How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator: Career Guide

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Updated May 20, 2024

What is crime scene investigation? How do you become a crime scene investigator? Find answers to these questions and more in this career guide.

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Millions have watched it on TV, but what is crime scene investigation like in real life? In most cases, crime scene investigation (CSI) barely resembles the dramatic profession portrayed on screen.

Instead, CSI involves the careful and methodical application of forensic science techniques, which investigators use to document and recover evidence from crime scenes.

If you're interested in becoming a crime scene investigator, it's important to separate fact from fiction. This career-focused resource provides a deep dive into this intriguing but commonly misunderstood aspect of law enforcement.

What Is Crime Scene Investigation?

Crime scene investigation is a forensic specialization dedicated to recovering, gathering, and preserving physical evidence from crime scenes. It aims to help police reconstruct events, identify possible suspects, and solve crimes.

Police typically call in CSI specialists to assist their investigations into crimes and events causing major harm, trauma, or loss of life. Examples include homicides, suspicious deaths, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and fatal accidents. Crime scene investigators also lend their technical expertise to other complex or sensitive investigations when requested.

What is crime scene investigation if not methodical? While every investigation differs, CSI professionals follow a similar set of procedural steps whenever they respond to a scene. These include:

  • Defining the size and dimensions of the area to be examined, and securing its perimeter
  • Conducting an initial, high-level investigation of known or potential evidence
  • Performing a secondary, very close study of the scene to detect the possible presence of trace evidence
  • Documenting, gathering, logging, and preserving physical evidence for laboratory analysis

Most police departments have internal forensic investigation resources. However, dedicated CSI departments are most common in major metropolitan centers, and in state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Crime Scene Investigators and Related Professions

Crime scene investigators may also be known as crime scene analysts or crime scene examiners. Sometimes, their job titles or duties indicate a CSI specialization such as blood spatter, fingerprint, or ballistics analysis. These specialists have advanced skills for analyzing specific types of crime scene evidence.

There is a difference between a crime scene investigator and a crime scene technician or evidence technician. Professionals with "technician" in their job titles may also participate in field investigations. However, their work extends to laboratory settings, where they analyze physical evidence and prepare it for use in court proceedings.

Another distinction applies to sworn vs. civilian CSI specialists. Crime scene investigators are usually sworn police officers with powers of arrest, but some law enforcement agencies also employ civilians.

Crime Scene Investigator vs. Forensic Scientist

While CSI specialists draw heavily on forensic science, it's not entirely accurate to use the terms "crime scene investigator" and "forensic scientist" interchangeably. Compare the two roles below.

Crime Scene Investigator

Crime scene investigators apply the principles of forensic science to field investigations. They are most active at the outset of a police response to a major crime, documenting details that could help solve the case, and recovering potentially critical trace evidence that may otherwise have been overlooked.

Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists primarily work in laboratory settings rather than in the field. They mainly focus on conducting the technical analysis of evidence recovered by crime scene investigators. Crime scene technicians, evidence technicians, and criminalists are examples of forensic science specialists who work in policing and law enforcement.

Where Do Crime Scene Investigators Work?

Crime scene investigators may work for police departments, sheriff's offices, and state or federal law enforcement agencies. The role may involve travel to any destination covered by their agency's jurisdiction.

Some CSIs need to be on call outside their regular working hours, as their expertise could be required virtually any time of day or night. In larger departments, on-call responsibilities often rotate among team members on set schedules so that no single investigator is on all call the time.

When they are not performing field investigations, CSIs may work in laboratory or office settings. In crime labs, they lead or assist in the analysis of recovered evidence. In offices, CSIs write reports, brief colleagues, and liaise as necessary with detectives and other investigators as cases proceeds.

How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Crime Scene Investigator Career Path Overview

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree in biology, criminal justice, or forensic science.
  2. Complete 6-24 months of on-the-job training, either as a sworn police officer or a civilian.
  3. Obtain a CSI license if mandated by your state, or consider professional certification if licensure requirements do not apply.
  4. Develop a specialization in an area like blood spatter, fingerprint, or ballistics analysis as you gain experience, if you're interested.

Education and Experience

Employers vary their educational requirements, but you'll need a degree in a field that develops a relevant knowledge background. Examples include:

  • Biology. Biology majors build expertise with handling and analyzing tissue samples, and with laboratory best practices.
  • Criminal Justice. Criminal justice programs focus on the systems and standards used in policing and courts of law.
  • Forensic or Investigative Science. This ideal major for aspiring CSIs focuses on the applied scientific techniques used in field investigations. A bachelor's in forensic science typically combines elements of the physical sciences, law, criminal justice, and mathematics.

You'll need at least a bachelor's degree to get started. Ideally, your program will include an internship that helps you acquire practical experience. By combining these with targeted networking, you may qualify for an entry-level civilian CSI role.

Alternatively, you could attend a criminal justice or forensic science school and become a sworn police officer after completing your education. From there, you could seek out CSI duties.

On-the-Job Training

Crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians typically receive on-the-job training. Many law enforcement agencies require new CSIs to complete extensive training programs before they take on cases independently.

Newly hired crime scene investigators may work under experienced investigators for up to one year. Training typically explores proper procedures for collecting and documenting evidence, photography, fingerprint processing, death scene processing, and blood spatter analysis.

Additionally, investigators and technicians must keep up with continuing education throughout their careers to stay on top of the current trends and advancements in science and technology. As scientists continue to invent new methods and equipment for evidence collection, CSIs may need to pass regular proficiency exams to demonstrate their understanding of the latest tools and techniques.

Other Requirements

Whether sworn or civilian, CSIs must undergo extensive background checks before receiving clearance to work. Keep your record clean, as criminal convictions could disqualify you.

States differ with respect to licensure: Some have licensure requirements for CSIs, while others do not. Even if you don't need a license, consider earning a professional certification from a recognized organization like the International Association for Identification or ASIS International.

Chances are you'll also need a driver's license to ensure you can promptly travel to any necessary field location.

Key Skills for Crime Scene Investigators

To succeed as a CSI, you'll need a complete repertoire of hard and soft skills. Essential hard skills include:

  • Deep knowledge of forensic science and site security techniques
  • Expertise in handling and processing evidence
  • A sound understanding of laboratory analysis procedures

Though not necessarily a firm requirement, photography skills may also come in handy.

You'll need to pair these essential hard skills with soft skills such as:

  • Close attention to detail
  • Analytical reasoning and critical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Interpersonal communication

Sometimes, police investigators ask CSIs to form and explain theories about the sequence of events that may have taken place in a specific case. As such, presentation and public speaking skills may also help.

Crime Scene Investigator Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes CSIs in its entry for forensic science technicians. According to BLS data from May 2023, forensic science technicians earn a median salary of $64,940 per year. Notably, the BLS projects strong job growth of 13% in this career path from 2022-32.

Crime scene investigators who are also sworn police officers tend to earn more. Nationally, police officers earn a median salary of nearly $75,000 per year, according to May 2023 BLS data.

Pay rates for CSI-related analytical specializations vary: For instance, Glassdoor cited an average salary of $47,566 per year for fingerprint analysts in May 2024. At the same time, Glassdoor reported that blood spatter analysts made more than twice as much—nearly $112,000 per year on average.

Salaries also vary by location. The following table shows the five top-paying states for forensic science technicians as of May 2023.

Top-Paying States for Forensic Science Technicians
State Average Salary (2023)
California $98,400
Illinois $95,750
Connecticut $82,620
New York $82,610
Massachusetts $82,520
Source: BLS

Related Careers

Not sure about crime scene investigation? Check out other careers in forensics:

Professional Resources

Open to forensic scientists and criminalists, this organization offers training and education programs, consulting services, and expert opinions for use in court.

Operating continuing education and certification programs, the IAI brands itself as the world's oldest and largest forensic science professional organization.

This Grand Rapids, Michigan-based organization assists active law enforcement investigations and acts as a conduit for the open exchange of technical and investigative knowledge.

The IICFIP focuses on advanced training for CSIs, forensic scientists, medical investigators, and anticorruption specialists.

Frequently Asked Questions About Crime Scene Investigation

Is crime scene investigation hard?

CSI professionals frequently describe their job duties as both physically demanding and mentally taxing. During field investigations, CSIs often work long hours and they toil through all but the most extreme weather conditions. Their investigations often come under intense time pressure, which can create or contribute to stress.

Do crime scene investigators carry guns?

Civilian CSIs do not typically carry guns, but crime scene investigators who are also sworn police officers may be armed while on duty. The idea that all CSIs carry guns and could become involved in physical confrontations at any moment is largely a pop culture myth.

How many hours does a CSI work a day?

Crime scene investigators and technicians typically work full-time 40-hour work weeks plus overtime hours. You may work a variety of shifts, including during daytime, evening, and night shifts on both weekdays and weekends. CSIs may be required to work on holidays and special occasions. As a CSI, you are often expected to be available 24/7 in order to respond to crimes that happen outside of normal business hours.

What is the difference between a crime scene investigator and a criminal investigator?

CSIs specialize in documenting crime scenes and using forensic science techniques to recover evidence from them, while criminal investigators examine that evidence when analyzing crimes and seeking suspects. Homicide detectives and FBI agents are types of criminal investigators.

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