What is the Average Salary for a Crime Scene Investigator?
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A crime scene investigator is responsible for collecting evidence at a crime scene, which may include blood, boot prints, weapons, and fibers.
A crime scene investigator often works in teams with other investigators as well as those in law enforcement like detectives. They are responsible for collecting evidence which may be used in a court room to convict or acquit an individual of committing a crime. They need to be meticulous in their collection of samples, as a courtroom may not hear a case for months or years after the actual crime was committed.
A crime scene investigator may also be known as a forensic investigator, a crime scene or evidence technician, or a crime scene analyst.
The most common job duty of a crime scene investigator is collecting evidence from a crime scene. This involves a variety of specific tasks, including closely scrutinizing a scene to collect every piece of evidence, including blood, hair, fibers, weapons, etc. Crime scene investigators will also help to draw a perimeter around a crime scene so evidence is not tampered with.
In the collection of evidence, crime scene investigators will often take photographs of the scene as a whole as well as specific pieces of evidence before removing them. Extremely detailed notes and drawings may be used to supplement physical data so later interpretation of the scene can be as accurate as possible.
While time can be of the essence in cleaning up a crime scene (particularly if the scene is in a populated area), it is more crucial to ensure all the evidence was properly collected and recorded. To help ensure proper collection techniques are being followed, the Crime Scene Investigator Network has strict collection and recording protocols regarding every type of evidence. Crime scene investigators often follow these or similar guidelines while on a crime scene.
For example, the Network has a 4-page report detailing exactly how to “collect” a shoe print. It details how to place the camera to capture a proper photograph, exactly how to take a cast of the print, and a variety of suggestions for how to enhance the collection to ensure a proper print was taken.
Despite what many people know from television shows and movies, crime scene investigators have a variety of job duties that go beyond collecting field evidence. Once everything is collected, whether in plastic bags, as photographs, or notes, everything must be analyzed in the lab.
While others are often responsible for analyzing the evidence, crime scene investigators play a large role as well, particularly in writing up reports on the evidence. Their reports must be written in extreme detail in order for police officials and those in law to process the evidence without having seen the crime scene.
Evidence must be properly secured once back in the lab to avoid evidence tampering or destruction. Additionally, crime scene investigators are often responsible for ensuring the lab is properly stocked with data collection equipment. They also need to ensure the vehicle they use for transporting evidence is properly stocked as well.
Investigators may also be called to court to speak on behalf of the evidence and give their interpretation of the scene. Since crime scene investigators often work in teams, the more senior investigator will often be called.
Crime scene investigators work for obvious employers such as police departments and government entities such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Investigators may also be hired by law firms or independent crime labs, however their job duties in these locations would involve more time spent analyzing data than collecting evidence.
As smaller police departments in less populated areas do not need the services of a crime scene investigator fulltime, becoming an independent investigator is common as well. In this way, investigators can be hired when needed by police departments, law firms, or by private investigators. These types of crime scene investigators may be required to travel between locations, particularly when serving rural areas.
When a crime is committed, the evidence must be recorded, collected, and properly analyzed in a timely manner. Crime scene investigators are responsible for preserving evidence in order for analysts and detectives to interpret what happened at a scene. Intentionally or accidentally tampering with evidence can result in an innocent person going to jail or a guilty person going free.
Their skills are also critically important outside of crime scenes. Being able to clearly communicate their findings is important when testifying in court or writing up reports on the evidence.
Crime scene investigators and forensic scientists often work in the same locations and have some overlapping job duties but spend most of their time working separately.
A forensic scientist is the main person responsible for analyzing the evidence a crime scene investigator collects. While they often rely on the investigator to collect the appropriate evidence, the may use some discretion when deciding what type of evidence needs to be analyzed. The forensic scientist spends the majority of their time in the lab but may also testify in court as well as occasionally travel to crime scenes.
Depending on which route is chosen to become a crime scene investigator, students will learn about the law, science, and criminal justice. The following is by no means an exhaustive list but is rather a list of the common courses taught in these programs.
The educational requirements vary depending on which department the investigator wants to work, as well as how far they want to advance in their career. Traditionally, many police departments would hire officers and crime scene investigators who held only a high school diploma. While this is still the case in some locations, higher education is often required.
A minimum of an associate’s degree is often required today, however a Bachelor’s degree will increase the chance of promotion later in an investigator’s career. These degrees can be obtained in criminal justice, forensic science, or a number of other biology or chemistry-related degrees. Although a degree in forensic science will emphasize evidential analysis and processing, this can allow investigators to be lab-trained before pursuing a job and be able to handle additional duties.
The best option may be a degree in criminal justice with a minor (or additional courses) in forensic science. Many crime scene investigators report getting burned out from working in the field, so a background in forensic science can help them transition more permanently to the lab after some time.
Some individuals may want to pursue a Master’s degree however this is not a requirement. These programs typically give more in depth information into evidence analysis and may focus on a specific type of analysis like ballistics or blood spatter. These programs are often better suited for forensic scientists rather than crime scene investigators.
In the majority of states, certification is not required, however many investigators choose to become certified for career advancement reasons. The two main accrediting boards include the International Association for Identification (IAI) and the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA).
Both of these associations require investigators to hold active positions in their field for at least two years before obtaining certification. In both cases, the certification process requires investigators to take an exam.
ICSIA requires photographs to be submitted to prove the investigator is competent in photographing evidence. For IAI certification, investigators must prove their photography skills as well as demonstrate numerous forms of evidence collection. This type of certification is more stringent but also more highly praised.
Beyond the educational requirements, it is strongly suggested that individuals interested in crime scene investigation first become police officers. As the field is competitive, individuals with background experience in law enforcement may be preferred over those with only educational experience. To do this, individuals will need to pass an exam and spend 3-4 months in police academy training. It is recommended the individual spend some time serving on the force before applying to become a crime scene investigator.
With this background, crime scene investigators can expand their job duties when there is no evidence to collect, and they are often more likely to be promoted. As a law enforcement officer cannot begin work until they are 21 years old, it would make sense to gain as much education as possible before going this route.
Online degrees make gaining the educational background to be a crime scene investigator possible, particularly for those who hold busy jobs or have family responsibilities.
It is possible to get a Bachelors and/or a Masters degree in forensic science or criminal justice. These degrees can be obtained 100% online, but oftentimes employers like to see that a student has gathered some hands-on experience.
If possible, a hybrid program should be taken where students will need to attend some courses on a university campus or in the field.
Crime scene investigators need a specific set of skills in order to properly perform their job. Some of these can be taught, but others often are personality traits that the individuals should come into the job with.
The demand for crime scene investigators in the United States has remained stable for the past several decades. In the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that that demand for crime scene investigators will increase about 5% which is less than the overall employment growth of 7%.
Generally, the need for law enforcement has remained stable due to the shift in types of crimes from violent crimes to non-violent crimes. However, this means that fewer crime scene investigators are needed as there has been a decrease in crime scenes.
Additionally, job turnover is often low, so incoming investigators often replace those who retire rather than join expanding teams. The exception here is that many investigators “burn out” after awhile and choose to move into the lab within a department.
Interest in becoming a crime scene investigator has also increased in the past 20 years as numerous movies and shows have glorified this type of position. This has created an increase in qualified candidates, which has increased the competition for the few open positions available.
A crime scene analyst is the main person responsible for actually analyzing the physical evidence collected at a crime scene. They spend most of their time in a laboratory using high-tech processing and imaging equipment as well as writing up reports of their findings to give to investigators.
These analysts specialize in a particular type of evidence collection that goes beyond simple gathering. These analysts are often used on crime scenes to interpret patterns of blood to determine a weapon used or where a victim was standing. Depending on the department, job duties may extend beyond blood to other types of crime scene analysis.
A computer forensics investigator is tasked with collecting and interpreting non-tangible technological evidence, such as emails, messages, or other data lost to firewalls, etc. They can work with a police or justice department but can also be found in law firms or any business that utilizes computers or technology.
This type of expert is tasked with the particular job of examining bullets, bullet fragment, and firearms that have been involved with a crime. They may be called to a crime scene to collect this type of evidence or may analyze it after a crime scene investigator has collected it.