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I recently interviewed Lt. Owen McDonnell of the Caddo Sheriff’s Office, Crime Scene Investigations Division, an expert in the field, to get his perspective on CSI certification.
Dick Warrington: First, can you explain what certification is?
Owen McDonnell: Certification establishes that a person has achieved a high level of knowledge and practical experience in crime scene investigation. To be eligible for certification testing through The International Association for Identification (IAI), applicants must prove both experience and prior instruction. IAI requires letters of recommendation and references. Applicants are vetted for the experience required for the level of certification they’re applying for. The IAI Certification has received some criticism because it doesn’t contain a practical aspect—a staged crime scene. Adding this type of testing would be difficult. It’s almost impossible to standardize a staged scene, and including one would limit the availability of testing venues. However, the experience required and the rigorous nature of the exam are designed to ensure a thorough knowledge base of crime scene investigations, appropriate documentation, and processing techniques.
DW: What about the benefits of certification?
OM: Certification allows for testing by an external board. This means independent testing, not just the good old boy system where the agency tests or self-certifies a person and says, “You’re good enough because we say so.”
DW: What’s the reaction been?
OM: Certification in any field gives you more credibility and professionalism in court, provided the certification program is independent and reputable. Prosecution and defense attorneys look for the credentials of the individual and the certifying body. If a CSI isn’t certified, others can surmise that his training and skills have only been validated by his department.
DW: So certification can be crucial?
OM: We’re seeing a large shift toward certification in courts; for years, attorneys have questioned latent print examiners regarding their certification or lack thereof. As attorneys become more educated as to the existence and availability of certification for more fields in forensics, we can expect them to question CSIs regarding their certification. In fact, certification may eventually be required to give testimony in court. A few bills that would do that, including one co-sponsored by Senators Leahy and Cornyn, require accreditation and certification in labs, and certification of personnel performing forensic work in agencies.
DW: This bill would tie federal funding to appropriate accreditation and certification?
OM: Yes, it’s two parts—accreditation of labs and certification of personnel. Studies show that a high percentage of work is done outside of labs, in the field, and in law enforcement agencies. So this credentialing could eventually affect most CSIs. We won’t know for certain the status of CSI certification until legislation is enacted, but I don’t think it’s in our best interest to wait until a law is passed to avail ourselves of available certifications.
DW: That’s a very important point.
OM: Certification can also be important in interactions with other agencies. They want to know your capabilities and if you’ve met certain universal standards. The IAI Certified Latent Print Examiner program, for example, is accepted throughout the country.
DW: Any other benefits?
OM: Departments are increasingly requiring that CSI applicants are already certified or that they become certified within two years of selection. As agencies adopt these standards, it raises the bar and increases the likelihood that other departments will adopt similar standards. This will create greater employment opportunities for those holding certification. Our agency mandated the first level of IAI Crime Scene Certification within two years of assignment to the Crime Scene Investigations Division over 10 years ago. I feel that this has significantly contributed to the abilities and professionalism of our unit.
DW: So certification is a way to stand out from other applicants?
OM: Yes. When coupled with the move toward civilianization of crime scene units, education and certification may take on even greater significance. Civilian CSIs don’t attend a full law enforcement academy. This allows agencies to tailor their training to the precise needs of their CSI personnel. Under this system, crime scene certification can be set as a milepost in the CSI’s development.
DW: Who offers certification?
OM: IAI offers four different levels of crime scene certification: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist, and Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst. They also offer certifications in latent prints, footwear, photography, etc.
DW: Any other options?
OM: The American Board of Criminalistics and the International Crime Scene Investigators Association both offer crime scene related certifications.
DW: How do you decide on the right certification?
OM: The certifying body may be even more important than the certification itself. You need to consider who is offering the certification and whether it’s a quality organization. Also check to see if the certification program is accredited by a reputable accreditation board. This ensures the program has met standards, in much the same way college programs receive educational accreditation. Check to see who’s giving the certification, who’s standing by it, who’ll accept it in court. There are some fly-by-night operators out there, so be careful. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, Inc. maintains a list of accredited organizations on its Web site.
DW: What’s the best way to prepare for certification?
OM: Attend classes, purchase the required texts, and study them. Remember that anything worth having is worth the effort to obtain it.
- International Association for Identification Certification: http://theiai.org/certifications/
- American Board of Criminalistics Certification: http://www.criminalistics.com/page/certification
- Forensic Science Accreditation Board: http://thefsab.org/
Owen McDonnell is Lieutenant/supervisor of the Caddo Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Investigations Division in Shreveport, LA. He provides training in crime scene, fingerprint development and comparison techniques, and workshops through IAI. He holds IAI certifications as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst, Ten Print Fingerprint Examiner, and Latent Print Examiner. Lt. McDonnell holds a Master of Forensic Science Administration Degree from Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. email@example.com