Preparing for the Future of Forensics in a Post-Pandemic World Where Even the Good Guys Where Masks and Gloves

In at least some ways, forensic scientists and crime scene investigators have a real advantage over the rest of the country when it comes to work during a pandemic – nobody is as well-trained in cross-contamination control procedures. When you know how to avoid tainting a crime scene right down to the microscopic level, you also know how to avoid any pesky virus that might be floating around.

Who would have ever thought you’d be putting those elaborate decontamination procedures to use on your own Amazon packages?

As an essential service, however, investigators are still running a substantial risk showing up for work every day. Crime doesn’t stop or even necessarily slow down during a pandemic, so criminal investigations are as critical as ever… and operating under some strange new constraints that may have a lasting effect on forensics.

How Forensic Investigations are Being Affected by the COVID-19 Outbreak

As a student in CSI or forensics right now, you’re probably dealing with some strange days of your own, coping with a sudden transition to online classes and other program disruptions. But it’s worth taking a little time to look at what’s happening in the profession as a whole, and how it might affect you even after graduation.

First responders in some parts of the country are being overwhelmed with emergency calls from COVID-19 patients… and sickness among the ranks. As of April 19th, 29 NYPD officers had passed away and nearly 15% of the force was out sick due to the outbreak.

The situation has eclipsed traditional law enforcement operations and many departments have begun to instruct officers to limit proactive enforcement to reduce contact with the public – even that part of the public that commits crimes.

At the same time, office staff are being asked to work from home where possible.

But for CSI and lab techs, telecommuting is not an option and the critical role they play in public safety means suiting up and continuing to work despite the hazards.

Of course, first you have to find the personal protective equipment to suit up in… a challenge that has gotten more and more difficult in recent days as almost all available stocks of masks, gloves, and face shields have been redirected to overwhelmed medical facilities.

In the worst hit precincts in places like Oakland, New York City and Detroit, forensic lab technicians and frontline CSI field techs are having to make do with disinfecting and reusing masks and face shields just like the healthcare professionals in these hard-hit cities, or are otherwise having to come up with creative make-shift protection.

There’s some good news in the fact that the overall workload of crime scene and evidence processing may be dropping in some areas, as stay-at-home orders have reduced the overall occurrence of crime. New York has experienced a significant drop in crime rates during the social distancing restrictions put in place there.

On the other hand, certain types of crimes flourish in the absence of observers. Seattle has seen business burglaries almost double as criminals find empty shops too tempting to avoid.

Even if processing demands are down, technicians aren’t necessarily doing less work. Since agencies are being aggressive about following self-quarantine suggestions for exposed personnel, there are fewer hands around to handle the cases that are coming in. The Detroit PD is among the hardest hit. In addition to losing a captain in late March, the Department now has thousands of employees in self-quarantine less than a month later, placing a big load on those who are still able to work.

What It All Means for You Today as a CSI Student

Before you start worrying about how the future of the profession may be changing, you’re going to have to worry about how you are going to even get the qualifications you need to get into the field. If you were enrolled in a traditional, on-campus CSI or forensics degree program, there are good odds that it’s been closed for weeks.

If you are lucky, the shutdown orders landed during your spring break, and your program has already shifted to an online format that will at least allow you to continue your training.

Forensics and CSI programs, in particular, place a heavy emphasis on hands-on laboratory and field experience. That’s not something you can get online. If campus labs are shut down, there’s not much choice other than waiting for the lockdowns to pass so you can fulfill those requirements afterward.

There is more of a gray area with internship and other outside lab placements. Crime labs and morgues are not shutting down during coronavirus outbreaks; in fact, morgues may be overwhelmed. Whether or not they will continue offering the supervision and mentoring required when working with forensic interns will depend on the state of chaos in your particular location. Some municipalities are able to continue as usual for now with supervised fieldwork, while the big metro locations are too overwhelmed to even consider it.

No matter what state of disruption your training program might be in, as a student of forensics right now you’re in a particularly interesting position – you’re being trained in all the important parts of chemistry and biology to understand the current research being done to better understand the nature and characteristics of COVID-19.

You’re probably not going to crack the case by reading the research that is coming out, but it will help you to understand the situation better than most people. And that will help you make informed, rational decisions.

How Infection Control Protocols Could Hamper Investigations

Agencies are likely to develop higher standards for PPE use and sterilization procedures, particularly for field operations. Forensics techs are already probably among the best at following such guidelines, but you could see entire departments starting to fall in line on infection control best practices. Evidence receiving counters at forensics labs are already shifting to mail-in only, with an emphasis on disinfection and minimizing personal contact with officers and forensic lab staff.

Everyone in the world today is getting a real-time lesson in the importance of hand-washing and hygiene. You should expect that to have a lasting impact, even among the criminal class. This could be good for public health, but bad news for trace evidence collection. More gloves mean fewer fingerprints; more sanitization wipe-downs could mean less DNA evidence left behind; more masks worn complicates security camera tracking and the ability to ID suspects.

You might be graduating into a world where technology is used to facilitate investigations in ways that are hard to imagine right now. Robotics and streaming, high-quality video could be brought more and more into play to reduce the number of people necessary at crime scenes… with a double benefit of reducing possible exposures and eliminating contamination vectors for the evidence being collected.

It might all sound far-fetched now, but a generation ago so did DNA analysis.

There are already jurisdictions that are experimenting with shifting witness and other interviews to online platforms like Skype and Zoom. Depending on the extent and longevity of the pandemic, you could see a lot more emphasis on technological solutions to policing when it can’t safely be done in person.

The challenges are inevitable and the changes that are coming are very likely. This means law enforcement is going to have to do what it does best: stay ahead of the curve by adapting to the situation faster than criminals can.