Crime Lab Analyst

Forensics, the use of science criminal investigation purposes, has evolved quite a bit over the past century. From the humble beginnings of fingerprinting by British police at the end of the Victorian era to the advanced techniques of DNA “fingerprinting” used today, forensics has allowed law enforcement to grow smarter and catch more criminals than ever before.

The backbone behind this evolution is the lab technician. Crime laboratory analysts, also called forensic lab analysts, forensic science technicians and other titles, perform the evidence processing and compiling work necessary to bring samples from the crime scene to the courtroom as definitive proof of wrongdoing. Individuals who want to pursue a career in the sciences that helps make the world safer would find a crime lab analyst position quite rewarding.

What Does a Crime Lab Analyst Do?

Crime lab analysts primarily process crime scene samples in order to reconstruct events and determine possible perpetrators. A crime scene investigator will receive evidence samples from a crime scene — photos of tire marks, hair and tissue samples, traces of chemicals found, soil samples, photographs and footprint impressions among others — and the crime lab analyst will then perform a series of tests on the materials.

Common Tests and Procedures

One such common test is a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. Substances are injected into the device, where they are vaporized and the chemical composition is revealed. These results must then be interpreted, often by coupling findings from other tests.

In addition to chemical analysis, crime lab technicians may be performing tests that include ballistics, blood spatter analysis, handwriting analysis, tire impressions, fingerprinting, DNA analysis and more. Daily responsibilities involve performing routine actions and monitoring samples as they are processed. Reports must also be compiled and presented, which describe the findings in concrete terms that non-specialists can understand so that they can form a component of a prosecution case. Some technicians may testify in court or to grand juries as expert witnesses.

Another common task for crime lab analysts is to review the work completed by other technicians and to confirm the lab test findings. An analyst will test the quality of the findings by replicating the test methodology or seeking alternative methods to duplicate the test results. Findings that are difficult to duplicate cannot be admitted as evidence in court, so crime lab analysts must abide by approved procedural methodologies and legally-accepted best practices to ensure that their findings will stand up to scrutiny.

Where Does a Crime Lab Analyst Work?

Forensic science technicians and crime lab analysts typically work for public agencies involved with law enforcement. Some larger local police departments maintain several crime labs throughout the city, many often dedicated to one type of analysis or evidence processing. For instance, the Nation’s largest crime lab serves the Los Angeles Police Department and surrounding sheriff’s departments with DNA analysis services. Smaller local police departments must usually defer to larger bureaus with the resources to process evidence, such as a town in rural Georgia sending off samples to be processed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

State and federal agencies are more likely to conduct crime sample analysis because of their larger resource pool as well as the typically more-concerning nature of the crimes they investigate. For example, the FBI operates a large crime lab in Quantico, Virginia on a Marine Corps base. Some federal agencies like the EPA may use forensics to determine the nature of regulations violators, such as examining pollution samples and determining their origin date.

There are also private laboratories that collaborate with law enforcement, especially when specialized expertise, analysis or tests are needed. These privately-run laboratories may be a part of a university system or a larger corporation with the resources, equipment and staff needed to help law enforcement get the answers they need.

Forensics labs, both public and private, can be found throughout the country, most of them concentrated in metropolitan areas. California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Maryland are states with the highest concentration of crime lab analysts working within them. Washington D.C., the Phoenix area, Los Angeles and New York City are the cities with the highest concentrations.

Crime Lab Analyst Salaries & Job Outlook

While specific statistics for lab workers are not readily available, the BLS provides information for the general field of forensic science and for the closely related position of Forensic Science Technician. Average annual salaries for the field were $58,610, with those working for local and state governments as well as in private medical labs making close to this amount.

Those working for the Federal Executive Branch in agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security have the highest average annual salaries at $96,680.

Additional Careers in Law Enforcement

Consider these additional careers in law enforcement.

Police Officer
Crime Scene Investigator
FBI Agent
Game Warden
Police Detective
Private Investigator
State Trooper
U.S. Marshal