Over the last few years, we’ve seen increasingly tight budgets for CSI. The mantra of “do more with less” is repeated yearly during budget meetings. Despite these cut-backs, we’re still expected to provide high quality, effective forensic services that will stand up to court scrutiny.

CSI supervisors and managers are frequently caught in the middle between non-forensic upper management and employees who want the latest, greatest equipment. Fortunately, there are ways to stretch your budget. 


Interagency cooperation can result in savings. Big ticket items purchased by one agency can be shared with others. In addition, see if you can use generators and portable scene lighting from traffic safety, search and rescue or other departments for night scenes. Sharing resources avoids duplication and results in savings, which can be used to purchase unit-specific items. 


Training funding is often the first thing curtailed during cut-backs. This can be disastrous, since continuing education allows us to progress, and certifications and re-certifications require documented training. Stretch your dollars by tapping into your department’s knowledge base. CSIs who go for training should give presentations to others upon their return. Schedule in-house training or develop joint training with other crime scene units in your area. Each month a unit can host and present training on a CSI topic. An excellent model of local cooperation is the Gold Coast Forensics Association. These types of groups can save money and set the stage for more interagency cooperation. Ask your training division about documentation required to ensure credit for the training. Educational conferences held by IAI (and its divisions), AAFS, and others provide a wide range of training in a short period of time.

Crime Scene Kits

Every CSI needs a good crime scene evidence recovery kit. You can purchase a pre-made kit from a forensic supplier. However, you’ll pay a tremendous mark up for convenience. Creating your own kit saves money and allows you to customize it for your needs. For multiple kits, purchase items in bulk. Also consider non-forensic supply sources for some items. There’s nothing magical about a plastic box or measuring tape that comes from a forensic company.

Let’s consider options for forensic-specific items:


Sterile cotton tip swabs can be purchased in bulk from medical supply houses as well as forensic sources. These usually come in individual or two packs inside the bulk packaging.


For suspected blood at a scene, always attempt to determine whether a stain is blood or simply paint, bbq sauce or ketchup. Species determination may also be necessary on scene. In most cases, though, why not let the crime lab determine if it’s human or animal? Then you can simplify your kit. Instead of spending more for premixed chemicals that have a short shelf life, use less expensive presumptive blood testing ampoules that stay fresh until you need them. These commercial tests quickly provide presumptive results for blood. Yes, there are substances that will provide false positives, but training can help reduce these instances. 

Fingerprinting powders and brushes

Some of the most essential tools in your kit are fingerprinting powders and brushes. These days, there are a multitude of colors available. But just because they exist doesn’t mean you must have every one of them. All you need is one color that works on dark surfaces and one color that works on light, and a fluorescent. Once you decide on powders, buy one large container and fill containers for each officer as needed, instead of buying individual jars.

You could easily spend a fortune on brushes. Think about your needs and what you’ll be doing. You’ll need one brush for fluorescent powders and one for standard powders. If you use magnetic powders, you’ll need a brush for them. Disposable brushes are usually your best option. A standard fingerprint brush costs about $9, while a disposable brush packaged for single use is about $4 to $5. With DNA collection now an integral part of our duties, the disposable brush is becoming the best option. If DNA will not be part of your investigation then using your old faithful brush may work, so I am not advocating throwing it away. But it’s better to have less expensive disposable brushes if replacing them frequently.

Casting materials 

Buy casting materials, such as dental stone, in bulk and divide it up into re-sealable plastic bags. This is more cost effective; the re-sealable bags provide convenient mixing containers and prevent moisture from entering and causing setup while stored in the units. Purchase cases of re-measured water in plastic bottles from local stores. 

Evidence packaging 

Use clean, standard plastic bags and craft paper bags. If you use a lot of bags, save money by purchasing unused ones in lots of 500 from a paper company. Using plain paper bags will also save money. Just remember that you should never use grocery store bags that have already been used. If you do, you risk contaminating your evidence with whatever was in the bag. Nothing you save by reusing a bag will be worth having your case fall apart because of sloppy work. Design your own evidence tags and have them printed; most print companies can produce adhesive-backed tags and tie-on tags. Another option is to buy blank adhesive tags and print them yourself as needed.

Evidence markers 

Evidence markers are essential when documenting a scene, but you don’t have to spend a lot for them. Evidence markers often become contaminated at scenes. If you can’t clean them properly, use disposable markers and save big by making your own.

Remember, every crime scene response unit doesn’t have to be a self-contained crime lab. Kits that are only used on occasion can be assembled and kept in office. If the responding unit needs this specialized equipment, it can be brought to the scene.

Light Sources

The most effective light in crime scene investigation is clean white light. Today’s LED lights are much more powerful than the flashlights most of us started out using. Fortunately, the price of these lights has dropped dramatically in the last few years. Again, price shopping can result in big savings. 

Alternate light sources are also an important part of our on-scene investigations. Having the right light can make all the difference, but you can easily spend thousands of dollars on just one light. Luckily, more cost-effective solutions exist. Today’s portable crime scene search lights are light years (pardon the pun) ahead of those from 10 years ago. In some cases, they’re even brighter than what you’d find in the lab. You can purchase a good crime scene search light and goggles for less than $100, and ultra-lights for about $1,500. Consider an effective lower-priced light for your units and a higher end one available as needed. You can afford the right combination of lights for your department.


Photographic and video documentation are critical aspects of a crime scene investigation. Digital photography has almost completely eliminated the expense of film, development and printing. Buy the tools needed, not necessarily the ones you want. For instance, today’s DSLR cameras have video capability that includes HD; use these cameras rather than purchasing separate still and video cameras. Also consider whether each CSI needs a full frame digital camera. While it may be needed when capturing comparison-quality photographs for tire marks and footprints, it could be kept in office and taken out when needed. A macro-lens on an APC format DSLR will probably suffice for most comparison photographs such as fingerprints, bloodstains, tool marks, etc.

Is your division responsible for providing cameras to other departments, such as patrol and detectives? If your agency issues smartphones, the phone camera may be sufficient for documentation photos. Make sure your IT department can securely download and store the images from phones. Word of warning: it’s never a good idea to use personal phones to document crime scenes; use agency-issued phones only.

These are just some ways to save money. Each one may seem like a little thing, but taken together, they can add up to significant savings.

Owen McDonnell retired as the Lieutenant/Supervisor of the Caddo Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Investigations Division in Shreveport, LA after 31 years. He is the owner of M.O. Forensics LLC and provides consulting and training in crime scene and fingerprint development and comparison techniques.