crime scene

KN, p. 322 “Training for a Career in Forensics”

If there are no paragraph separations in this article, please double-click on the title to create a more readable version.The CSI shows on TV have generated a tremendous amount of interest in the field of forensics, whether the technicians are in the lab or out in the field at crime scenes. Crime shows (and movies) have changed the way the public looks at law enforcement – not only in how quickly crimes are solved, but how cases are brought to court. As technology has improved, and more efficient ways of assessing evidence have been developed, more careers in the forensic sciences are available than ever before.

It used to be that cops on the beat, or detectives looking into a potential crime, picked up techniques along the way that pointed them to possible suspects. They learned where evidence (like fingerprints or footprints) might be found by using their experience on the job and continued training after attending the police academy. Not necessarily scientific, but hard work and diligence usually paid off.

These days, crimes can involve the dark web, human trafficking, and international cartels, in addition to the forgeries, kidnappings, and drug busts (etc). Heists are more sophisticated, crime lords sink to greater depths of evil, and crimes against humanity are more widespread and complex. We still need the cops on the beat to help keep our neighborhoods safe, but we also need forensic scientists to help unravel the latest iteration of criminal activity.

Let’s take a look at what kind of training is needed for seven of the various fields. You may know someone who’d like to serve in law enforcement, but who doesn’t want to shoot or chase anyone down an alley in order to catch the bad guys/gals. The following specialties are areas in which they can assist without the need of a bulletproof vest.

Computer Forensics: Identity theft via the internet is on the rise, as is corporate hacking, and cyberterrorism. Highly skilled computer analysts are sought after in almost every area of today’s  cyber world. Think ‘Bobby’ in TV’s “Tracker.” Most two and four-year computer forensics programs deliver instruction in investigative techniques, white-collar crime, as well as the laws that oversee the work of searching & seizing digital information, since computer forensic specialists can recover information to be used later in criminal trials.

Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity concentrates on protecting information. Cybersecurity specialists track data thieves, thwart e-terrorists, and guard sensitive electronic information. They generally need at least a bachelor’s degree for entry level jobs, but lots of experience counts.

DNA Analysis: Several colleges and universities have programs to train wannabe DNA analysts, who most often need a bachelor’s degree to start. In order to advance in a career or to work in  a more demanding work environment (think the FBI), a master’s or doctoral program might be necessary. What’s interesting to note is that a career in DNA analysis might be reached through a degree in organic chemistry, quantitative analysis, and/or biochemistry, each part of the DNA investigative process.

Forensic Accounting: This career deals with a great deal more than looking into sloppy bookkeeping. Forensic accountants examine flaws in the records of suspected criminals to find financial crimes such as money laundering, insurance fraud, and embezzlement. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE, a certifying agency) reveals that a job at the FBI requires the minimum of a four-year degree, but another year (Master’s level training), is sought after by employers. This field pays very well.

Forensic Anthropologists: People in this career path diagnose posthumous death by analyzing  skin tissue, bones, as well as the area where the body was found. The skills needed have helped families find closure in cold cases, and are essential in identifying large numbers of persons who have perished in natural disasters, multiple vehicle crashes, and/or in war zones. Training takes years, however, with the minimum requirement of a Master’s Degree (about 6 years of higher education). Anyone with a wish to get ahead in this field would need a Doctorate as well as Certification in the specialty of choice.

Forensic photographers document a crime scene visually, and the job includes taking images of tire tracks, fingerprints, intentional wounds, and blood spatter patterns. Training as a professional crime scene photographer focuses on understanding crime scene investigation and learning about the types of photos needed to document clues and details. The details in the photos can be essential for solving the crimes and helping to prosecute at trial. Since some photos must be taken at night, without bright lights available to backlight the scene, the photographer must be able to take low light (or no light) shots.

In many jurisdictions, the crime scene isn’t cleared until the photographer and videographer have finished recording all of the evidence. This means that if murder is suspected, a dead body is part of the photography assignment. Training would cover what to do (or not) so that evidence isn’t damaged or destroyed, as well as how to collect, store, and authenticate the crime scene photos. (No photos can be deleted from the memory card, even if blurry.) Training doesn’t always cover the fact that dead bodies smell, a crime scene involving said body is horrific, and that everyone must have a strong stomach to deal with all of the blood and sometimes gore.

Smaller jurisdictions don’t often have enough crimes that need photographic evidence (i.e. a fulltime photographer on staff), so this job may be handed to someone a cop or firefighter knows who can take detailed shots. Not the local wedding photographer, but someone who has the stomach for the gritty stuff. A strong academic background in criminal justice and crime scene investigation techniques might be the best way to move to a career in forensic photography.

Forensic toxicologists use scientific knowledge to decide if accidental or intentional poisoning was a cause of death and to determine fault. A degree in biology or chemistry is generally required at entry level. But some universities offer one-year certificate programs and associate’s and master’s degree programs in forensic toxicology to add to the undergraduate degree. Forensic toxicologists might never see an actual crime scene.


*Some degree requirement information is from forensics colleges.



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KN, p. 309 “Ammo Casings”

Ammo for Rifle

If there are no paragraph separations in this post, please double-click on the title in order to create a more readable version.

It was sort-the-photos week and instead of delete, delete, delete quickly, it took me hours to get through a few albums at a time. Memories and smiles popped up to slow the process. I had forgotten a few of the events, but one from two years ago became the basis of today’s post.

My cousin passed away two years ago next month. For a variety of reasons having to do with a donation his Estate made to a major charity, his possessions had to be inventoried, down to the quantity and types of boxes of bullets. His best friend (a firearms expert and my cousin’s shooting buddy) and I elected to inventory his gun paraphernalia ourselves, in order to expedite matters. In addition to the firearms and hunting gear, the lower level of the house contained equipment for making his own reloads (basically recycled shell casings to make new ammo). It was a hobby that fascinated him and helped reduce the cost of ammo he used at the gun range.

I took photos of everything for the lawyers. I discovered that he had boxes and boxes of shell casings waiting to be worked on, but they were not the same in color or size, since he had a variety of firearms he used in competitions.

This is what I learned: Ammunition casings can be made from five different materials and there are benefits and drawbacks to each.

  • Brass
  • Steel
  • Aluminum
  • Brass-plated or Nickel-plated Brass
Ammo for Handgun

Each casing material acts differently, so my cousin chose his ammo to fit his activity – practicing at the range, competition shooting, or hunting.

Brass Ammo Casings are known for their consistency in firing, but they are also the most expensive. They are easy to reload and resist corrosion.

Steel Ammo Casings are cheaper than brass and made in many calibers (diameter of the ammo)

Aluminum Ammo Casings are also cheaper than brass and are lighter in weight.

Plated Casings are ammo with a base metal which has been electroplated with nickel or brass. The nickel plating makes it corrosion resistant. Some competitors prefer this version because of its ease of use in a handgun at timed stand-and-shoot competitions.

As shown in the photo above, ammo casings are part of the cartridge – not the same as the bullet section of the cartridge. The shell casings separate from the bullet and are ejected from the firearm as the bullet propels forward to the target.

The casings are what law enforcement find on the ground (where a shooter was standing) after shots have been fired in a crime. Patrol Officers and detectives hope that fingerprints can be found on the casings, and that the shooter can be linked to the crime. Careful gun owners pick up their ‘brass’ so as not to litter a gun range, with easily a 100 rounds at a time for each session for each guy/gal. Snipers pick up their ‘brass’ so as not to leave a trace of their having been in that spot. Drug dealers or gun dealers may be involved in a shootout and don’t take time to search for the casings left lying around.

Since the 1990s, there has been a national data base devoted to shell casings: NIBIN – The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. Run through ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) the information is available to most major metropolitan areas  in the USA.

Firearms techs enter shell casing evidence photos into the Ballistic ID System, which are then matched/integrated with the database. Local law enforcement is able to search for matches in the system throughout the country, looking for similar crimes, where the casings were found, fingerprints and other information connected with the casings. Over 1,400 law enforcement districts use the database and funding is expanding, as NIBIN continues to demonstrate its benefits.


*Photos of cartridges were taken at conferences.

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KN, p. 141 “What does a CSI tech really do?”

If there are no paragraph separations in this article, please double-click on the title in order to create a more readable version.

TV makes the job of a CSI tech look like a lot of fun.

It looks like an easy job, too. Get a call from dispatch, arrive at a crime scene, pop on the gloves, shine a flashlight around, take a few photos, collect the evidence along with your team of 4-5 colleagues and go back to the lab an hour or so later, ready to process all of it.

Have the real CSI techs and law enforcement professionals stopped laughing yet?  😉

Here’s the reality:

Most small towns (under 50,000 people) have no CSI lab. None. The local police in smaller towns are able to collect fingerprints, but most have to send them off to a State Lab to be processed.

Many towns, even with a population of 100,000 people, don’t have a ballistics lab to check the caliber of any bullets/casings left behind at the scene or found in the victim’s body.

North Carolina (as of 2022) had a population of 10.7 million, and has three State crime labs – one full service and two regional labs.

New York State (as of 2022) had a population of 19.68 million, and has four State crime labs – one full service and three specializing in varied areas.

New Jersey (as of 2022) had a population of 9.26 million.  It has seven  State labs.

Texas (as of 2022) had a population of 30.03 million, with a full service forensic lab in Austin and 14 regional labs, some conducting only drug testing, and others close to full service.

And all of those crime labs are processing evidence from all kinds of crimes (burglary, robbery, rape, arson, cold case, assault, etc.) not just murders. It take a few hours to get the prints, preserve the evidence, bag and tag it for transport, but it takes months to get it processed, because there is a long line of cases ahead of yours. In some States, the wait is as long as 18 months. That is not a typo, folks. Eighteen months to wait until the evidence can be processed. Even if the case is a high profile one, moving to the head of the line might only shorten the wait to 2-3 months, because there are other high profile cases in line as well or cases that are already in court, waiting for clarification of the evidence.


There is no such thing as instantaneous fingerprint matches. See the article about fingerprint analysis here. There are now handheld machines that scan a viable fingerprint at the scene, but that only speeds up the collection process, not the identification of the fingerprint. (I was recently told that a new fingerprint reader can return an answer in 45 seconds, but some fingerprint experts are reserving judgment as to the accuracy of the matches.)

Get the picture? The State Bureaus of Investigation are short-staffed and the cases more numerous, as attorneys seek to prove or disprove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the evidence gathered at the scene linked their clients to the crime.

In general, the analysts examine all types of evidence related to criminal investigations and assist the criminal justice system. They can provide:

  • Consultation on the value, use, collection, and preservation of evidence,
  • Analysis and comparison of evidence from crime scenes and/or people,
  • Expert testimony in court proceedings, and
  • Assistance for collecting evidence and processing crime scenes,
  • Forensic science information to law enforcement agencies and district attorneys.

ALL of that evidence must be collected in a thorough and efficient manner by the Crime Scene Technician or Crime Scene Investigator. Cases are won and lost on how the evidence is handled – both the chain of custody and the collecting of the correct evidence can be factors in how a suspect is perceived.

I had a chance to chat with a CSI who has been in the field for about 10 years. She generously shared information about her day – soooo different from the image of the CSI jobs projected on TV.

She enters a crime scene after a Patrol Officer has cleared the house (made sure that no unauthorized person is in it). A Deputy might walk her through the house, and depending on the crime, the owner of the house then walks her through, pointing out items that might have been disturbed or areas where items are missing. She takes notes during the tours so that she can come up with a Plan of Action – how to process the scene.

In general, she will take photos first, and then collect the evidence. If a homicide is suspected, she might take video as well as still photographs.

She might see patterns of wreckage, or concentration of destruction, or even similarities with other cases, but it is not her job to focus on the M.O. (modus operandi) or narrow her collection efforts based on a hunch. She is there to collect all the evidence.

She might be looking for:

  • Fingerprints
  • Blood spatters
  • Fibers
  • Footwear impressions
  • Tire impressions
  • Tool impressions
  • DNA samples (hair, nails, blood, saliva, etc)
  • Murder weapon
  • Point of entry
  • Kinds of items taken

What a CSI leaves at the scene is sometimes as important as what he/she collects, so it is vital to be thorough. The detectives and attorneys decide what is significant to the case.

The trunk of a CSIs car is filled with the tools of the trade. They have kits for each type of evidence collection and if they know in general what the scene will call for, they may grab an additional kit from headquarters. They might even carry a tarp to cover the ground (creating a collection place for the evidence) if the scene is outdoors – such as a train wreck.

The CSI I interviewed works in Major Crimes for the Sheriff’s Department, and when she is called to a scene, she works 12-hour shifts, by herself. In most cases, she collects all the evidence, bags and tags it appropriately, and hands it all to the detective in charge. She works 14 days a month, equally divided between the day shift and the night shift.  On occasion, a 12-hour shift is not long enough to collect everything at a particular crime scene, so she stays a bit longer to finish. If it looks as if she has to work for another shift, a Patrol Officer will guard the scene until she returns to finish collection on her next shift. If the case merits 24-hour collection (because of weather or the condition of the scene/body) the CSI on the next shift will continue the collection, with any evidence collected up to that point handed over to the new person.

Clear chain of possession of the evidence dictates that in a case where collection goes on for more than one shift, limited people will have keys to the building. There are evidence cards showing who collected it, and anyone entering or leaving the scene will have to sign in and out with the Patrol Officer on duty.

For information about Footwear Evidence, click here.

Next week: The life of a CSI – rewards and challenges.

*Photos taken by Patti Phillips

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