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The tremendous popularity of the CSI television series and similar programs has led to a huge number of students interested in pursing a career as a crime scene officer. But very few of the 18,000 police agencies in the U.S. actually employ a full time crime scene officer. In those agencies, an officer wears several hats: patrolman, crime scene officer, and evidence officer. And because requirements vary from agency to agency, becoming a crime scene officer is also more complicated than many people realize. So how can you successfully enter this field? As we’ll see, understanding the demands of the job and planning ahead are the keys to putting yourself in the best position to succeed.

To begin with, you need to consider what it really means to be a crime scene officer. First, crime scene officers must be self-motivated. If you have to rely on other people to tell you what to do, you won’t get anywhere in this field. You also need a wide variety of skills and training. While the specific responsibilities of the job vary from department to department, crime scene officers generally need expertise in scene and evidence processing, photography, collecting physical evidence and documenting a crime scene, writing reports, and presenting testimony in court. Finally, television shows tend to make the job look glamorous. Being a crime scene investigator can be fascinating and rewarding, but I wouldn’t call it glamorous. It takes a special kind of person to handle things like blood and gore, autopsies, and what I call the “smell-o-rama” present at foul crime scenes.

Those interested in a career in crime scene investigation can begin exploring their options as early as high school. Many high schools now offer forensics classes. Additionally, students can actively practice their skills by participating in programs such as the SkillsUSA Championship Competitions. SkillsUSA is a national organization which provides a fun yet challenging way to learn about the field and put your skills to use. You can find more information about the program at their website (http://www.skillsusa.org/).

Before beginning a formal educational program in crime scene investigation, it’s important to look at the different paths one can take to get there. First of all, a crime scene investigator may be either a sworn police officer or a civilian crime scene officer. Deciding which path is right for you is crucial, so take a look at the differences between the two.

Sworn police officers typically receive training at their agency’s local law enforcement training center to become a certified officer and must meet annual training requirements to maintain their certification. Civilian officers, on the other hand, do not have the same training, do not carry a weapon, and do not have arrest powers. Civilian officers must instead rely on their educational training to get them into the job and then continue to get training to keep up with current technology.


SkillsUSA crime scene investigation contestants processing mock crime scenes. Shown above are high school students (top) and college students (bottom)
at the annual competition held in Kansas City, MO.

Consider the economics. In recent years many agencies have looked to hire civilian crime scene officers. It saves them money, and they can conduct a nationwide search for applicants rather than wait until a sworn officer in their own agency is available. So, you may find it easier at first to get hired as a civilian officer than as a sworn officer. But there are many advantages to being a sworn officer. Once an appropriate position becomes available, a sworn officer will receive higher pay and better benefits than a civilian officer. In addition, a law enforcement officer has access to an established career ladder. As a civilian crime scene officer, that’s it — there’s nowhere else for you to go. In other words, the sworn officer has more economic advantages over the long term than the civilian officer. Before you decide on a career direction, be sure you weigh the short term and long term advantages and disadvantages of each option.

As you plan your career, you also need to keep in mind that every agency has its own requirements. The kind of work you want to do and where you want to do it will determine your course of study. Many people just assume their best bet is a degree in Criminal Justice. But that won’t necessarily get you the job you want; you may need something more specialized. Some agencies may require a four-year degree in a field like chemistry, biology, or forensic science. Some may even require a master’s degree in a particular discipline. Of course, there are still some smaller agencies out there that only require a high school diploma or GED, or a two-year degree in almost any field. But given the highly competitive market we have today, you’re probably going to find it easier to get a job with a four-year degree. A four-year degree will also give you a solid foundation and more flexibility down the road if you decide to pursue other options. So before you begin a formal program, contact the agencies in the geographical area where you want to work and ask about their requirements. Otherwise, you could end up wasting your time and your money.

Along with the proper education, you need the proper training. If you’re a sworn officer, you can learn the basics of how to use a camera, package evidence, diagram a scene, etc. in-house. For more advanced training, both sworn officers and civilians can take classes run by local labs, the FBI, and organizations such as the International Association for Identification (IAI). In addition to its training programs, the IAI also offers certification programs. Since many agencies require certification, the more areas you become qualified in through the IAI, the better commodity you’ll be in the workforce. Finally, IAI also offers a scholarship for students studying a forensic field. You can find more information and an application form for the scholarship on their website (http://www.theiai.org/).

With the demand for jobs high and the supply low, becoming a crime scene officer today can prove to be a real challenge. But if you are smart about the way you prepare, you’ll put yourself in the best possible position. Learn as much as you can before you start the process. And remember: think about where you want to end up in your career, not just where you want to start, and plan accordingly.

Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. For the past several years, Dick has been teaching classes throughout the U.S. and Canada, trying to dispel some of those “you can’t do that” myths. Dick can be reached at dwarrington@peaveycorp.com

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