How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Crime Scene Investigator

A crime scene investigator (CSI) is a specialized type of law enforcement officer who is trained to collect physical forensic evidence at crime scenes and interpret that evidence to assist both the investigative and judicial sides of the criminal justice system to solve crimes and secure convictions.

The role of a crime scene investigator has been popularized in many television shows and movies, sparking public interest in the profession. However, the reality of the job is often very different from what is portrayed onscreen. In real life, crime scene investigators must have a keen eye for detail and be able to methodically process evidence while also maintaining a strict chain of custody to ensure that evidence is not compromised.

What Is a Crime Scene Investigator?

A crime scene investigator (CSI) is a specially trained member of law enforcement who collects, documents, and preserves evidence from crime scenes to aid in the arrest and prosecution of criminals. This includes everything from fingerprints and DNA samples to bloodstains, fibers, and spent shell casings.

Crime scene investigators use a variety of tools and techniques to collect and analyze evidence, including DNA analysis, bloodstain pattern analysis, ballistics analysis, and fingerprinting, as well as conducting interviews and gathering witness statements. In some cases, they may also be involved in crime scene reconstruction to help determine how a crime was committed.

What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?

Crime scene investigators are often the first professionals at the scene of a crime after it has been reported. They are tasked with conducting a preliminary assessment of the scene to determine the type of evidence that may be present and to develop a plan for collecting and preserving that evidence. They are also responsible for securing the scene and ensuring that no evidence is disturbed or removed.

After the scene has been secured, crime scene investigators will methodically search for and collect evidence. The process of collecting and preserving evidence is known as crime scene documentation. This involves taking photographs, making sketches, creating a written record of the crime scene, packaging and labeling evidence, and cataloging everything that is collected. This requires a CSI to be exceptionally focused, detail-oriented, and meticulous in their work.

Crime Scene Investigator Duties

  • Preventing contamination at a crime scene to ensure that evidence is not compromised
  • Documenting all evidence to preserve its original integrity
  • Taking clear, multi-angle photographs of the crime scene
  • Working with other law enforcement professionals, such as detectives and prosecutors
  • Formulating theories about the events of the crime
  • Attending autopsies and medical examinations to gather additional evidence
  • Maintaining equipment used in the lab and in the field
  • Coordinating the investigative process between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies
  • Testifying in court about evidence collected and conclusions made
  • Updating case files and submitting reports

Steps to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

There is no one-size-fits-all route to becoming a crime scene investigator. CSIs are often police officers who are promoted to the role internally after gaining years of experience on the force. However, many departments employ CSIs from civilian backgrounds who are hired directly into the position with no prior experience in law enforcement. Below, we cover the steps you can take to become a crime scene investigator, whether you are already working in law enforcement or starting from scratch.

Requirements for Civilians

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher

If you aren’t interested in becoming a police officer but want to pursue a career as a CSI, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, a natural science, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, or criminal justice (with an emphasis on crime scene investigation). Pursuing a degree in one of these fields will give you the scientific knowledge and analytical skills needed to be hired as a forensic technician, fingerprint technician, or other entry-level positions in the field of crime scene investigation.

2. Gain Relevant Experience

Departments that hire CSIs from civilian backgrounds often require applicants to have at least two years of relevant experience working in a crime lab or as an evidence technician. Many CSIs begin their careers as forensic technicians, latent print examiners, toxicologists, or DNA analysts, where they learn to collect, process, and interpret evidence. The experience and skills gained in these roles prepare them for professional certification and help them build a resume that will make them competitive candidates for CSI positions.

3. Obtain Professional Certification

Requirements for licensure as a crime scene investigator vary by state, but most states require CSIs to be certified through a professional organization, such as the International Association for Identification (IAI). To become certified, you must meet specific education and experience requirements and pass a written exam. Some certification types include bloodstain pattern analysis, forensic photography, latent print, forensic art, crime scene reconstruction, and crime scene analysis.

4. Complete Additional Testing and Training

Many jobs in law enforcement require a significant amount of testing and training to determine a candidate’s aptitude for the job. For example, new police officers must complete a police academy training program before being sworn in as an officer. Civilians who do not attend a police academy and are not sworn law enforcement officers may still be required to complete on-the-job training specific to their position and are likely subjected to testing, such as a background investigation, drug screening, psychological evaluation, polygraph, and behavioral assessment.

Requirements for Police Officers

While civilians can become crime scene investigators, some police departments prefer to accept candidates from their own ranks who have already completed the necessary training and have years of experience working in law enforcement. If you are interested in becoming a CSI and are currently working as a police officer, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of being promoted to the position.

1. Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice or Forensic Science

While it is not always required, many police departments prefer that their CSIs hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or forensic science. If you are interested in becoming a CSI and do not have a degree in one of these fields, you may be able to complete a degree program part-time or online while working as a police officer. Many departments offer tuition reimbursement programs that can help offset the cost of completing a degree.

2. Gain Experience Working in Investigations

If you are interested in becoming a CSI, it is important to get experience working in investigations. Many CSIs begin their careers as police officers and then are promoted to the position after a few years on the job. If you want to be promoted to a CSI position, try to transfer to a unit that investigates crimes, such as homicide, robbery, or burglary. Getting experience in these types of investigations will give you the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the role.

3. Apply for CSI Position After Gaining Experience

After two to four years of experience with a police department, you should have the prerequisite experience to qualify for advancement opportunities. To increase your chances of being promoted to a CSI position, start by applying for open positions within the department. If there are no open positions, you can also express your interest in the role to your supervisor or another member of the department’s command staff.

Crime Scene Investigator Salary

Crime scene investigators are well-paid for their expertise and experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for Forensic Science Technicians, which includes crime scene investigators, was $ 66,850 in 2021. Salaries for crime scene investigators can vary depending on experience, education, location, and type of employer.

For example, local law enforcement agencies, especially those in less populated areas, tend to pay lower salaries than state or federal agencies. Additionally, CSIs who work for private companies or consulting firms often earn higher salaries than those who work for government agencies. In these cases, the top 10% of earners made more than $103,430 per year.

Crime Scene Investigator FAQ

  • What skills do you need to be a crime scene investigator? minus minus

    To be successful in the role of crime scene investigator, you will need to have strong attention to detail, good problem-solving skills, and the ability to think critically. You will also need to be able to work well under pressure and have the stamina to work long hours when necessary. Throughout their careers, crime scene investigators must keep up with advances in technology and science to ensure that they are using the best methods for collecting and analyzing evidence.

  • Do you need to be good at math to be a CSI? minus minus

    While you do not need to be a math genius to be a crime scene investigator, you will need to have strong math skills. Crime scene investigators use math on a daily basis to measure distances, calculate areas, and compare evidence. In addition, many CSIs use statistical methods to analyze data and draw conclusions from their investigations.

  • What are the disadvantages of being a crime scene investigator? minus minus

    One of the potential disadvantages of being a crime scene investigator is that the job can be emotionally taxing. CSIs often work long hours and are exposed to graphic images and violence. This can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. Additionally, crime scene investigators may have to work in hazardous conditions, such as exposure to bloodborne pathogens or chemical fumes.