How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

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Some say that the rapidly advancing technology behind crime scene investigation (CSI) has made the field a victim of its own success; even the briefest contact with an innocent individual’s DNA—the genetic fingerprint found in blood, saliva, hair, skin cells, and more—can contaminate a crime scene and confuse investigators. That said, the incredible innovations in the field have been largely positive, helping law enforcement secure the evidence they need to put criminals behind bars through specimen collection, laboratory analysis, and careful documentation.

So what exactly do CSIs do? And what are some of the groundbreaking techniques that allow these professionals to help build legal cases?

According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA), CSIs have a range of responsibilities such as collecting evidence (e.g., fingerprints, footwear impressions, biological samples, fibers, trace chemicals, firearms, etc.); meticulously documenting (e.g., photographing, sketching) and processing evidence; attending autopsies and investigating causes of death; liaising with law enforcement, criminal investigators, laboratory workers, pathologists, lawyers, and other medical and legal professionals; and keeping abreast of the latest techniques in the field.

While some CSIs work in law enforcement and specialize in the sensitive work of evidence collection and analysis, others are civilians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) adds that forensic science technicians, already noted as a career closely related to crime scene investigation, are detail-oriented, communicative, and flexible with scheduling as the need for delicate evidence retrieval and analyses can occur at any time. Much of the training may occur on-the-job, although some cross-disciplinary CSIs who perform laboratory work may hold advanced training (e.g., bachelor’s degrees) in biology, chemistry, or other natural sciences.

The International Association for Identification (IAI)—the primary certifying organization for CSI professionals—reports that academic credentials vary among agencies.

In addition to obvious tactics such as DNA, fingerprint, and ballistics analysis, CSIs may also use techniques and technologies such as luminol, a fine powder which temporarily glows blue when it comes into contact with hemoglobin, one of the main components of blood. Although luminol is prone to false positives in the presence of certain compounds (e.g., urine, horseradish) and may alter DNA samples, it still can be a useful way to detect blood that’s been rigorously washed out of materials, even years later.

Read on to learn more about becoming a CSI, including typical job responsibilities, salary ranges, education, and professional certification.

Crime Scene Investigator Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) indicates that forensic science technicians may be CSIs. Based on the data available for that profession, the outlook for the CSI career is good, with BLS data showing a 17 percent growth rate from 2016 to 2026 (BLS 2017). This growth could result in the addition of 2,600 jobs, bringing the total of all forensic science technicians in the country to 18,000. The absolute growth for CSIs specifically will be smaller, since they are only one segment, but there should indeed be career opportunities for new CSIs entering the field.

Of course, the BLS also does not track salary data specifically for CSIs, but it reports that among 15,400 forensic science technicians working in 2017, the average annual salary was $57,850.

According to the most recent salary figures presented by the BLS (2017), forensic science technicians can expect the following salary ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $33,880
  • 25th percentile: $43,630
  • 50th percentile (median): $57,850
  • 75th percentile: $75,190
  • 90th percentile: $95,600

Education and Professional Licensing Requirements

In the majority of states, there is no legal licensing or educational requirement to work as a crime scene investigator. The one noteable exception to this fact is the state of Indiana. Indiana Law Enforcement Agency (ILEA) has certified its CSIs, requiring a minimum standard of training and experience, in addition to passing an exam.

Even in states where certification is not required, many CSIs do choose to pursue certifications through various agencies for professional advancement. For example, the International Association for Identification (IAI) provides four main certifications in CSI: crime scene investigator, crime scene analyst, senior crime scene analyst, and crime scene reconstructionist. These are offered to individuals with between 48 and 144 hours of formal instruction in the field (depending on the certification level). Candidates must be employed full-time in “crime scene related activities” and the process involves an application and passing an examination.

The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) provides a CSI certification to professionals with at least two years of experience and 50 hours of crime scene processing coursework. Candidates must pass a 100-question exam and submit examples of crime scene photography as proof of experience.

Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator

Although there are varied paths to becoming a crime scene investigator, they typically involve a mix of rigorous coursework and empirical (i.e., on-the-job) training either through a law enforcement agency or various internships at companies, laboratories, and other forensic facilities.

Here is one common path to joining this exciting career on the rise:

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school. Both police-trained and civilian CSI candidates typically possess a high school diploma. Aspiring CSIs at this stage may find it useful to explore various volunteer programs in criminal investigations across the country.

    For example, Point Park University in Pittsburgh offers a CSI summer camp to secondary school students involving valuable laboratory and criminal justice training.

    CSI Arizona hosts a forensic science competition for interested high school and middle school students, as well as CSI training in crime scene analysis, gathering evidence, and presenting findings. Interested young adults are encouraged to check with their local police departments, civic organizations, and colleges to see what opportunities are available.

  • Step 2: Enroll in a law enforcement academy or pursue a college degree in CSI (2-4 years). At this phase, there are two typical paths for aspiring CSIs. First, they can choose to enroll in a law enforcement academy and receive specialized CSI training in the field. Prerequisites for joining police forces typically include being an American citizen; being at least 18 years old; possessing a driver’s license; and having no felony (or serious misdemeanor) convictions on one’s record.

    Alternatively, aspiring CSIs can choose to enroll in a two- to four-year college program in criminal justice, forensics, biology, chemistry, natural sciences, or a related fields. Some law enforcement training programs may even be offered in conjunction with a local college such as the one at Michigan’s Macomb Community College. This two-year, associate of applied science (AAS) program in law enforcement includes training in criminal law, investigations, computer-related crimes, laboratory techniques, first aid, and more. Also, Macomb prepares its students to sit for state certification exams for new police officers and the credits are transferrable to bachelor’s programs at many colleges and universities across the state.

    Another notable program is at the University of Baltimore which provides a one-year certificate in CSI. Designed for both working CSIs seeking academic credentials and beginners to the field alike, this program comprises four courses: two in crime scene investigation (introductory and advanced), as well as training in forensic photography and moot court & trial advocacy for forensics.

    Palm Beach State College of Lake Worth, FL provides a 64-credit associate of science (AS) degree (or certificate) in crime scene technology with coursework in criminology, the administration of criminal justice, forensic science, latent fingerprint development, and general education. This program provides both law enforcement and civilian tracks.

    Nashville State Community College has a two-year associate of applied science (AAS) degree in police science with two distinct concentrations: police administration and crime scene investigation. The CSI track has classes such as investigative photography, bloodstain evidence, and criminal investigation.

    Finally, for ambitious students seeking a four-year degree, Liberty University has a convenient online bachelor of science (BS) program in criminal justice with a focus in CSI. With rigorous instruction in constitutional criminal procedure, juvenile justice, computer & cyber forensics, and other subjects, students are prepared to apply their newfound knowledge in on-campus intensives in Lynchburg, Virginia.

    At this stage, some students may even explore internships to hone their CSI skills. Some of the most rigorous (and competitive) options offering world-class forensic training include the Central Intelligence Agency Internship Program; the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Internship Programs; and the United States Secret Service Internships.

    For more information on college CSI programs, check out the online forensics programs and crime scene investigations colleges pages.

  • Step 3: Obtain professional certification and join associations (timeline varies). Once an aspiring CSI has some formal academic and on-the-job training, they may consider pursuing a professional certification which can enhance his or her employment prospects. Please note that qualifications for becoming a CSI will also vary by state and law enforcement entity.

    Finally, there are various professional associations for specialized CSIs such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences; the American Board of Forensic Toxicology; the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners; the Microscopy Society of America; and the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists.

  • Optional: Pursue a graduate education in CSI (typically 2 years). Obtaining a graduate degree in CSI can further enhance a candidate’s chances of employment and may even qualify a person for leadership positions, increased responsibilities, or higher pay.

    For example, National University (NU) offers a graduate certificate program in forensic crime scene investigation (FCSI) involving coursework in forensic pathology, fingerprint analysis, and advanced criminalistics. George Washington University offers a master of science (MS) in crime scene investigation to working investigators, leaders in law enforcement, and lawyers. Classes include medicolegal death investigation, the science of fingerprints, and the examination of questioned documents.

Overall, qualifications will vary based on region, employing organization, and other factors. Prospective CSIs are encouraged to contact their local law enforcement agencies and forensics laboratories to verify prerequisites to employment.

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