Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) Career Education in California

The extremely popular “CSI” TV series has resulted in a surge of interest in crime scene investigator careers among recent high school graduates. Although the real-life job is less glamorous and dramatic than depicted on TV, it is a crucial aspect of the justice system that is becoming increasingly valuable with the explosion of technological and scientific advances.

CSIs can be either law enforcement officers or civilians. They are employed by city police departments, county sheriff’s departments, the FBI, the attorney general’s office, insurance companies, law firms and others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicated that, as of May 2011, there were over 12,500 CSIs employed in the U.S. with a predicted 19 percent increase, or another 2,400 CSI jobs, by 2020. In 2011, 1,730 of these CSIs were employed in California with 70 CSIs working in San Diego, 100 in Sacramento, 260 in San Francisco and 520 in Los Angeles.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average mean salary for CSIs in California is $72,000. The breakdown for some large cities is:

  • Sacramento:  $61,720
  • Los Angeles:  $79,220
  • San Francisco:  $80,860

Requirements for Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator in California

The following requirements are usually required for a job as a CSI in California. However, different agencies/departments or locations may not require all of them.

Education – The right education is the most important requirement for a successful career as a CSI. Some California schools offer a certificate in crime scene investigation that usually involves 20 credit hours in such relevant courses as:

  • Introduction to Criminal Law/Procedure
  • Crime Scene Photography
  • Crime Scene Management
  • Fingerprint Techniques/Impression Evidence
  • Forensic Report Writing
  • Rules of Evidence
  • Blood Pattern Analysis
  • Forensic Digital Imaging

Although an associate’s degree and/or a certificate will possibly qualify a person for an entry-level position, most jobs in the field, and any hope of advancement, require a bachelor’s degree in a physical or biological science with at least eight semesters of chemistry and three semesters of quantitative analyses. It is especially important for prospective CSIs to take science courses that include lab work.

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Other Knowledge/Skills  Must have knowledge of scientific methods/techniques used in crime scene investigations as well as photographic skills since CSIs photograph evidence. Must also have the ability to:

  • Test  blood and fluids, including DNA analyses
  • Identify and compare hair, fibers, soil, glass, paint. Etc.
  • Perform toxicological analyses
  • Compare firearms, bullet marks
  • Perform chromatographic tests

California Criminalist Examination – Some jobs, like those with the Attorney General’s Office, require passing a Criminalist Test that covers knowledge of scientific methods normally used in crime scene investigations. Information about times and places the test is given can be acquired by going online to or writing to Department of Justice, Testing Unit, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, CA 94244-2550.

On-the-Job-Training – Most employers require entry-level CSIs to spend a prescribed period of time working in the field directly under an experienced investigator.

Personal Characteristics – Successful CSIs also need certain personal characteristics, including being methodical, patient, able to work under pressure, detail-oriented, able to work with blood, gore and noxious odors, and willingness to work irregular hours.

Specialized Crime Scene Investigation Careers

Because the field of crime scene investigation is so vast and subject to continuing technological advances, many career CSIs elect to specialize in a certain aspect of the work. Some specializations in California include:

  • Fingerprint experts
  • DNA Profilers
  • Entomologists (scientific study of insects)
  • Odontologists (teeth)
  • Forensic Anthropologists (human remains/bones)

Crime Scene Investigators Working in California

The daily routine of a CSI, also often called a criminalist, may consist of any or all of the following functions:

  • Examine crime scene to study, collect and preserve physical evidence, including hair, fiber, tissue samples, glass, paint, soil, liquids, etc.
  • Photograph relevant aspects of the crime scene
  • Collect fingerprint samples
  • Analyze blood spatter
  • Perform chemical and biological tests on evidence collected
  • Analyze blood samples – perform DNA tests
  • Conduct firearms tests
  • Interpret test results for law enforcement officers, attorneys, etc.
  • Prepare written reports
  • Testify in court

Forensics Salary for Lab Technicians and CSIs in California

California has the highest level of employment of forensic scientists in the country.  Over 1,700 such professionals were employed in the state in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Three cities in California were among those with the highest level of employment of forensic scientists.  Their rankings are listed below:

  • Los Angeles:  First
  • Riverside:  Seventh
  • Santa Ana:  Tenth

Growth in this field is expected to increase by 17.6% from 2010 to 2020 according to projections by California’s Employment Development Department.  They expect one hundred jobs a year to become available in the state.

Salaries are also high in California.  Forensic scientists in California earned the second highest average salary of any state in the U.S.  The average wage in 2012 was $72,000 while experienced forensic science technicians made an average of $100,700 a year.

Sixty percent of the top ten paying cities for this field are located in California.  They are listed below along with their ranking and salary levels:

California City
Top 10th Percentile Salary
San Francisco
Los Angeles
Estimate not released
Santa Ana

A large number of forensic scientists work in the field collecting evidence from crime scenes for further analysis.  These crime scene investigators (CSIs) hold a variety of positions, ranging from police detectives to civilian positions such as crime scene specialists or forensic lab technicians.

Starting salaries for 2013 for a number of civilian crime scene investigator positions throughout California are listed below:

CSI Position
California City
Crime scene specialist
San Bernardino County
Los Angeles
Forensic identification specialist
Los Angeles
Forensic specialist
Santa Monica
Forensic specialist II

The BLS provides detailed information on the hourly and annual wages of forensic scientists and CSIs throughout the state.  It is shown in the table below:

Area name
Annual mean wage
Fresno CA
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale CA Metropolitan Division
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana CA
Estimate not release
Oakland-Fremont-Hayward CA Metropolitan Division
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura CA
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario CA
Sacramento--Arden-Arcade--Roseville CA
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos CA
Estimate not release
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont CA
San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City CA Metropolitan Division
Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine CA Metropolitan Division
Stockton CA

CSI and Forensic Scientist in Los Angeles, California

In general CSIs work in the field documenting and collecting evidence at crime scenes while forensic scientists work in labs where they analyze evidence. In Los Angeles, these roles often overlap and many professionals work in a dual role capacity:

LAPD Scientific Investigation Division – This division consists of a criminalistics and a technical laboratory. Together they provide a full range of forensic services, including the documentation, collection, preservation and analysis of crime scene evidence that can link suspects to crimes, connect items to sources and/or shed light on circumstances surrounding crimes.

LAPD Criminalistics Laboratory – The LAPD criminalistics lab is nationally accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Lab Accreditation Bureau. It contains the following units:

  • Field Investigation Unit – Collects crime scene evidence like fingerprints, DNA sources, trace evidence, etc. Photographs or diagrams the scene.
  • Questioned Documents Unit – Compares handwriting, detects alterations or manipulations, restores obliterated writing, identifies latent impressions, identifies printing processes and reassembles shredded documents.
  • Firearms Analysis Unit – Examines firearms and fired bullets/cartridges, runs comparisons with ballistics databases and investigates scenes of shootings.
  • Narcotics Analysis Unit – Analyzes narcotics seized from offenders.
  • Serology/DNA Unit – Analyzes evidence for presence of DNA; screens and develops DNA profiles, compares with FBI’s Combined DMA Index System.
  • Toxicology Unit – Runs alcohol and drug testing programs.
  • Trace Analysis Unit – Examines, compares and analyzes trace evidence like hair, fiber, glass, paint, accelerants, gunshot residue, explosives, etc.

How to Become a CSI or Forensic Laboratory Scientist in Los Angeles

Education and experience are the two most important determining factors. Although some CSI positions only require a high school diploma, preference is given to persons with at least an associate’s degree in criminal justice, forensic science or police science. There are at least seven two-year colleges in Los Angeles that offer these programs. A forensic science position requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree in chemistry or another natural science. Los Angeles has three large public and at least four private universities with undergraduate and graduate science programs.

In addition to education, both Los Angeles law enforcement agencies have the following requirements for either CSI or forensic scientist positions:

  • Valid CA driver’s license; good driving record
  • No felony convictions, DUIs or history of substance abuse
  • Background investigation and fingerprinting
  • Physically able to stand for long periods, bend, stoop and  squat
  • Willing to work nights, weekends and holidays
  • Pass oral examination

Lists of open positions and online applications for LAPD and sheriff’s department jobs are available at the appropriate city and county employment websites.

Experience in a forensic lab is required for all but the most entry-level jobs. It is noted that the LAPD has an internship program in conjunction with local universities that allows students to gain first-hand experience working with CSIs or forensic lab scientists. The LAPD website has detailed Information.  The average annual salaries for CSIs and forensic scientists in Los Angeles are $52,000 and $66,000 respectively.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Division

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Division is staffed with deputy sheriffs, forensic specialists and law enforcement technicians who are responsible for all facets of crime scene investigation. The division consists of a major crimes group, an investigations group and a chemical abuse group.

  • Major Crimes Group – Identifies, collects and processes biological and physical evidence related to major crimes, reconstructs crime scenes, interprets blood spatters, examines firearms and questioned documents.
  • Investigations Group – Perform crime scene investigations of all crimes; includes a photographic lab, photo/digital imaging and polygraph units.
  • Chemical Abuse Group – Investigates illegal narcotics crime scenes and DUI cases; handles alcohol/drug screening programs.

Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center

Spurred by a shortage of forensic lab space to handle the high volume of cases in Los Angeles, the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center opened in 2007 on the campus of California State University at Los Angeles (CSULA) as the result of a partnership between CSULA, the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department. The immense center contains forensic laboratories of both L.A. law enforcement agencies, as well as facilities for CSULA’s criminal justice program and the California Forensic Science Institute. The center offers public tours and educational presentations.

LAPD Technical Laboratory

Specialized units that make up the LAPD technical lab are:

  • Latent Print Unit – Processes crime scenes to identify and collect latent prints; analyzes prints using chemical enhancements, compares with finger/palm print databases. In 2011, the unit processed over 17,000 crime scenes.
  • Photographic Unit – Employs 27 persons who take crime scene and aerial photograph; prints/retains photos. Responsible for 115,000 images in 2011.
  • Polygraph Unit – Performs polygraph examinations.
  • Electronics Unit – Conducts video and audio surveillances.

CSI and Forensic Scientist in San Diego, California

The two primary sources for CSI and forensic science jobs are the San Diego Police Department Forensic Science Section and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Regional Crime Lab.

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Requirements for Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator in San Diego

The job description includes documenting, collecting, preserving and transporting physical evidence from crime scenes and autopsies; processing fingerprints; taking crime scene and aerial photographs (from a helicopter over the crime scene); operating audio/video equipment, writing reports and testifying in court. Job requirements are:

  • Associate’s degree and CSI certificate from a community college OR one year experience in crime scene investigations OR two years experience as an evidence technician with a law enforcement agency
  • Valid Class C California driver’s license
  • Successful background check/and drug test
  • Willing to work nights, weekends and holidays if necessary
  • Willing to travel long distances to crime scenes (Sheriff’s Department)

Requirements for Becoming a Forensic Laboratory Scientist in San Diego

The job description includes running chemical and biological tests on body fluids/tissues, developing DNA profiles, analyzing trace evidence to determine microscopic and compositional characteristics, verifying drug/alcohol content, examining firearms. Job requirements include:

  • Bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited college/university in chemistry, biology or a closely related subject – must include at least eight semester (12 quarter) credit hours of general chemistry and three semester (four quarter) hours of quantitative analysis.
  • DNA unit requires an additional two semester (three quarter) hours EACH of molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics.
  • Valid California Class C driver’s license
  • Pass background investigation of medical, drugs and criminal history

San Diego has at least seven community colleges and six four-year accredited colleges/universities to choose from, as well as several online institutions.

How to Apply for CSI and Forensic Scientist Jobs in San Diego

The City of San Diego Personnel Department website has a list of job opportunities and application instructions for jobs with the SDPD Forensic Science Section..

Information about jobs with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Regional Crime Lab can be reviewed online. The sheriff’s department crime lab also has an internship program for both undergraduate and graduate students.

The average annual salaries for crime scene investigators and forensic scientists in San Diego are $47,000 and $59,000 respectively.

San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Forensic Science Section

The SDPD forensic science section’s Crime Scene Unit examines crime scenes of homicides, questionable deaths, officer involved shootings and other serious crimes. CSIs photograph, collect, and preserve physical evidence, develop latent finger/palm prints, reconstruct the crime and transport evidence to the nationally accredited full-service SDPD crime lab that includes the following units:

  • Firearms – Examines firearms/bullets/cartridge cases, compares with ballistics databases, determines firing distances and restores obliterated serial numbers.
  • Forensic Chemistry – Analyzes blood and other materials for illegal drugs; determines alcohol content of blood, breath and beverage samples.
  • Forensic Biology – Locates, tests and develops DNA profiles; compares them with the FBI’s DNA database; interprets blood stain patterns.
  • Latent Prints – Develops/compares latent prints not visible to the naked eye.
  • Questioned Documents – Examines documents and writing samples for evidence of forgeries or manipulations.
  • Trace Evidence – Analyzes a wide range of physical evidence (hair, glass, paint, fibers, shoe/tire impressions, gunshot residue, explosives, etc.).
  • Polygraph – Conducts polygraph examinations as needed.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Regional Crime Lab

The regional crime lab provides forensic science services to law enforcement groups in every city in San Diego County, as well as to district attorneys and state agencies. The Crime Scene Unit responds to homicides and other serious crimes countywide, covering roughly 4,000 square miles that include military installations, Indian lands and the Pacific Ocean. Other units of the regional lab include:

  • Alcohol – Manages the breath alcohol testing program; analyzes blood for DUI cases; examines fluids for alcohol content; provides court testimony.
  • Biology/DNA – Develops DNA profiles from crime scene evidence.
  • Bloodstain Pattern – Often goes to crime scenes to analyze blood stain patterns in order to determine the positions of people/objects, the direction of swings or movements, the number of blows and the sequence of events.
  • Computer Forensics – Partners with the San Diego Regional Computer Forensics Lab, one of 14 such FBI facilities in the nation. The highly trained team conducts forensic examinations of computers and other digital media.
  • Controlled Substances – Tests powders, pills, plant material and other substances to determine the presence of narcotics.
  • The Questioned Documents, Firearms, Latent Prints and Trace Evidence Units perform the same functions as described above under SDPD crime lab.

In 2004 the sheriff’s department created the first cold case forensics team to investigate cold homicide and sexual assault cases.

CSI and Forensic Scientist in San Jose, California

The crime scene unit (CSU) is a subset of the San Jose police department’s homicide unit. The CSU responds to the scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, child deaths, suspicious deaths and high-profile violent crimes. The crime scene investigators (CSIs) document the scene and identify, collect and preserve physical evidence.

Every San Jose CSI is also assigned cold cases to revisit in light of today’s more advanced forensic technology and databases. As a result, multiple cold cases have been solved in the last year. The San Jose CSU works closely with the Santa Clara Crime Lab.

Requirements for Becoming a Forensic Scientist in San Jose

The Santa Clara County Crime Lab currently employs over 60 forensic scientists, called criminalists. A recent Criminalist II job opening listed the following requirements:

  • Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, biochemistry or criminalistics
  • Two years experience as a criminalist OR one year experience in a forensic lab and a Master of Science degree in chemistry or a related field
  • Knowledge of basic principles of criminalistics
  • Knowledge of basic laws of evidence
  • Ability to perform chemical and instrumental analyses
  • Knowledge of basic types of narcotics
  • Able to illustrate competence in toxicology-related testing methods
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Ability to operate photographic equipment
  • Passing grade on both a performance test and a written exam
  • Successfully complete oral interview

Forensic Science and CSA Schools in San Jose

San Jose has several junior colleges that offer associate’s degrees in criminal justice and/or CSI certificates and a number of accredited four-year universities with bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in the natural sciences. One university’s degree program in Forensic Science includes the following courses:

  • Introduction to Forensic Science
  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • Crime Scene Photography
  • Biometrics
  • Forensic Chemistry
  • Forensic Molecular Biology
  • Fluorescent Applications in Forensic Science

How to Apply for CSI and Forensic Science Jobs in San Jose

Information about job openings with the San Jose Police Department crime scene unit is found on their recruitment page. Applications for forensic scientist positions with the Santa Clara County Crime Lab are only accepted online through county personnel.

The average annual crime scene investigator salary in San Jose is $65,000

The average annual forensic scientist salary in San Jose is $83,000.

The annual salary listed for the Santa Clara County Crime Lab Criminalist II job described above is $67,606.24-$81,806.40.

Santa Clara County Crime Lab

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Crime Lab provides forensic services to all criminal justice agencies in Santa Clara County, of which San Jose is the seat. The crime lab moved to its current 90,072 square foot state-of-the-art facility in San Jose in September 2008. The building is a LEED gold certified sustainable workplace and the sophisticated lab was awarded the highest possible “International” status by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors-Lab Accreditation Board.

The forensic scientists use cutting-edge technology to handle roughly 1,600 major and 15,000 toxicology-contested DUI cases every year. The lab contains classrooms, an evidence triage room, central evidence storage, firing range, photography studio and a vehicle examination area as well as separate laboratories for each of the following units:

  • DNA/serology
  • Computer Forensics
  • Firearms/Toolmarks
  • Forensic Biology
  • Latent Prints
  • Questioned Documents
  • Toxicology
  • Trace Evidence
  • Hazardous Evidence
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