So You Want to Be a Crime Scene Investigator…


Is It Like TV?

Who wouldn’t want to be a CSI? Just think of our favorite heroine, Ms. Abigail Sciuto of NCIS (one of TV’s most popular shows—in fact, the most popular if you disregard reality shows). You’ve got to love Abby because she can do anything: match fibers, identify voice patterns, track down exotic insects, specify tire tracks, restore burned-up hard drives, isolate chemical compounds, and manage the ever-bristly Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

In the real CSI world, though, there is nobody like Abby, according to Terry Lamoreaux of The Utah Bureau of Forensic Services Southern Lab. “That’s because in the real world of crime scene investigation there’s no one who does everything,” he says. “One person might have a couple of specialties, maybe two or three areas, like fingerprint and tire print, or chemistry and arson, and that’s it.” We both agreed, however, that Abby is very cool.

It Takes Time

There are other differences between the glamorous world of TV CSI and the real world of crime scene investigation. Lamoreaux says that a big difference is the time frame for solving a crime. “On a typical CSI episode, they solve two crimes in about an hour,” he says. “But it takes much longer to collect and analyze evidence.”

Furthermore, most state CSI labs are sadly understaffed. Jay Henry of The Utah Bureau of Forensic Services Central Lab in Salt Lake City points out that they have 9,000-10,000 policemen—but only 30 crime scene investigators. Such staffing problems make crime scene analysis a much longer proposition.

Those Fancy Machines

One of the biggest problems CSI labs face is budget, Jay Henry says, which is the main reason for such a small proportion of CSIs in the state. Lamoreaux agrees, pointing out that most labs could never afford the expensive machines featured on CSI shows. “Take ‘NCIS LA,’ for example,” he says, “None of us have those big computer screens where you can slide images across the wall (although they are very cool!). The only thing we use computer screens for is to match tear marks on tape, glass fragments, that sort of thing.”

Some of the machines you see in TV CSI labs don’t even exist, “like instant DNA analysis, portable handheld fingerprint kits, databases to identify insects instantly,” says Lamoreaux. “But they sure are fun and maybe we’ll have them someday in the future!”

They Get It Right Sometimes

Both Utah CSI experts agree that the TV shows get it right sometimes (although always much more quickly than in real life). Many of the machines, such as DNA sampling equipment and gas chromatography machines are the real deal. However, sometimes the shows use machines for the wrong application. And sometimes they get results you can’t really get, “like finding the exact batch of some face powder or some machine oil, like they know exactly where it was produced and sold,” says Lamoreaux.

Real-world machines still do some pretty amazing stuff. Lamoreaux points out how exciting it can be to analyze new substances. “Our state just made illegal a substance called Spice (a synthetic substitute for marijuana),” he said, “and I have been working on deciphering the compounds and figuring out where various samples came from. It’s fascinating.”

Day-to-Day Work

There’s plenty of work to do in a CSI crime lab, especially with short staffing and it’s not always so exciting. “I’d say there are 15 to 20 minutes of excitement in an eight-hour shift,” Jay Henry says. “We have shifts going 24 hours a day. It’s easy to burn out on this job, especially since we sometimes feel like we’re on the low end of the food chain, so you can easily start feeling stressed.”

What Education Do You Need to Be a CSI?

Although some labs used to consider applicants with a two-year degree, those days are pretty much gone, Lamoreaux says. In addition to his lab work, Lamoreaux is a college professor of crime scene investigation at Southern Utah University, so he counsels college students all the time on this subject.

Since the TV shows became so popular, this field has become quite competitive. I’d say you need a four-year degree in the hard sciences, like chemistry or biology. Then you will probably need to do a year’s internship, usually unpaid, which can really be a hardship for most people. I would also suggest taking your first job in a less-desirable location, like maybe inner-city Los Angeles. If you come with these types of experiences, you probably can get a job wherever you want.”

Lamoreaux points out that there’s one thing that can make or break your application for a CSI position: your ability to write. “Many departments ask applicants to write up a sample report,” he comments. “You’d be surprised how many college graduates can’t even write a decent sentence. You can’t even understand what they wrote! If I had one bit of advice to give to prospective CSI applicants, it would be to learn to write clearly, to write well.”

The REAL Las Vegas CSI

The TV show is exciting, true…and so is the real thing:

Two Types of CSI Jobs

Most people don’t know that there are two types of CSI jobs. Each one requires different education and each does different work but there is always some overlap.

Forensic Scientists Crime Lab Technicians

Depending on where you live, and what the local crime laboratories do, there may be other jobs related to being a CSI. These may include:

  1. Medical examiner
  2. Crime laboratory analyst
  3. Crime scene examiner
  4. Forensic engineer
  5. Academic assistance—psychology, social science, statistics
  6. Technical assistance—computer analyst, polygraph, composite drawing

What They Love About It

Both types of Crime Scene Investigators agree that you have to have a passion for the work, and each of them has his favorite part. In addition to analyzing new chemical compounds like Spice, Lamoreaux really loves the process of working with fingerprints. “It is so exciting to apply the chemical or powder and watch the clear prints appear,” he said.

Henry says that he loves the whole process as the evidence unfolds the story of a crime. He tells the story of a CSI who left to work in the private sector. “Even though the pay was much higher, he didn’t like it so much,” Henry says. “He realized that he was mostly working with defense attorneys. So he came back to the CSI Lab. He said he missed ‘the chase,’ the exhilaration. You never know where a case will go and that is really fascinating.”

What Do CSIs Earn?

CSIs earn similar salaries as most public servants. “Starting salaries are right around $30,000 for a lab tech,” Henry says, “and go up to about $50,000 tops. Forensic scientists start at about $45,000 and go up to maybe $60,000 or $70,000.” It’s a little different from other police officers, who can move up from rank to rank. “There’s not much career mobility,” Henry adds. National pay scales show that these numbers pretty much hold true across the nation.

Deal Breakers

You need to remember that CSIs work in the criminal justice system. Therefore, if you have a criminal record, you probably won’t be able to get a position (unless you have a juvenile record that has been expunged).
In addition, almost all laboratories conduct regular drug testing, so if you use drugs, you are unlikely to get a position.

How To Get Started

If you live in a city, there may be a crime scene laboratory near you. Make an appointment to visit the lab and see how the work goes. You can also check out the information from the various online labs. For example, the Utah Forensic Services Website has lots of interesting info and is very friendly.

Most colleges have law-enforcement departments, including CSI training. You might start by visiting your local college or university and seeing what they offer. Sit in on a class or two. Talk with some of the professors.

These days, many online universities offer good CSI programs as well. Do a little research, and you may find a program that’s right for you to become a new Crime Scene Investigator.

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