Crime Scene Investigator: Career Guide
Crime scene investigators (CSIs) -- sometimes referred to as crime scene specialists, forensic science technicians, and crime laboratory analysts -- use critical thinking and analytical skills to collect physical evidence, such as hair, bodily fluids, and footprints, from crime scenes. They are responsible for processing and preserving evidence, as well as sharing written documentation and reports about their collections.
CSIs use their expertise to testify at criminal trials and help shed light onto the events that occurred during criminal activity. They work independently and collaboratively with diverse groups of people. A variety of organizations hire crime scene investigators, including government agencies, police departments, coroner's offices, and crime laboratories.
The median annual wage for forensic science technicians is $58,230, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 14% growth in employment for these professionals between 2018 and 2028. Detectives and criminal investigators earn an average annual salary of $83,320 and enjoy a projected job growth rate of 5%. This guide covers how to become a crime scene investigator.
Crime Scene Investigator Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Crime Scene Investigator
Crime scene investigators use specialized equipment and procedures to visually and physically examine crime scenes, such as traffic accidents, burglaries, and homicides. They may collect evidence and materials to help solve crimes, such as hair, biological fluids, gunshot residue, and footwear impressions.
CSIs use various scientific methods and preservation techniques to store and secure collected evidence. They use chemical and dusting techniques to develop and compare fingerprints and forensic photography to take pictures of victims, suspects, and key documents. Some CSIs possess expertise in blood spatter pattern analysis, while others possess specialized training in bullet trajectory paths.
CSIs must be flexible and capable of working in stressful and unpleasant environments, including environments with deceased individuals in various stages of decomposition. Many CSIs work closely with pathologists to collect evidence from cadavers during autopsies and postmortem examinations.
CSIs are responsible for taking thorough notes, completing forms, and preparing written reports to document important evidence and share key findings with others. As forensic evidence experts, CSIs often work closely with attorneys to provide comprehensive testimonies at criminal trials about the evidence collected at crime scenes. The results of their analysis may help solve crimes, prosecute offenders, and release the wrongly accused.
Steps to Become a Crime Scene Investigator
Ever wonder how to become a crime scene investigator? Many people think that all CSIs are police officers, but many CSIs come from other backgrounds, such as science or criminology.
CSI candidates must meet the minimum requirements of the agency to which they are applying. CSIs typically need a bachelor's degree in either a natural or forensic science, such as chemistry or biology, or in a field such as criminal justice, crime scene technology, or criminology.
Some CSI positions do not require a baccalaureate degree, instead requiring specific college courses. For instance, some jobs may accept applicants who have completed lab-based chemistry courses from an accredited college or university. Most agencies require at least a high school diploma or GED and a valid driver's license. Some positions require applicants to be between the ages of 21 and 37 years old.
Depending on the role, CSIs may need one or more years of work experience in a related role, such as law enforcement officer or fingerprint technician.
Crime Scene Investigator 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 career to stay abreast 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.
Standards and credentials for investigators vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so there are no common licensure requirements to become a CSI. However, professional organizations such as the International Association for Identification and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences offer various courses and certifications that can help CSIs advance their careers. These courses may cover topics like bloodstain pattern analysis, firearm identification, and latent fingerprinting.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
In addition to a strong background in science and criminal justice, crime scene investigators need several soft skills, such as attention to detail, which helps them search for and find key evidence at various crime scenes. They also need critical thinking skills and superior judgment in order to recognize which materials may assist in solving crimes.
Additionally, CSIs need strong written and verbal communication skills to prepare documentation and share key findings with others. Since they are responsible for testifying at trials, they must be able to draw conclusions and render opinions with a strong degree of professionalism.
CSIs must be flexible and willing to work variable hours in potentially stressful or unpleasant conditions. As CSIs are often considered "on call," they may be expected to have 24-hour availability to respond to crime scenes. They must also possess technical skills and the ability to operate various tools, equipment, and technology, such as computers, telephones, two-way radios, and other electronic devices.
As a physically demanding job, work as a crime scene investigator also requires a degree of visual and muscular dexterity. CSIs must be able to move their hands and arms above their shoulders; bend, stoop, and pick up materials; and distinguish the full range of the color spectrum.
Salary and Career Outlook
According to data from the BLS, crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians earn a median yearly salary of $58,230, with the top 10% of earners making more than $97,200. The BLS projects demand for forensic science technicians to grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028, resulting in approximately 2,400 new jobs over the next several years.
Crime Scene Investigator$58,230 Average Annual Salary
Criminal Investigator (Local Government)$71,430 Average Annual Salary
Criminal Investigator (Federal Government)$106,040
Detectives and criminal investigators who work for local governments earn an average annual wage of $71,430, while those who work for the federal executive branch of the government earn $106,040 per year, on average.
Salary varies by factors like training, work experience, education, and geography. Salary also depends heavily on a professional's agency. For example, CSIs who are employed by state and local government agencies typically earn higher wages than technicians who work at testing laboratories and medical and diagnostic laboratories.
CSIs with police academy backgrounds often earn higher annual salaries than those without experience as a police officer. Individuals with advanced degrees and certifications often benefit from higher wages than those with fewer credentials. Due to cost of living adjustments, professionals who work in metropolitan cities tend to earn more money than those who work in rural areas.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What Type of Hours Do CSIs Typically Work?
- Crime scene investigators and technicians typically work full-time 40-hour work weeks plus overtime hours. They 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. They are often expected to be available 24/7 in order to respond to crimes that happen outside of normal business hours.
- What Are the Most Important Qualities of a CSI?
- CSIs play a crucial role in helping police officers and detectives determine the events that took place during a crime. They must be credible and trustworthy. They must possess the ability to draw key conclusions, render strong opinions, and communicate effectively. CSIs must also remain calm and collected in stressful, and otherwise unpleasant, work environments.
- Who Do CSIs Work with Most Commonly?
- CSIs work with diverse people at each stage of a crime scene investigation. They work with police officers, detectives, and other law enforcement personnel at active crime scenes. They work collaboratively with other investigators and technicians at laboratories. They also work closely with lawyers and other experts during criminal trials. Additionally, they cooperate with medical examiners, pathologists, and coroners during autopsies and postmortem examinations.