As vital members of the criminal justice system, crime scene investigators play an instrumental role in solving crimes. In nearly every case, from burglary to murder, there is evidence left behind for an investigator to discover. By gathering and analyzing evidence, a crime scene investigator helps to build a case against the criminal suspect which can culminate in an arrest, trial, and conviction. In the following sections, we provide information about the career options available to individuals who are interested in pursuing crime scene investigation as an occupation, as well as the education requirements and qualities of successful professionals in this field.
Duties and Responsibilities of a Crime Scene Investigator
Crime scene investigation is one of the most challenging and rapidly changing areas of specialization within the field of criminal justice. Crime scene investigators are often the first professionals at the scene of a crime after it has been reported. They are responsible for securing the crime scene, collecting information that can be critical to a criminal conviction, and processing the evidence for further analysis. The job requires a professional to be exceptionally focused and have a highly observant and extremely meticulous mindset.
Typical job duties of a crime scene investigator include:
- Coordinating the investigative process between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies
- Preventing contamination at a crime scene to ensure that evidence is not compromised
- Taking measurements of where evidence is discovered, making calculations, and formulating theories about the events of the crime
- Documenting all evidence to preserve its original integrity
- Taking clear, multi-angle photographs of the crime scene
- Attending autopsies and medical examinations to gather additional evidence
- Maintaining equipment used in the lab and in the field
- Testifying about findings in a court of law
Qualities of a Good Crime Scene Investigator
As we have demonstrated, there are many combinations of formal education that can lead to a successful career as a crime scene investigator. In addition to their acquired knowledge and education, exceptional crime scene investigators also exhibit several unique qualities that set them apart in the field.
Judging by the TV shows, crime-solving looks like a fast-paced career. In reality, processing a crime scene, gathering evidence, making a case, and prosecuting a criminal is a slow and laborious process. Patience is vital to the successful conclusion of a criminal case. If you exercise it well, you will gather the appropriate evidence that can determine whether a criminal is found guilty or innocent. If you become impatient, you are likely to miss details that can undermine the case.
When you are gathering evidence at a crime scene, the importance of some physical parts such as blood splatter and footprints are immediately apparent. Other pieces of physical evidence may not initially appear consequential but will become important later in the investigation. While it takes experience to differentiate between evidence that is important and physical parts of the crime scene that have no impact, a detail-oriented investigator will be less likely to miss important evidence.
As a crime scene investigator, you are a fact gatherer. In gathering physical evidence, you remove important items, take photographs, and preserve pieces of information. However, no crime scene is perfectly laid out for you to find what you need. Even in cases where you arrive prepared for anything, you may need to think on your feet to gather the information you may need. That is why problem-solving skills are vital to successful crime scene investigators. If you can simply work out a problem without throwing your hands up in frustration, you are headed to the right field.
Passion for Learning
With technological advances in the field of forensics, crime scene investigators must have a passion for learning new things. The field itself is never stagnant as evidence gathering techniques, computer models, and processing equipment are continuously evolving. Those who insist on doing things “the way they have always been done” will quickly find their skills become obsolete.
The best crime scene investigators notice everything. Their powers of observation allow them to gather evidence of a crime before it is compromised or destroyed. They can also notice new aspects of a crime scene as they repeatedly sift through the information. If you tend to notice what is happening around you or if you pay attention to details others do not notice, you may have the observational skills needed to be an excellent crime scene investigator.
Education Requirements to Become a Crime Scene Investigator
Each law enforcement agency differs in the education it requires for its crime scene investigators. Some agencies require only a high school diploma and on-the-job training; others want candidates to have an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree in forensic science, criminal justice, or a related field. Before committing to a degree program, contact the agency where you want to work and ask about their specific education requirements.
Top Degree Paths for a Career as a Crime Scene Investigator
Education can serve not only as preparation for the job you want now; it also can lead to the position you want in the future. Since law enforcement, especially police work, is both physically and emotionally demanding, it’s unlikely that you will want to remain in the field for your entire law enforcement career. At some point, you may want to transition to a job indoors at a crime lab, or to a position that is less physically dangerous and demanding.
To make the career jump, your education should prepare you for that possibility. The following degree paths allow you to work in the field while keeping your options open for future opportunities.
Crime Scene Investigation
Specialized degree programs focused on crime scene investigation are available to help you develop the critical thinking skills, technical prowess, and legal knowledge you will need to be successful as a crime scene investigator.
A two-year certificate or an associate’s degree program at a technical college will prepare you to work as a crime scene technician under the supervision of a crime scene investigator or forensic scientist. These options are ideal if you want to explore a career in criminal investigation without committing to the time and expense required to complete a bachelor’s degree program.
Natural Sciences (Anatomy, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc.)
A degree in physics, chemistry, biology, or anatomy prepares you for a career in forensic science. When paired with a criminal justice minor or an internship in a crime lab, these degrees provide an educational foundation that is useful in processing evidence gathered at a crime scene. With a background in biology, for example, you can analyze DNA from bodily fluid stains and other biological tissues recovered from a crime scene. Other laboratory positions that require a science background include specializations such as forensic examiner, DNA specialist, supervisor, and unit chief.
A degree in criminal justice provides an overview of the investigatory process. In this field, you usually focus on the psychology of crime and punishment, courtroom policies and procedures, the appeals process, and the prison system. Knowing how the evidence that you accrue from a crime scene teaches you which type of evidence to collect during criminal investigations, about the necessary reports, and how your evidence will be presented in court. A degree in criminal justice also can prepare you for a career in prosecution or advocacy.
Acquiring a specialized degree in forensic science prepares students not only for a career in processing crime scenes but also to work in a lab at some point. Course studies focus on the collection, processing, and interpretation of evidence. Combining the psychology of a criminal justice program with the science of a natural sciences program, a degree in forensic science prepares you to investigate crime scenes, interpret evidence, and use scientific principles to process that evidence in a lab.
How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator
A crime scene investigator is a law enforcement officer who is trained to identify, collect, preserve, and package physical evidence at a crime scene. The investigator does not usually perform testing on physical evidence; instead, this is the job of another professional such as a forensic scientist. The title “crime scene investigator” is a general term. Other jobs under this broad category include crime scene technician, forensic photographer, fingerprint expert, ballistics expert, crime scene leader, forensic sketch artist, and DNA expert. Crime scene investigators may be employed by local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies, a sheriff’s department, the attorney general’s office, law firms, insurance companies, or private investigator firms.
An exceptional crime scene investigator must have a keen eye for details and an ability to recognize which tool to use during an investigation. Importantly, he must be able to avoid making quick assumptions about a crime scene until he and his fellow professionals have gathered all the facts and forensic evidence. Formulating a theory too early can mean running the risk of overlooking important details.
Minimum Requirements to Apply
The minimum requirements to become a crime scene investigator depend on the area of crime investigation in which you wish to specialize. Some law enforcement agencies hire crime scene investigators only after they’ve acquired extensive education and experience, while others may train a likely candidate after he has worked as a police officer for a time.
At a minimum, you need a high school diploma or GED certificate, a valid driver’s license, U.S. citizenship or legal residency, and at least two years of full-time work experience in one of the following fields:
Crime Scene Investigation
Gathering of physical evidence from a crime scene, preserving and processing that evidence, searching crime scenes for clues, photographing or sketching crime scenes, and participating in criminal investigations.
Collecting, comparing, filing, and classifying fingerprints, including fingerprints left at a crime scene (called latent fingerprints). Ability to employ multiple techniques to discover and recover fingerprints from a variety of surfaces at a crime scene.
Steps for Civilians
While most crime scene investigators work in conjunction with local police departments, state troopers, federal law enforcement agencies, and the court system, civilians are also hired for crime scene investigator jobs.
1. Qualify for the Job
To qualify for a job as a forensic scientist, you first need to complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Ideally, you’ll earn a degree in forensic science, criminal justice, or crime scene investigation. However, degrees in biology, chemistry, physiology, or other science-related fields may qualify candidates to work in a crime lab.
2. Acquire Several Years of Full-Time Experience
Next, acquire two or more years of full-time work experience as a forensic technician, fingerprint technician, or crime scene investigator, especially if you specialize in conducting field exams and preparing court documents. Many forensic science programs require you to complete an internship while you work toward a bachelor’s degree. Doing so provides the opportunity to gain real-world work experience. Contact your academic advisor for more information on an internship available through your college or university.
3. Obtain Professional Certification
You also must obtain professional credentials as a certified crime scene investigator to differentiate yourself from other applicants. The International Association for Identification (IAI) provides the tests for the crime scene investigator professional group. Through them, you can become a Certified Crime Scene Investigator (CCSI), a Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist (CCSR), a Certified Crime Scene Analyst (CCSA), or a Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst (CSCSA). Certification depends on education, work experience, and your desired position.
4. Complete Additional Testing and Training (If Required)
Many jobs in law enforcement require additional testing to determine a candidate’s aptitude for the job. Both civilians and police officers desiring to become crime scene investigators are subjected to these examinations. Applicants must have a background investigation, physical, polygraph, and behavioral assessment. To work for a federal agency, a security clearance, as well as reference checks and drug screening, are required.
Some law enforcement agencies require all their employees to complete police academy training, even if they already are employed in a law enforcement position. Here, you will complete academic coursework and gain proficiency in areas such as first aid, firearms, defensive tactics, and vehicle operations. Additionally, you will complete a physical fitness assessment as well as participate in training in law, policies and procedures, document preparation, courtroom procedures, and the criminal justice process as applicable to a career in criminal investigations.
5. Pursue Higher Education (Optional)
Acquiring a master’s degree in criminal justice, forensic science, or crime scene investigation improves your chances for employment. A graduate degree usually opens opportunities for advancement in your career by allowing you to specialize in a certain area. Areas of study include criminal justice management; causes of crime; crime prevention and control; analysis in research; homeland security or public safety administration; and criminal justice research. A master of science degree may lead to a job in the management of a crime lab to coordinate several forensic science departments or to a federal law enforcement career.
Steps for Police Officers
While civilians can become crime scene investigators, some police departments prefer to accept promising candidates from their own workforce. While education requirements for a law enforcement officer are often not as rigorous as those for civilians who apply to the position, the process is still quite lengthy.
1. Become a Police Officer
First, you must become a police officer. Doing so requires an initial background check, a physical exam, psychological testing, and a physical fitness test. If you pass the initial screening, you are invited to complete police academy training. The police academy lasts between 13 and 19 weeks, depending on the agency you want to work with. You will complete training in a variety of areas, from physical fitness to criminal justice, policies and procedures, to pushups and running. You’ll learn how to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, and your role in keeping the public safe. After successfully completing training, police officers are assigned a “beat” with a senior police officer who continues hands-on training.
2. Apply for CSI Position After Gaining Experience
After two to four years’ experience with a police department, candidates are usually eligible to apply for a position as a crime scene investigator. If you have proven to be a detail-oriented police officer with a sharp eye for details and problem-solving skills, you likely will be accepted into the department training program to get the training you need. At this point, you may qualify to become a crime scene technician, gathering physical evidence under the supervision of a crime scene investigator. Technicians hone their skills by accumulating hands-on experience and developing the abilities necessary to become a lead crime scene investigator.
Additional Career Options in Crime Scene Investigation
While crime scene investigation sounds like a narrow career field, the education, and experience you gain as an investigator prepares you for a job in a variety of related fields. Investing the time and energy into acquiring the education and experience required to be a criminal investigator leads to additional opportunities.
To work on criminal cases, you must have a combination of the right education and training. Although the following careers are closely linked to that of crime scene investigator, some require additional training or on-the-job experience:
Crime Lab Analyst
While crime scene investigators visit a crime scene in-person to gather information, a crime lab analyst processes evidence after it arrives at the crime laboratory. Processing may include a variety of testing procedures to analyze bodily fluids and other materials found at the crime scene. DNA tests, chemical tests, and blood spatter analysis are just a few of the methods an analyst will utilize to answer questions about the crime.
While a crime scene investigator divides his or her time between working in the field and the lab, a forensic scientist typically spends the majority of the day in a crime lab, processing evidence and preparing it for presentation at trial. A forensic scientist is an expert in science-related fields such as biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy, which they use to analyze data gathered by forensic technicians. A forensic scientist often works with crime lab analysts to process physical evidence in its raw state so that it can be examined and used to draw conclusions about the crime.
Forensic DNA Analyst
Forensic DNA analysts are scientists who work in forensic crime labs, where they extract biological information from samples of hair, blood, bodily fluids, and tissue collected from crime scenes. Data generated by DNA analyses performed by a forensic DNA analyst are used to build a case against a suspect or to help law enforcement identify a victim. Their work is crucial to the investigatory efforts of law enforcement and to those who pursue justice in a court of law, as the results of forensic DNA tests are viewed as clear-cut and unambiguous.
Forensic Science Technician
A forensic science technician collects evidence and performs scientific tests on physical evidence in order to reconstruct and study crime scenes. They perform investigative work that is essential to the process of identifying suspects and securing convictions, using specialized expertise in areas such as DNA analysis, fingerprinting, blood spatter, and ballistics to answer questions about a crime. While most of their work involves the collection and analysis of evidence, they are also asked to testify in court about their findings, especially if they have specialized knowledge in a particular area of science or method of testing.
Crime Scene Investigator Salary & Job Outlook
As highly specialized and in-demand professionals, crime scene investigators are well paid for their expertise in both science and criminology. Because the field of crime scene investigation offers many career path options, there are also many opportunities for job growth and professional exploration. For individuals who exhibit the necessary skills and are willing to continue to learn, the prospects are exceptional for a fruitful and rewarding career.
Wage Estimates & Salary Potential
Wages for a crime scene investigator will often depend on where they work. Local law enforcement offices, especially those in less populated areas, tend to pay less than larger federal law enforcement agencies. Wages will also depend on your level of education and experience and how involved you are in the case from beginning to end. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a forensic technician who stays in the lab to process evidence after it is gathered makes an average of $58,230 per year. In comparison, crime scene investigators who are more fully involved in the case and work at a local or state level make an average of $72,340 while those working for federal law enforcement agencies make an average of $108,770.
Projected Job Growth & Prospects
Whether you want to remain in the lab or go out into the field, labor statistics show that the average expected job growth for crime scene investigators is much faster than average. That means, over the next decade, the forensic science field is expected to grow by leaps and bounds. As our population continues to grow, the need for qualified and exceptional crime scene investigators will also grow. Likewise, as new technology continues to make police work and criminal investigation a more technical field, there will be more barriers to entry. Expect to see more technical education requirements as well as more national certification requirements to emerge in order to become a crime scene investigator in the next decade.
Where Can I Learn More About Careers in Crime Scene Investigation?
For anyone interested in becoming a crime scene investigator, it's good to be aware of the many professional organizations and resources available to help you in your career. You can use these resources and connections for career support and personal growth.
Here are a few professional organizations to consider:
National Association of Police Organizations
International Association of Chiefs of Police
National Sheriff's Association
Fraternal Order of Police
Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association
International Association of Women Police
Women in Federal Law Enforcement
The career path to becoming a crime scene investigator requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but personal fulfillment and professional rewards are worth the effort.