How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Police tape on a crime scene

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In any criminal case, the most important part of a successful prosecution is the evidence presented. Witness testimonies are great, well-written reports are a must, and the ability to use investigative skills to piece together the puzzle and solve the crime is vital. 

No matter how skilled a detective or investigator is in making the case, though, she's ultimately only as good as the evidence she can collect. If you've got an eye for detail and want to be the difference-maker in criminal cases, you'll want to know how to become a crime scene investigator

Crime scene investigators collect and gather evidence at crime scenes. They're responsible for preserving the evidence and transporting it to the laboratory for analysis or the evidence locker for safekeeping. 

They may also provide laboratory assistance and analysis, depending on their role in their employing agency. They work in the field and respond to crime scenes that may range from mundane to gruesome, and are subject to call out at any time. 

Crime scene investigation is a fascinating career, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart. CSI's can expect to deal with all manner of bodily fluids and biological substances, including blood, saliva, feces, and even semen. A strong stomach is a must.

Before you get too excited, realize that working as a crime scene investigator isn't quite like what you see on TV in shows like CSI. It's nowhere near as dramatic or glamorous, and while crimes seem to get solved in an hour on television, the truth is they often take days, weeks or even months to get all of the evidence gathered and analyzed to prepare a warrant for arrest, much less get a conviction.

There is a growing interest in all sorts of careers in forensic science, but the magic of television and movies have led to particularly increased attention and popularity of CSI careers, especially civilian careers in criminal justice and criminology.

What that means for anyone who wants to work as a crime scene tech is that you'll need to do your part to make yourself stand out when you hit the job market.

Requirements for Crime Scene Investigators

Most criminal justice agencies use sworn crime scene investigators, meaning that in many cases you'll need to become a police officer before you can work as a CSI. Generally, the minimum qualifications to become a police offer require you to:

  • Be a U.S. Citizen
  • Hold a valid driver license
  • Be at least 19 years old, and often 21 years or older
  • Have no prior convictions or arrests for felonies, domestic violence or serious misdemeanors
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Have a minimum of two years public contact work experience, prior law enforcement service or military service

Keep in mind that these are the minimum requirements for work as a police officer; just meeting these will not guarantee employment in law enforcement, much less work as a crime scene investigator, but if you don't at least meet these, you won't have a shot at getting hired.

Civilian crime scene investigators must meet similar qualifications; however, the job market is even tougher, so there will be a greater emphasis on education and experience than there may be for their sworn CSI counterparts.

Landing a job as a crime scene investigator takes training, practice, and experience. As law enforcement specialty positions, candidates will usually need to work the streets as a patrol officer for a year or more before they can be considered for transfer to a special detail or job. 

During that time, you'll want to hone the skills you learned in the police academy, particularly those that relate to criminal investigations such as lifting fingerprints, identifying and documenting evidence, and diagraming crime scenes.

For non-sworn positions, you can gain experience through internships and forensic science and crime scene investigation certificate programs. You'll also very likely spend time apprenticing with an experienced investigator at the start to get valuable on-the-job training.

A Sparse Career Field

Crime scene investigators work on the front lines of forensic science to gather and collect evidence from crimes. While a lot of people tend to focus their studies on criminal justice, criminology or a generalized forensic science degree, the truth is that the emphasis in forensic science should be on the science, not the forensics.

While a degree is not necessarily required for CSI careers, you can't underestimate the benefits of a college education. If you're really interested in working as a crime scene investigator, you'll need to have a solid background in the sciences to understand the science behind evidence collection and to have a better understanding of where to find evidence, what to collect and how to analyze it. 

A degree in any of the natural sciences, such as physics, biology or chemistry will give you the foundational knowledge you'll need to get started.

With a major in natural science, you'll also want to get a background in the criminal justice process, as well as knowledge of how and why crime is committed and how it is investigated. 

Take courses in criminal justice, criminology and forensics, and consider minoring or earning a double major in one of these fields. By doing so, you'll develop the keen scientific mind and the knack for criminalistics you'll need for a successful crime scene investigator career.

Skills You'll Need to Succeed

Crime scene investigators need to be, in a sense, a jack of all trades. You need a range of skills to be an effective CSI, including photography, computer skills, and a detail-oriented mind. 

Since you'll be working closely with detectives and investigators, you'll also need strong communication skills and the ability to speak and write clearly. You can also expect to be called to give courtroom testimony, so you'll need to be able to answer questions clearly and concisely and be able to curb your nerves.

Background Investigations for Crime Scene Investigators

Whether or not crime scene investigators are sworn police officers, they will be dealing with sensitive information and working closely with law enforcement officers. Evidence collection and preservation is an incredibly important job that requires a high level of trust. 

In light of this fact, a thorough background investigation will be required that will include looking into your previous employment and any criminal history you may have and may include a polygraph exam, a psychological evaluation, and a physical fitness assessment. 

Training for Crime Scene Investigators

​Depending on the state, jurisdiction or even agency that you want to work for, you may need to attend a crime scene investigation academy or receive specialized training in evidence collection and preservation. Or, you may simply receive on-the-job training as you apprentice with other experienced investigators.

For holding any sworn positions, you'll need to attend a police academy and take and pass a state certification exam. In the academy, you'll learn about various crimes, what sort of evidence to look for and how to properly identify, document and collect it.

Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator

With the increased interest in all forensic careers, becoming a crime scene investigator is not an easy prospect. You'll face competition in the job market, and you'll need to be patient as you work toward your goals, especially if you have to become a police officer first. 

For those with an analytical mind and a knack for fine detail, working as a crime scene investigator is an excellent opportunity to apply your skills and interests in an interesting and exciting criminology career.