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Crime Scene Investigator Career & Salary Outlook

CSI is more than merely the title of a very popular, long running television show with spinoffs galore; it also happens to be a very viable and very popular career field. Many of those who are interested in crime scene investigation start down the path because of things read in books or seen on television or in the movies. Of course, the actual career of a CSI technician is not exactly the same as those portrayed on television, but it is still a very exciting career that calls to many and is worth exploring for those who are drawn to it.

A crime scene investigator has a number of responsibilities at the crime scene. They will walk through the crime scene, look for evidence, and collect it using a very specific methodology that protects it from contamination. A CSI may also be tasked with taking photos of the scene and making sketches for later recreation and presentation in court. Some of the types of evidence that a CSI is likely to collect at crime scenes include fingerprints, bodily fluids, and weapons. When the investigator collects the evidence, he or she is also going to catalog it when transferring it to the lab. Investigators will also have to present their findings to others on their team, to attorneys, and in trials in many cases. The work schedule of an investigator can vary. Crime never sleeps, so it is common to have to work in the evenings and on holidays.

What is the Career Outlook for Crime Scene Investigators?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not distinguish crime scene investigators from forensic science technicians for their data collection purposes. That being said, the BLS projects that the need for forensic science technicians will grow 17 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is more than twice the rate of growth for all occupations combined. This 17 percent growth rate represents 2,600 new jobs. While not all of these jobs will be specific to crime scene investigation, some portion certainly will.

Because of the popularity of the field, it is likely that those who enter it will find stiff competition for jobs. Those who have more education, such as a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar field such as criminal justice, or those who have experience working with law enforcement in another capacity, may have an advantage when it comes to looking for and finding work.

The ICSIA, International Crime Scene Investigators Association states that there are approximately 450 police agencies in the country that hire full-time civilian CSIs right now, with an additional 450 that have full-time CSIs who are sworn officers. These numbers are approximations, but can be a useful place to start when thinking about the demand for this position. Other, smaller agencies may have a need for specialists, and often officers take care of many of the duties a specialist would in other locales. This means that the competition could be fierce for these jobs, so more education is always a benefit.

Crime Scene Investigator Salary

One of the things that most have to consider when they are looking for a new career is the salary and the potential to make a good living. According to the BLS, a forensic science technician can expect to earn a median salary of $57,850 (BLS 2017). As with most positions, salaries vary widely based on experience as well as location. The same BLS data indicates that the lowest paid 10 percent of forensic science technicians earns less than $33,880 per year while the highest paid 10 percent earns more than $95,600.

The website Payscale.com tracks salary data specific to CSIs, which is also illuminating to consider. Among the 186 CSIs reporting to the site as of 2018, the annual median salary was $43,860, while the lower 10 percent earned $29,787 and the upper 10 percent earned $72,757.

From the available data, it would appear that a CSI makes somewhat less on average than a forensic science technician. This could be based on the fact that many forensic science technicians are required to have an advanced degree while it is often possible to work as a CSI without advanced training. Of course, this comparison also does not negate the fact that CSIs working in more urban areas, or who have more experience, are likely to make more than their more rural or less experienced counterparts.

How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

As already alluded to, there is no one-size-fits-all path to pursuing a career as a crime scene investigator. In particular, those interested in the career will need to decide whether they wish to seek a position as a law-enforcement officer or try to be hired as a civilian CSI. Below are some of the most common steps followed towards the CSI career.

  • Step 1: Graduate high school or earn a GED (4 years) – A high school diploma is required for any path into this career. If possible, high school students should seek to talk with and even volunteer for a local police department to determine if this is the career path they want.
  • Step 2: Consider attending a police academy (less than 1 year) – At least half of full-time CSIs are law enforcement officers, according to the ISCIA, making this a viable path into the career. The police academy typically does not require any education beyond high school and will teach cadets the basics of community policing, including self-defense, proper protocol, and the fundamentals of investigation.
  • Step 3: Pursue a bachelor’s degree (4 years) – Those who do not wish to take the law enforcement path should certainly consider earning a bachelor’s degree, preferably in forensic science or criminal justice.
  • Step 4: Obtain entry-level experience (timeline varies) – After graduating either from the police academy or a bachelor’s degree program, it is time to get hands-on experience in crime scene investigation. Brand new law enforcement officers likely will not have a great deal of say in where they are placed, but expressing an interest in CSI and volunteering to take on this role can lead to on-the-job training and ultimately more responsibility.

Overall, the timeline to getting started in this career depends heavily on whether one chooses the law enforcement route. Indeed, because a police academy typically takes less than a year to complete, this could be the more direct route. However, earning a bachelor’s degree may give new CSIs an advantage in the future, should the choose to pursue other avenues of work.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences has a number of resources for those who have an interest in the field and who are considering it as a career.

One of the skills that will be helpful to those who pursue a career as a CSI include the ability to stay calm and composed at a crime scene. Often, those who are in the field will find that they are at crime scenes that can be disturbing, and the ability to maintain professionalism is important. Attention to detail, as well as problem solving skills, are vital tools to have as well. Great communications skills – written and verbal – are important as well for writing reports and for speaking with others on the team, and testifying in court.

Crime Scene Investigator Tasks & Responsibilities

While every crime and every crime scene will be different, the reality is it is the rigorous processes put into place by investigators, including CSIs, that ensure every crime is investigated thoroughly and accurately. Some of the regular tasks and responsibilities that crime scene investigators should expect to take on include:

  • Use available evidence to reconstruct a crime scene
  • Take photos and make sketches of a crime scene
  • Record details about the crime scene that cannot be accurately collected and taken to the lab
  • Determine where and if a crime took place based on evidence
  • Maintain chain of custody for crime scene evidence when delivering to the forensic lab
  • Catalog all evidence collected for future prosecution
  • Create detailed reports of evidence collected
  • Track and monitor the evidence collection process
  • Testify as to their findings in court
  • Conduct evidentiary interviews with witnesses

The tasks that a CSI will find themselves doing depends on their level of experience. New CSIs will likely spend more time physically collecting and tagging the mountains of evidence that may be found at a crime scene, or even working in the evidence storage room to ensure things are organized. With time, CSIs will spend more time on recreating crime scenes, working with detectives, and supervising evidence collection.

Professional Certification and Licensure for Crime Scene Investigators

Law enforcement officers are subject to the own education and training requirements. For civilian CSIs, there is no specific legal requirement for certification or licensure. However, some notable organizations do offer crime scene investigation certifications that may be useful in advancing in the CSI career, including:

  • Forensic Crime Scene Investigators Certification: The ICSIA offers both a training and certification program for crime scene investigators. Certification is available to those with at least two years of crime scene investigation experience and 50 hours of crime scene processing courses.
  • International Association for Identification (IAI): The IAI offers four separate certifications for crime scene investigators: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist, and Certified Senior Crime Scene Investigator. Each of these certifications comes with its own set of requirements, which are available on the IAI website.

Again, certification is not strictly required to earn a job or a promotion in the CSI field, however it can lend credibility to a CSIs expertise and therefore may be worth pursuing after gaining some experience in the field.

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