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What is a CSI - Crime Scene Investigator?

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The glorification of crime scene investigators, thanks to a number of popular television shows, has brought this profession in to the spotlight and spurred many individuals to seek careers in this area of forensic science. Although careers for crime scene investigator may not be as sensational as nighttime television shows make them out to be, they are, for the right individuals, incredibly rewarding and gratifying.

But before embarking on a career as a crime scene investigator (CSI), a thorough understanding of this profession is in order.

A Crime Scene Investigator is…

A crime scene investigator is, more often than not, a member of law enforcement who is responsible for identifying, collecting, preserving, and packaging physical evidence at the scene of a crime. Although it is often believed that crime scene investigators are the professionals performing tests on the physical evidence, those jobs, in fact, are reserved for forensic scientists and other forensic professionals.

A select few crime scene investigators may also perform laboratory forensic work, although the majority of crime scene investigators perform their work at a crime scene, where they collect everything from firearms and fingerprints to DNA samples and photographic evidence.

A crime scene investigator is a rather broad title, as this professional may be a:

  • Crime scene leader
  • Crime scene technician
  • Forensic photographer
  • Forensic sketch artist
  • Ballistics expert
  • Fingerprint expert
  • DNA expert

A crime scene investigator is most often employed by a local, state or federal law enforcement agency. These professionals may be employed by a town’s sheriff’s office, by the FBI, or by a state police department.

A Crime Scene Investigator is responsible for…

Depending on the crime scene investigators job scope, activities and duties may vary significantly. Some crime scene investigators perform standard physical evidence collection and preservation duties, while other CSIs perform more specialized tasks, such as DNA and latent print recovery. However, in general, a CSI may be responsible for:

  • Working with law enforcement to secure the scene as to prevent the contamination of evidence
  • Identifying and marking the areas of the crime scene
  • Collecting, preserving, and packaging the physical evidence
  • Maintaining detailed reports, logs and other tracking data
  • Using scientific equipment to collect and analyze evidence
  • Maintaining and repairing scientific equipment
  • Testifying in court with regard to collected evidence
  • Transporting physical evidence to the forensic laboratory

A crime scene investigator is called upon to utilize scientific data and technical expertise to:

  • Evaluate the crime scene without destroying evidence
  • Develop a plan for collecting physical evidence
  • Ensure evidence is properly documented
  • Ensure evidence is properly collected, handled, preserved, and transported

A Crime Scene Investigator has…

One of the most common paths to a career in crime scene investigation is through a comprehensive educational program, which is usually in the form of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or forensic science, although some employers accept candidates with associate’s degrees or certificate programs. As such, a CSI is a professional has a thorough knowledge and a keen understanding of scientific observation and methods, the criminal justice system, and how crime scene investigation merges science with law.

A crime scene investigator, regardless of the degree earned, needs to possess extensive knowledge in the natural sciences, as well as law enforcement and crime scene processing. Professional CSIs who want to concentrate their careers in a forensic science specialty, such as ballistics or DNA, for example, also often need to acquire additional education.

Depending on the CSI position or the state in which they work, crime scene investigators may also need to earn state licensure or specialized certification. In-service training is also commonplace in this profession, and many employers require the completion of specific training programs or exercises throughout the year.

A Crime Scene Investigator possesses…

Given the challenges of working at a crime scene, where gruesome, often disturbing, sights may be commonplace, CSI professionals should possess the ability to cope with difficult situations. Beyond dealing with a potentially unnerving crime scene, these professionals must also possess keen observational and technical skills, as they are called upon to identify and collect even the smallest amounts of physical evidence – evidence that may mean the difference between an unsolved crime and a successful conviction.

Crime scene investigators must also be able to work both independently and as part of an investigative team. In often-chaotic crime scene situations, these professionals must be able to seamlessly complete the job through effective communication and a strong understanding and appreciation of accepted protocol.

Because the job of a CSI also means constantly learning, these professionals must be open to being introduced to new skills and technologies. They must also be organized and effective at both written and oral communications.

Finally, CSI professionals must be prepared to work in less-than-ideal work environments, and they must be prepared to arrive at the scene of a crime, regardless of the time of day or night.

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