society. But this work environment has its own unique considerations, and it’s never too early for aspiring forensic examiners to start preparing. To learn more, read on.
Friction ridge forensics examines markings left by the unique patterns of a person’s fingerprints, palms, toes, and or heels. In a world full of digital clues, this physical component is as crucial as ever: it definitively links people to places, suspects to crimes, and identities to bodies.
At DEA, friction ridge examiners can work samples from start to finish. They develop the prints, do their own photography and image enhancement, perform comparisons and database searches, and write their final reports. They can also be called up to testify or to help on crime scenes or in clandestine laboratories.
“The examinations we do are very high stakes,” says Robin Ruth, the Associate Lab Director and Head of the Friction Ridge Program at DEA. “For some people, that’s a difficult thing to grapple with. It’s also incredibly rewarding though because you make that high-stakes decision knowing that you are assisting in an investigation, helping with the mission, and keeping people safe.”
Currently, there are only a small number of friction ridge examiners at DEA, but that’s set to change. DEA is moving its current cadre of friction ridge examiners to a new lab in the Northeastern US and will add in many new hires. They’re also developing an internal training program that will allow them to hire people with less experience and promote them upon program completion.
“I’m looking for people who have strong critical thinking skills,” Ruth says. “Obviously, organization and attention to detail are important. But I want people with scientific curiosity who are willing to challenge the status quo. I like to see that they can think a little differently. That’s critical right now for where my discipline is.”
Friction ridge examination is changing rapidly. Digital images are increasing in quality, prints can be captured more easily, and advances in imaging systems have made comparison easier. Examiners are able to pull more and more information out of each print.
At the same time, the FBI has updated its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFS) to Next Generation Identification (NGI). The new system is faster and the algorithm is better, creating more efficient and accurate searches. In the future, increased automation, more intricate modeling of friction ridge prints, and statistical probabilistic comparisons could carry the trend further.
“For the discipline of friction ridge, this is a huge era of change,” Ruth says.
Drugs are chemicals, and that makes DEA’s forensic chemists a busy bunch. Most of their day involves analyzing evidence for the presence of controlled substances. The forensic chemist will pick up a submitted exhibit from the vault, analyze it on high-tech instrumentation, seal the exhibit back up, and then write a report. They’ll also get called to clandestine labs, go out to testify, and field requests from law enforcement and criminal justice partners to advise on some aspect of forensic chemistry.
“We’re in the instant gratification era,” says Tara Rossy, a Senior Forensic Chemist at DEA. “Everyone wants their answers yesterday.”
The work volume is large for DEA’s forensic chemists, partially due to the number of investigative partners they work with. But Rossy and her colleagues prioritize being a resource for others to tap into. DEA’s forensic chemists may lend their expertise about different chemicals found at a crime scene or provide intelligence around new compounds or safety issues they’ve seen trending.
“Some of the things that are most challenging are also the most rewarding,” Rossy says. “There are always new trends and drugs to keep up with, a compound that comes back as something you haven’t seen before. That turns into a miniature research project. But you get to figure out something new and help your law enforcement partners.”
Forensic chemistry is undergoing major changes in two different areas: first, in the field, with the agents; and second, in the lab, with the chemists themselves. Both are empowered by smaller, quicker, and more effective instrumentation.
In the field, small FTIR portables, Raman portables, and even some mass-spectrometers allow agents to collect samples and get preliminary results that can guide investigations. In the lab, new instrumentation takes up less space on the bench, allowing room for more tools and making analysis quicker and more effective.
“I’m very excited about DART, which is Direct Analysis in Real Time mass-spectrometry,” Rossy says. “We’ve been using it in this laboratory, and I believe all DEA laboratories should be using it now or very soon. It can give you results for your sample in under a minute. When I started 12 years ago, we didn’t have such fast instrumentation and couldn’t get results like that.”
Digital forensics is an increasingly important component of all modern investigations. At DEA, it’s no different. Early case assessment operates like a triage unit, with more junior-level examiners in charge of imaging the devices that come in and making copies of the hard drives. From there, the more senior staff will analyze those extracted images. Some digital forensics labs support all of DEA, requiring both travel and remote collaboration.
“Digital evidence is everywhere,” says Laura Olman, CFCE, a Senior Digital Forensic Examiner at DEA. “Fingerprints are everywhere. Chemistry is everywhere. It makes sense that we all have to collaborate.”
DEA’s digital forensics examiners primarily deal with phones, but they can also look at computers or pharmacy databases. Specialized groups may focus on something more niche: dark web, blockchain forensics, or a specific type of encryption.
“I’ve been doing forensics for ten years,” Olman says. “The thing that’s changed the most is the amount of data we’re seeing now. When I started, phones were only storing call logs and maybe some text messages. Now when I get a phone, I get the person’s whole life.”
Today’s digital forensic examiners are tasked with not only recovering a device’s data but also with how to filter and present it back to investigators, attorneys, and juries in a way that’s understandable and actionable. Within the haystack of GPS coordinates, internet searches, text messages, and emails, the needle of someone’s guilt or innocence could be hiding. In the future, increased automation could be key.
Digital forensics is also seeing a trend of training agents in the field to use some basic digital forensics tools. This empowers the agents to get results more quickly instead of sending in a phone for analysis; it also reduces the workload of DEA’s digital forensic examiners, allowing them to redirect resources towards more difficult problems, one of which is the strengthening and standardization of encryption on consumer devices.
“We can’t do some of the old kinds of forensics that we used to do because of that data being encrypted at rest now,” Olman says. “I think that a lot of the development and research is going to have to go into encryption and either reverse engineering it, or finding ways to get keys. It’s really hard to break encryption.”
Working as a forensic examiner at DEA has its own unique challenges. As a government agency, it can sometimes be slow and bureaucratic at a process level. It can also be strict: employment requirements are not as flexible as they might be in private sector placements.
“If you want to get hired, you don’t necessarily have to have a chemistry degree or forensics degree, but you do have to make sure you meet the DEA criteria for the credits in the classes we require,” Creelman says. “Whatever’s in the requirements, you need to answer it exactly the way it’s expressed.”
DEA also has requirements that go beyond educational or experiential achievements. Its drug use policy, while updated for modern times and changes in legalization status, still looks back several years on a candidate’s behavior.
Incoming employees will also need top-secret clearance, which requires a polygraph, a background check, and a series of interviews of the candidate’s friends and relatives. It can be intense. But the stakes are real.
“There’s a wall of pictures at headquarters that shows a number of people who have died from fentanyl use,” Ruth says. “Before I came to DEA, I don’t think I realized just how pervasive some of these issues are, but it’s very much part of my everyday reality at this point.”
Another important aspect of life at DEA as a forensics professional is the need for strong oral communication. Forget any antiquated image of an introverted scientist: today’s forensic examiners need to collaborate between and within departments, they need to communicate with agents in the field, and they need to be able to testify. Throughout, they need to be able to explain their thinking and describe complex ideas in terms that a layman could understand. Focusing on public speaking early on can pay big dividends down the road.
“When I was in college, I was a lab TA,” Rossy says. “When you’re a lab TA, you’re getting skills where you’re in charge of a class, explaining experiments, and trying to convert some of the terms to a layman. And you’re in charge of people, dealing with problems, making sure everything’s going smoothly. That helped me gain confidence in speaking publicly and also developed some of the skills I need to take on the cases I do at DEA.”
At DEA, hard work is part of the job, and it’s all in service of the mission. Every glassine envelope in evidence is one less that’s on the street. Each identified print is one step closer to closure. An unencrypted clue can make or break a case.
“I’ve always believed in what I do,” Creelman says. “When I got in the DEA and I was able to help on enforcement operations—whether in the field with portable instruments, or whether I went to a clandestine drug laboratory, or whether I testified—I felt like I was helping and giving back to the society I live in. It’s very rewarding.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.