What is a Crime Scene Technician and What do They Do?
A career as a crime scene technician (CST) can be as exciting as it is rewarding. These law enforcement professionals visit crime scenes to gather evidence of a crime. This can involve blood spatter, bodily fluids, and other grisly details. Crime scene technicians also take lots of photos at crime scenes, create composite images of lost people, and help track down fugitives. While this profession has received a lot of attention as a result of various television shows that glamorize the field, the reality of it is quite different than the TV version. Nevertheless, professionals in the field find that their work is rewarding and exciting. To become a crime scene technician, you won't have to necessarily attain a degree, but a certificate of some sort will certainly help you advance.
Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Technician
A crime scene investigator (technician) is a law enforcement professional whose job is to collect physical evidence from crime scenes. They rely on their special training to classify fingerprints, analyze bloodstain patterns, and to present their findings to their peers and in court. Crime scene technicians are thus trained in a variety of forensic methods that help ensure the integrity of all the evidence they collect.
On a daily basis, crime scene technicians are involved in analyzing evidence from a scene. This requires a lot of hours in the lab hunched over a microscope, but they will also work with a team. Crime scene technicians must coordinate both with each other but also with the detectives and uniformed police on their team. They can use their findings to help recreate a crime scene so that the detectives can understand what happened and eventually bring the criminal to justice. Crime scene technicians may also present their findings in court.
These days, crime scene technicians need to be very fastidious with the samples they are charged with. This is because forensic methods are constantly being tested for efficacy and defense attorneys will try every trick in the book to undermine any evidence brought by the prosecuting attorneys. If the chain of evidence is in any way disturbed then a criminal might walk free.
Step 1: Education Requirements
Step 2: Internship or Apprentice
Step 3: Licensing & Certifications
Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance
Step 1: Education Requirements
You can start a career as a crime scene technician with only a GED or high school diploma. While some police departments require as much as a graduate degree in forensic sciences, if you start you career in a smaller department the requirements may not be as stringent. Perhaps the easiest way to realize your dreams is to start with a job in a local police department. From there you can request training in forensic science. Once you get your foot in the door you can pursue other certifications from associations such as the International Association for Identification.
Crime scene technicians often advance their careers with non-academic courses and certificates. To qualify for added certificates, they often need to pursue coursework and experience is a large part of their preparation. In fact, many certificates require that GED holders amass four years of full-time experience in any given specialty.
To become a crime scene technician, you should have certain core talents and skills such as a fine attention to detail, knowledge of chemistry, a strong background in biology, and the ability to see patterns in a seemingly chaotic environment. You may also be required to hold a position as a law enforcement officer. In fact, if you don't have an associate or bachelor’s degree, you will need to start work for a crime lab or your local police department. From there you can seek transfers and training that will lead to a fulfilling career in crime scene analysis.
Most crime scene technicians will be trained by their employer, but you can also seek a certification from an independent association or a university. There are no specific requirements for these certifications, but crime scene laboratories may require a bachelor’s degree or other academic credentials.
Step 2: Internship or Apprentice
Some colleges and universities offer crime scene technician internships in partnership with law enforcement agencies in the community or throughout their state. These internships may be for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies. Students might intern with county sheriff’s offices, city police departments, state medical examiner’s offices, or even state departments that run the state crime laboratory. These partnerships are often reserved for students who are majoring in a crime scene technician degree programs and are usually designed to give students the widest breadth of experience. Internships for students in this field or others give them the opportunity to obtain real-life skills, experience, and knowledge within a real-world environment.
Step 3: Licensing & Certifications
While no government regulations exist for certification or licensure of crime scene technicians, these certifications may lead to more opportunities and higher pay for those who have been certified. The Forensic Science Accreditation Board (FSAB) offers three accreditations: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, and Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst. Each may help a crime scene technician advance to a more-senior role. Below are some more certifications you might consider as you move into a crime scene technician role.
- Bloodstain Pattern Analyst Certification:
This certification comes from the International Association for Identification. To qualify for this training and examination you can have as little as a GED or high school diploma and four years of experience. Other requirements include 100 hours of training in bloodstain pattern analysis.
- Crime Scene Certification:
To qualify to earn this IAI certification you need to have been working full-time in a position that involves crime scenes and related activities. This credential is available through the IAI and requires no college degree whatsoever.
- Footwear Certification:
To qualify for this IAI certification, crime scene professionals need to have a bachelor's degree and two years of full-time experience as a footwear examiner. Alternately, you can have an associate degree and three years of full-time work or a high school diploma and four years of experience. Additionally, you will need to complete a training program and then pass an examination.
- Forensic Art Certification:
This aspect of crime scene investigations involves collecting descriptive data from witnesses and compiling a composite sketch or other image of a criminal perpetrator or even a lost person. The field has evolved to include computer modeling software that can digitally emulate aging or other alterations to a person's appearance. To qualify for the written exam and practical test applicants need to complete approximately 150 hours of training and two years of experience as a forensic artist.
- Forensic Photography Certification:
Photographic evidence is vital in making any criminal case. To qualify for this certification, you only need to have a high school diploma or a GED. You'll also need 80 total hours of photography training, 40 of which must deal specifically with forensic techniques.
- Latent Print Certification:
Fingerprint evidence often is able to crack a case wide open. When a criminal leaves their fingerprints at the scene of a crime, investigators have probable cause to continue to consider them a suspect. To receive a Latent Print Certification, the educational requirements are a bachelor's degree and two years of experience or a high school diploma and four years of experience. Those with an associate degree need three years of full-time experience.
Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance
Crime scene technicians can always increase their education and enhance their skill sets. The IAI offers numerous certifications that help professionals take their careers in new, and highly specific, directions. For instance, they might be certified to analyze footwear impressions which can tell a lot about how a person moved through a crime scene. They can also be certified to collect latent fingerprints or to create forensic artwork. There are many options that will help hone one's skills and thus rise in annual salary and responsibilities.
Those who have professional certifications will be sure to continue their education because they will need continuing education units (CEUs) to renew their credentials. Some certifications require as many as 80 CEU credits to renew a credential. They then need to pass a written test to affirm that their knowledge is current and to the standards of the issuing body. When crime scene technicians renew their certificates, they are sure to remain current with the ever-evolving forensic sciences and associated crime scene technology.
There is also the option of returning to school for an academic degree. Crime scene technicians might consider pursuing an associate, bachelor’s, or master's degree in biology or chemistry. This option can take them up the ladder in their lab and police department and each greater degree will help with professional certifications. Specializations such as genetics or toxicology can help them become even better technicians and investigators.
Where Do Crime Scene Technicians Work?
Crime scene technicians typically work with law enforcement agencies to help analyze evidence and solve crimes. In larger cities, the police department typically has their own crime lab where crime scene technicians evaluate physical evidence from crime scenes. There are also independent crime scene technicians who are able to help prosecutors show that their evidence has been handled in the most objective manner.
Crime scene technicians work with fire departments, military police, and all levels of civilian law enforcement. Crime scene technicians work with the FBI, state-level law enforcement, and private labs, too. Private crime scene technicians are sometimes called by defense attorneys to provide a second opinion on a piece of evidence. It's also possible for these technicians to work on a freelance basis and many make a career providing expert testimony in court.
Why Choose a Career as a CST?
You should become a crime scene technician if you have a love for lab science. You should also have a keen eye for detail. For instance, you might be the person who spots a tiny flaw on a huge painted wall. While you excelled in biology and chemistry you are also have strong analytical abilities. For this career you will also need to have a strong belief in the legal system and wish to devote your career to the cause of justice.
Since crime scenes can be rather gruesome places, it's important for crime scene technicians to have a strong stomach for bodily fluids. After all, you may have to analyze blood spatter or make a detailed examination of a severed limb. Amidst all of that chaos, crime scene technicians find a sort of order. They find patterns that help them locate where a perpetrator may have stood and thus can deduce where they might find a shell casing or maybe fiber evidence.
Crime scene technicians have very interesting and rewarding working lives. They also have good salaries and benefits. Those that work with state or federal law enforcement agencies often receive healthy benefits packages including a pension at retirement, ample days off, and strong health coverage for them and their families. Furthermore, there are jobs available for crime scene technicians in virtually every city in the nation.
Professional organizations exist for all kinds of professions. In this field, they are offered for the fields of crime scene investigation, forensic psychology and medical examiners, etc. Professional organizations can be particularly important to students and those who are looking to gain a new edge for promotions in this area. This area of law enforcement is crucial to finding the perpetrators of crimes so they can be tried and imprisoned, and so that families are able to gain relief and closure for the loss of a loved one.
- American Academy of Forensic Psychology (AAFP)
AAFP’s mission is to contribute to both the development and maintenance of forensic psychology’s role in the criminal justice system. This is a specialized area of study, practice, and research. AAFP provides high-quality continuing education workshops and provides a forum for the exchange of information.
- Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction (ACSR)
The goals of ACSR include encouraging the exchange of information and procedures helpful in reconstructing crime scenes, supporting research and kickstarting the development of new or improved methods of crime scene reconstruction, and offering the chance for members to consult with peers on their cases.
- The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME)
As the premier professional organizations for medical examiners, medicolegal affiliates, and forensic pathologists, NAME has committed itself to providing education to members and stakeholders, and providing advocacy and leadership for best practices and excellence in both forensic pathology and death investigation.
Crime Scene Technician Career & Salary Outlook
The annual salary and job outlook for crime scene technicians is looking quite good. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median income for a technician is $60,000. They state that the typical educational requirement is a bachelor’s degree but that on-the-job experience is vital to long-term success. For the future of the profession, the BLS projects strong growth through 2029. Specifically, the BLS shows that demand for crime scene technicians will grow by 14%.
Payscale.com reports that salaries for crime scene technicians rises along with their level of experience. Their research indicates that professionals in this field start out with an annual salary of around $45,000. Soon, technicians may see their pay rise to around $47,000 through their first nine years. Technicians with between 10-19 years of experience earn the most, according to their research, taking in an average salary of $56,000. However, keep in mind that salaries and other compensation often depend on where one works. Technicians in larger, wealthier towns are likely to earn more than those in smaller towns with a lower cost of living.
By comparison, the BLS shows that similar occupations are competitive with crime scene technicians. Biological technicians, for instance, are reported to earn a median salary of $46,000 with a typical entry-level degree of a bachelor's. Their field is expected to only increase by 5% through 2029. Police and detectives, on the other hand, show a reported median income of $65,000 and the same growth rate. Note that the BLS includes Federal law enforcement along with uniformed police officers so their median income might indicate a much higher top end.
Here are some similar career options for those who have considered becoming a crime scene investigator and may have though it wasn’t for them.
- Environmental Science and Protection Technicians:
These professionals help monitor the local environment by taking soil, water, and air samples for lab analysis. Their goal is to evaluate pollution levels. The entry-level education for this position is typically an associate degree.
- Private Detective and Investigators:
The BLS reports a median salary of $50,000 for private investigators. These professionals assist families and individuals with investigations into matters that the police aren't involved with.
- Laboratory Technologists and Technicians:
These professionals typically need a bachelor’s degree in order to perform their duties. They might work in a health system and perform tests on various bodily fluids and tissues.
- Fire Inspectors:
These investigatory professionals help to determine how a fire started and spread. They might work for a local fire department or possibly with an insurance company. The typical path to entry is by way of first becoming a fire fighter. Employers also smile on degrees in fire science or physical sciences.
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