Although police officers depend on forensic science to be able to accurately solve cases, not every city truly embraces forensic scientists as full members of the investigation team. Fortunately, some of the best police departments in the US are making aggressive moves to increase the access that officers have to skilled forensic professionals. Not only does this lead to better and more accurate investigations, but it means that forensic scientists are finding long-term careers in places where their skills are celebrated and financially supported.
Based on the number of forensic professionals employed, average departmental spending on forensic equipment and personnel, and forensic turnover, these are the 25 best police departments to be a forensic specialist.
1. St. Louis, MI
The St. Louis County Police Crime Laboratory is a great example of how closely a PD can work with its evidence gathering team. The lab, accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors – Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), handles over 7000 requests for evidence testing each year. In addition, this PD gives interns and volunteers the opportunity to gain on-the-job experience.
2. Stockton, CA
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLM, 2015), Stockton is one of ten metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of forensic science jobs – about .3 for every 1000 jobs. The Stockton PD is also proving their dedication to forensic technology by recently adopting the SST ShotSpotter Flex software, which allows police to identify recent gunfire by use of thermal imaging.
3. Chicago, IL
This PD is the third highest paying in the nation when it comes to forensic science, with the average annual wage being over $81,000 per year. Part of this comes from the public perception that crime in Chicago is high (although it has been steadily declining over the last four years). Another reason why it is so supportive of forensic scientists is the access it provides to the Illinois State Joliet Forensic Science Laboratory.
4. Washington, DC
Although the DC police crime lab has recently been under scrutiny by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this department has made both financial and social investments in showing that its forensic services are top-quality. Its state-of-the-art $220 million facility, opened in 2012, has been cited by some for being understaffed, which may lead to an increase in hiring over the next few years.
5. Phoenix, AZ
Arizona has an unusually high quotient of forensic scientists in the state, with Phoenix being the 7th most concentrated police department in the nation – .35 forensic scientists per 1000 people employed. The Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner Operations Center is nationally renown for it’s excellence in handling investigative data through toxicology. The Mesa PD also recently received an award for the lab for Excellence in Forensic Science from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
6. San Diego, CA
The San Diego PD is one of the most forensic-friendly departments on this list, hosting both an FBI-accredited (ASCLD/LAB) crime lab and an American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) forensic lab. Each year, the lab processes more than 13,000 pieces of evidence. Although the wage is not as high as it’s more northern CA counterparts, around $60,000, it is still above the national average of $57,000 annually. (City-Salaries.com, 2015)
7. New York, NY
It’s not surprising that the Big Apple is one of the highest employers of forensic science technicians in the US, with almost 400 forensic professionals employed as of 2015. Several of the central New York police departments (including Yonkers, Westchester County, Nassau, and Suffolk) house ASCLD/LAB accredited forensics labs, including the state-of-the-art Westchester County Ballistics Unit.
8. Baltimore, MD
Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs employ a surprising number of forensic scientists – about .24 per 1000 jobs. This is a great location for both professionals and students since those in the Forensic Science program at the University of Baltimore have access to both the college’s cutting-edge crime lab and the ABFT-accredited Maryland Crime Lab.
9. Riverside, CA
According to the BLS, Riverside employs .23 forensic scientists per 1000 workers, making it one of the top 10 metropolitan areas for this field. The police department in this area benefits from the local ABFT-accredited Bio-Tox Laboratories which gives them access to state-of-the-art forensic toxicology technology like liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.
10. Flagstaff, AZ
The Flagstaff PD works closely with the Arizona Department of Public Safety Northern Regional Crime Laboratory, giving this small department access to lots of forensic muscle. The crime lab, which recently aced a federal audit of its evidence integrity, is maintained by the FBI yet is completely integrated with the 13-detective police force. In addition, Flagstaff has the third highest concentration of forensic scientists in the nation, and pays above the national average – $61,000 annually.
11. Charlottesville, VA
Although the Charlottesville PD is the smallest force on this list, it has shown a dedication to forensic investigation that many larger cities can’t compete with. In a recent feature published by Police Chief Magazine, Detective Sergeant Ralph A. Barfield highlighted how the small department was able to reallocate funds and become the top-performing department in weapon, shell casing, and bullet identification through the use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).
12. Redding, CA
Redding also employs a large number of forensic scientists, with almost .60 per 1000 workers. The Redding PD is very supportive of forensic science and has several investigation units devoted only to forensics. One of the most notable areas is the High Tech Crimes Unit, which employs computer forensic experts to examine and mine data from computers, gaming systems, and cell phones.
13. Albuquerque, NM
While Albuquerque might be best known for crime as seen in television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” it’s crime labs are nationally recognized as being some of the best. The Albuquerque PD have one of the few ASCLD/LAB-accredited labs in the nation, with three of its scientists receiving special commendations for crime scene analysis in 2014.
14. Santa Ana, CA
This department is another one of the top paying in the US, with annual salaries averaging over $77,000 per year. This PD has often been ranked in the top 10 nationwide for “cold hits” in ballistics analysis, and is one of the few Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms-sponsored Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) locations in the country.
15. Boston, MA
Another department that pays its forensic scientists well is the Boston PD. Professionals here make over $72,000 annually, with a much lower cost of living than their California counterparts. Those in the Forensic Group work to identify latent prints, process crime scene data, and present forensic courtroom testimony. The Firearms Analysis Unit has also been nationally recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for its innovation in 3D ballistics imaging.
16. Los Angeles, CA
Not only is the LAPD one of the most highly-accredited when it comes to forensic science, it’s also one of the most decorated. It is nationally accredited for a number of unique areas, such as questionable documents and biological evidence analysis. In addition, the department received the 2014 August Vollmer Excellence in Forensic Science Award from the IACP for Serology and DNA analysis.
17. Las Vegas, NV
Nevada is listed as one of the top-paying states for forensic scientists, according to the BLS. This isn’t surprising in light of all the publicity that CSI brought to the forensic community. The average salary for a forensic professional here is over $70,000 per year. Typical forensics duties include comparative microscopy, gas chromatography, and mass or infrared spectroscopy.
18. Houston, TX
The Houston Forensic Science Center easily puts the Houston PD on the map for innovation and cutting-edge technology. Once housed within the police department itself, the lab is now independently operated, ensuring that data is not influence by police or lawmakers. The lab employs around 150 forensic specialists and pays slightly higher than the national average. It has also been awarded by the IACP for individual accomplishment.
19. San Francisco, CA
With annual salaries of over $89,000 per year, San Francisco forensic scientists are the highest paid in the country. Although it doesn’t have quite the forensic pedigree of its in-state neighbors (no accreditation for toxicology, latent printing, or crime scene analysis), the SFPD does employ a full range of forensic scientists in all of these areas. It also has a full video forensics area for enhancing and clarifying video footage.
20. Palm Bay, FL
Florida is consistently one of the states with the most forensic science professionals currently employed, at .20 per 1000 workers. Palm Bay is one of the most innovative PDs in the state, recently collaborating with the US Secret Service, Gladiator Forensics, and FBI Cast to create a cloud-based software that can analyze and track wireless data.
21. West Jordan, UT
The West Jordan PD is on the cutting edge of forensic technology, taking advantage of local and international talent to improve their data collection and analysis. For instance, they incorporate the M-Vac System, the most advanced wet vacuum forensic DNA collection system available, into their crime scene analysis. The PD also helps foster the growth and education of its staff (already a very well educated staff, with senior members of the forensics team also working part time in the state crime lab) and offers continual training for its Crime Scene Unit.
22. Tucson, AZ
The Tucson PD is home to the oldest criminal lab in the state and one of the first ever to be accredited by the ASCLD/LAB. Opened in 1960, this fully-functional lab is broken down into units like Forensic Biology, Comparative Analysis, and Forensic Electronic Media. The PD is also one of the largest employers of forensic professionals in the state – .34 per 1000 workers.
23. Denver, CO
The $28 million facility (opened in 2012) is just one of the ways that the Denver PD is trying to show that forensics is a top priority. The 77,000 square foot building allows investigators to analyze computer data, test ballistics on a custom shooting range, and analyze vehicles on-site. Wages are also good – $62,000 annually – which attracts top talent who don’t want the high cost of California living.
24. Suffolk, VA
Although it’s not the biggest city in the world, this little burg is making waves with its commitment to forensic excellence. In 2011, the department was awarded with the August Vollmer Contribution to Forensic Science by an Agency Award for its top-tier Crime Scene Search Unit.
25. Orange County, CA
The Orange County PD has one of the most accredited criminal investigation departments in the nation, with certification in toxicology, trace evidence, latent prints, and crime scene analysis. It employs over 150 staff members in its spacious 100,000 square foot forensic laboratory and supports local, national, and international criminal investigations.
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