“It’s the variety of experience within our agent core that makes our agency strong.”
Erin Michaels, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, NCIS Office of Forensic Support
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is the primary law enforcement agency for the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Comprising approximately 2,000 individuals, of whom more than 1,000 serve as Special Agents, NCIS operates in approximately 191 locations spread across more than 41 countries. Unique among US military criminal investigative organizations, it is a civilian-run agency: most NCIS agents are not active duty service members.
NCIS has a worldwide forward presence and is often the first federal law enforcement agency on the scene when US interests overseas are affected. Its Special Agents are among the most adept and resourceful law enforcement professionals operating today, taking on assignments across the globe. Even relatively junior agents are expected to handle various criminal, counterterrorism, and counterintelligence matters with equal skill.
Forensics courses through the blood of NCIS. From basic forensic training for Special Agents to crime scene processing by the Major Case Response Team (MCRT) to the advanced work of forensic consultants (FCs), the applications of forensic science range from the routine to the cutting edge.
If you’re interested in a dynamic and mission-driven workplace, then a career at NCIS might be right for you.
All NCIS Special Agents receive at least basic forensic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. The standard course includes a two-week portion that covers crime scene examination.
Upon completion, junior agents can document scenes through notes, photos, and sketches. They will also be able to collect and process fingerprint and footwear impressions. And they’ll be able to perform basic evidence collection from a scene where firearms or blood stains were involved, understanding the potential for DNA collection and trace evidence utilization.
“If someone wants to go beyond basic forensic training, and become a part of our Major Case Response Team (MCRT), that typically happens early on in a career,” says Erin Michaels, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, NCIS Office of Forensic Support. “We want those agents coming in and getting exposure to what it means to actually work scenes outside of a training environment. NCIS expects you to be independent pretty quickly.”
The MCRT is a group of NCIS professionals tasked with processing crime scenes and collecting evidence. Over two dozen deployable MCRTs are stationed worldwide, ready to respond to death scenes and assist with the investigation of high-impact crimes. They collect or preserve evidence and send it back to the main Department of Defense (DOD) forensics lab, the US Army Criminal Investigations Laboratory (USACIL).
For those looking to join the MCRT, additional training is available at FLETC in areas like digital photography, or through two-week and seven-week advanced crime scene courses. NCIS also offers its own MCRT certification course and a newer, more advanced MCRT course on complex forensics techniques like 3D processing of impression evidence and using alternate light sources to look for biological samples. These courses upskill attendees while ensuring a standardized level of forensic skills across geographically diverse teams.
“We want everyone on our MCRTs, worldwide, trained to the same level and familiar with the same equipment and how to use it,” Michaels says. “We’re aiming for interoperability, so it’s seamless when agents transfer from one office to another.”
Those with some advanced forensic training and experience with the MCRT and other NCIS investigations can become Forensic Consultants (FCs). The FC provides MCRTs with advanced forensic support, working both on-scene and in a designated forensic workspace. They may superglue fume evidence or do advanced photography before sending evidence off for confirmation at a lab. They may also perform 3D laser scans, bloodstain documentation and analysis, or shooting incident reconstruction and analysis.
Over the last few years, NCIS has started a Forensic Associate program, which is essentially a collateral duty for special agents interested in becoming FCs in the future. The program allows them to work with FCs more regularly, and attend specialty training normally reserved for FCs, while gaining valuable experience in how NCIS conducts investigations. It’s meant to strengthen the training pipeline, from theory to practice.
“If we have a vacancy open up, we may have a Forensic Associate who is already trained and has knowledge of what the job entails,” Michaels says. “So they can slide into that position and hit the ground running.”
The typical day at NCIS varies significantly. FCs work within their dedicated forensics role, while MCRT team members can work within any discipline NCIS offers, such as economic crimes, general crimes, or even counterintelligence or terrorism. Their work with the MCRT is a collateral duty.
“When a call comes in that we have a crime scene or death scene, the MCRT team members and the FC put down whatever they were working on, meet up at the scene or at a nearby location, and assemble their response equipment,” Michaels says.
The MCRT will start processing the scene by getting all the basic information they can from first responders and witness statements. They’ll do a walkthrough of the scene with a few people, so they can adequately organize the remainder of the response, calling for additional support if necessary. Then they’ll start working the scene, beginning with documentation through notes, sketches, photos, and, if merited, 3D laser scanning. The MCRT works the scene to fruition, processing and packaging the evidence.
“If it’s a more basic scene, we’ll take, on average, four hours,” Michaels says. “A more complex scene can last for several days, if not longer.”
Along with the MCRT, the FC will assist with basic scene processing and potentially perform more advanced analysis: advanced photography, laser scanning, blood stain documentation, or shooting incident documentation and analysis. Outside of the scene, the FC will assist in autopsy support and coordination, liaison with the medical examiner team, and potentially provide additional context such as death scene photos, family history, or medical background.
“After the scenes are completed, for cases that have a lot of evidence or have complex evidence, we’ll work hand in hand with the case agent to make sure there’s a good understanding of what items need to go to the lab and what analysis to ask for,” Michaels says. “In addition to that, we’ll write technical reports for any type of documentation or analysis that we would do at a scene.”
If there’s a forensic technique that the main DOD laboratory, USACIL, cannot complete in-house, FCs at NCIS will do research to find a specialty lab that can handle that type of processing. It could be a special toxicology lab that detects a unique drug, an expert in biomechanics who can analyze movements at the scene, or a lab that can determine whether a particular metal, fuel, or other material is the same as what’s listed in official specifications.
“The best FCs in our agency are those who have themselves gotten a great degree of investigative experience under their belt before making the transition over into the FC realm,” Michaels says. “It’s important to understand how investigations work, so that you can know how you can deftly integrate into an investigation to help the case agent get the best outcome, whether it’s just resolving a case, or for a case that’s actually going to prosecution.”
One of the things that makes life at NCIS unique is that Special Agents can delve into a wide variety of different focus areas. Certain specialties, like cyber, economics, or forensics, may require some additional advanced training, and may narrow one’s focus. But if someone is serving in a small or remote office—some NCIS agents take 12 to 18 month deployments aboard aircraft carriers—they’ll be exposed to all types of cases.
“In a deployed environment or on a carrier, you’re expected to be a jack-of-all-trades, and at least have cursory knowledge of all different types of areas,” Michaels says.
The basic requirement for employment at NCIS is a four-year degree. But a major in criminal justice is not a necessity. Sometimes, it’s even superfluous, as FLETC training generally covers the critical aspects of criminal justice and investigations. Instead, NCIS has begun to prioritize breadth and diversity, such as in applicants with language skills or cyber skills, which play a large part in increasing NCIS investigations.
“It’s the variety of experience within our agent core that makes our agency strong,” Michaels says.
NCIS has some other unique employment requirements: applicants will need to be able to pass a background check, pass a polygraph test, and obtain and maintain Top Secret clearance. But soft skills are important, too. Michaels points to people skills as crucial for conducting interviews, collecting information, and collaborating with foreign counterparts. Flexibility and troubleshooting are similarly valuable.
“Being able to figure things out on the fly is really important,” Michaels says. “If you’re stuck in a foreign country, for any number of reasons, you may need to talk your way onto the next flight home. If you’re in an austere environment, you may need to troubleshoot your equipment. In an overseas setting, things are constantly changing. You need independence and confidence in your decision-making ability to carry things out.”
The international nature of NCIS is what contributes to many of its unique challenges. But for those who work there, it’s also part of what’s so rewarding. Based on the mobility of services NCIS supports, agents are expected to do a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) every three to five years, roughly speaking. There are opportunities to live overseas for two to four years, to take shorter deployments of four to six months to take a rotation on an aircraft carrier. The combinations, and the possibilities, are practically endless.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to numerous countries abroad,” Michaels says. “Whether going in a capacity to give training, or to assist with working a scene, those are life-changing experiences that I never would have had otherwise, and being able to then bring that back, and add that to your life perspective—the exposure to other cultures, to those types of complex scenarios—is something you don’t get any other way.”
Forensic science is a rapidly evolving field, and NCIS stands at its cutting edge. Their forensic graphics program is virtually unrivaled. At NCIS, all FCs have access to laser scanners and some basic skills in using them for analysis and processing. The results can look and sound like science fiction.
“Most recently, we’ve developed photogrammetry capabilities, which is taking a series of flat photographs, and then using specialized software programs to essentially stitch them together and render 3D to-scale models,” Michaels says. “Those models can be used either for analysis or for use in a court of law.”
Forensic graphics specialists at NCIS have also developed software that collectively analyzes video and photos from various inputs to do 3D motion tracking. This recreates a scene from multiple cameras, cell phones, and angles, resolving multiple inputs into a single product. These advances in forensic graphics dovetail with advances in virtual reality, allowing witnesses to virtually walk through scenes either in support of their testimony or as part of their trial preparation.
The future of forensics at NCIS will include the continued expansion of forensics to nontraditional areas. Already, NCIS has begun to apply forensic science to economic crimes and areas of counterintelligence.
But as forensic science applications stretch outward, it’s also important for further standardization of procedures and training, which will allow for further interoperability not only within NCIS but with other agencies as well.
“The world is getting smaller and smaller,” Michaels says. “There are more joint bases where Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are interoperable, and it’s important for our investigative agencies to have that same level of interoperability. We’ve been working hand-in-hand over the last few years with Air Force OSI and Army CID to standardize our forensic capabilities.”
The future of forensic science at NCIS comes back to people. Recently, the agency has reopened its honors internship program, which runs on a semester basis. It’s currently in its first summer of offering paid internships, which is set to continue. Again, Michaels points to the value of diverse backgrounds and experiences, as NCIS is looking to hire people with a broad range of skill sets.
“I would encourage anyone who’s interested or thinks they’re interested in potential employment down the road with NCIS to first take the steps of becoming an intern and see what the agency is truly all about,” Michaels says. “I myself was an intern, and it certainly was formative, leading me down the career path I ended up taking.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.