What is Criminalistics? Why Study It?

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The criminal justice system in America is the overarching establishment through which crimes and those who commit them are discovered, tried, and punished. This includes all of the institutions of government aimed at upholding social order, deterring and mitigating crime, and sanctioning those who violate the law, such as law enforcement and the court and jail systems.

Criminology and criminalistics are two subsets of the criminal justice system. Criminology relates to studying and preventing crime—typically with behavioral sciences like sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Criminalistics refers to a type of forensics—the analysis of physical evidence from a crime scene.

While criminology has preventative components, criminalistics comes into effect only after a crime has been committed. A criminalist applies scientific principles to the recognition, documentation, preservation, and analysis of physical evidence from a crime scene. Criminalistics can also include crime scene investigations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies criminalists as forensic science technicians. Most professionals regard criminalistics as a specialty within the field of forensic science.

What Do Criminalists Do?

Criminalists use their knowledge of physical and natural science to examine and analyze every piece of evidence from a crime scene. They prepare written reports of their findings and may have to present their conclusions in court. A criminalist is not involved in determining the guilt or innocence of an accused individual. Their job, rather, is to present an objective analysis of the evidence.

There are several critical skills that criminalists need to be successful in their work. First, they must be detail-oriented and have excellent written and verbal communication skills. Second, they should also have strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and a solid background in science, statistics, physics, math, and ethics. Finally, criminalists should be comfortable testifying in court.

Most of a criminalist’s work is performed in a laboratory unless they specialize in crime scene investigation. Their job typically includes recognizing what information is important, collecting and analyzing evidence without contaminating it, and organizing all information and evidence coherently.

Criminalistics has many fields of specialization. Specialties include, but are not limited to:

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Arson
  • Blood and tissue spatter
  • Computer forensics
  • DNA
  • Explosions
  • Serology (examining and analyzing body fluids)
  • Toxicology
  • Firearms and tool marks
  • Trace evidence
  • Wildlife (analyzing evidence against poachers)

As long as crimes continue to be committed, there will always be work for criminalists. A criminal will always leave evidence, no matter how minute, according to forensic scientist and “Father of Criminalistics” Paul L. Kirk:

“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as silent evidence against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen that he deposits or collects – all these and more bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it cannot perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent. Only its interpretation can err. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Who Employs Criminalists?

The BLS (2021) predicted that openings for forensic technicians would increase by 14 percent in the decade preceding 2029, which is more than triple the average for all occupations nationally (4 percent). Technological advances have made forensic information increasingly essential in the courts, and criminalists with a master’s degree are expected to have the best opportunities.

The biggest employers of criminalists are governmental agencies, such as those below.

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Medical Examiners/Coroners
  • Military
  • Police departments
  • U.S. Customs

Other employers include private companies, educational institutions, and crime laboratories.

For most positions, criminalists must pass drug tests and background investigations. Although criminalists are not obligated to be licensed, most choose to obtain credentials and certifications from various professional organizations.

Featured Programs in Criminalistics

Most entry-level criminalist positions require bachelor’s degrees in biology, chemistry, forensics, or other natural or physical science, but some positions require a master’s degree. Due to advances in technology and methodology, continuing education is necessary.

When choosing a school, it is essential that the school is accredited. Also, it matters what agency certified it. Accreditation is a process by which an independent agency evaluates the quality of the curriculum and faculty.

While criminalistics does not have a specific accrediting agency, the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC)—the most prominent accreditation entity in this field—does certify forensic science programs. Furthermore, several recognized, regional accreditation entities evaluate universities as a whole and have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Below are a few schools that offer accredited criminalistics programs.

Metropolitan State University of Denver, Department of Chemistry

The Metropolitan State University of Denver offers a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a concentration in criminalistics. The program has two tracks, the first of which requires one semester of physical chemistry and two internships in criminalistics. The second track requires one internship and a full year of physical chemistry studies, which allows the student to earn the certification of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The tracks require 97 or 107 credits, respectively.

Students may also opt for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in criminalistics, which requires 144 credit. Although a few classes are available online, most of the criminalistics coursework is available on-campus only. Online courses require a campus visit.

  • Location: Denver, Colorado
  • Accreditation: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Format: Mostly on-campus with some online courses
  • Tuition: $858.70 per credit
  • Program length: 97 to 144 credits

Drexel University, College of Medicine

Drexel’s master’s program in criminalistic science is designed for students and working professionals with undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and its related field. Students with backgrounds in engineering, computer science, criminal law, psychology, and sociology will find this program beneficial.

This 44.5-credit program includes the study of criminal law, medico-legal death investigation, comparative sciences, and analytic techniques focusing on crime scenes, bloodstain pattern analysis, and arson and explosion, among others. Some of the coursework overlaps with the master’s program in forensic science, which requires 45 credits. All of the coursework is offered on-campus, but for undergraduate students, Drexel offers an online criminal justice program.

  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Format: On-campus
  • Tuition: $1,058 per credit
  • Program length: 44.5 to 45 credits

University of Florida, College of Pharmacy

The University of Florida offers many online programs for professionals in crime and medical diagnostic labs, medical examiners’ offices, prosecution attorney’s offices, hospitals, clinical chemistry laboratories, crime laboratories, law enforcement, education, and criminal defense. Students can choose between one of four master’s degrees: forensic science, forensic DNA and serology, forensic drug chemistry, and forensic toxicology.

These degrees can be completed in as little as two years with 32 credits. Outside of master’s programs, the University of Florida also offers a fully online 15-credit graduate certificate where students can personalize their education through a concentration in forensic drug chemistry, forensic death investigation, forensic DNA and serology, and forensic toxicology.

  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of College and Schools, Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $575 per credit
  • Program length: 32 credits or 15 credits

Tiffin University

Tiffin University offers a four-year online bachelor’s of science in criminalists. Graduates of this program will have the skills necessary to reconstruct crimes and analyze physical evidence. Students will learn both the scientific method and the legal process and know how to apply them in a forensic lab.

One unique feature of this program is that students will gather evidence in classes and then continue to analyze the same evidence in subsequent courses. This teaches students the myriad of ways that evidence can be processed and that information that can be gleaned from it.

  • Location: Tiffin, Ohio
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $926 per credit
  • Program length: 121 credits

California State University, Los Angeles – School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics

At the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at Cal State LA, students can complete a 41-credit master’s of science in criminalistics. Advertised as an interdisciplinary degree, this program combines physical and natural science with an understanding of how they can work with the justice system. There are extensive prerequisite coursework requirements, including biology, biostatistics, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and quantitative analysis.

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Format: On-Campus
  • Tuition: $16,286 per semester
  • Program length: 41 credits

Professors to Know in Criminalistics

April A. Hill

April A. Hill, PhD, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Dr. April Hill is the criminalistics program director at The Metropolitan State University of Denver. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, a doctorate in analytical chemistry, and a graduate certificate in forensic science. She currently teaches general chemistry, analytical chemistry, criminalistics, and instrumental analysis. Her research focuses on water quality analysis, forensic chemical analysis, and archaeological chemistry.

Dr. Hill is a dedicated proponent of promoting underrepresented minorities in STEM. She serves on multiple committees, such as MSU Denver’s CO-WY AMP Program and the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) student organization. She is also a founding member of the Women in STEM Conference Committee at MSU Denver.

Monika Jost

Monika Jost, PhD, Drexel University

Dr. Monika Jost is an assistant professor and program director for the master’s program in biological science. She is also the co-director of the division of interdisciplinary and career-oriented programs at Drexel University.

Dr. Jost received her master’s degree in microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry from Saarland University in Germany and earned her doctorate after spending several years at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. At Drexel University, Dr. Jost developed the molecular track for the master’s of forensic science program, and she currently teaches biochemistry and cell and molecular biology.

Ian Tebbett

Ian Tebbett, PhD, University of Florida

Dr. Ian Tebbett is the founder and director of the forensic sciences at the University of Florida, which is the world’s most extensive forensic science graduate program. He holds a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and a doctorate in forensic toxicology.

Dr. Tebett is an experienced consultant and expert witness. His research includes novel approaches for forensic science training, the passage of drugs across the blood/brain and placental barriers, drug chromatography, and the development of analytical techniques.

Professional Resources in Criminalistics

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • American Board of Criminalistics (ABC)
  • American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI)
  • California Criminalistics Institute (CCI)
  • International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA)
  • Journal of Forensic Pathology

Sandra Smith

Sandra Smith worked as a bookkeeper and secretary for a small air-conditioning contractor. She eventually became a CPA and started her own practice specializing in small business taxes and accounting. After retiring from business, she began writing articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites. She also authored four books. Sandra makes her home in the mountains with a rescue dog that naps on her lap as she writes.