Careers in Crime Scene Investigation
Advancing technologies in forensic science, along with an increased profile due to popularized television dramas, has increased the role of crime scene investigations and forensic science in the criminal justice system. Learn about a career as a forensic science technician, police detective, fire investigator or private investigator.
|Forensic Science Technicians||Police Detectives||Fire Investigators||Private Investigators|
|Career Overview||Examines crime scenes; analyzes evidence in laboratories||Investigates crimes scenes; pursues suspects||Determines origins of fires; reconstructs crime scenes in arson investigations||Investigates staged accidents and frauds; conducts surveillance|
|Education Requirements||Associate's degree or bachelor's degree||High school diploma up to a bachelor's degree||High school diploma up to a bachelor's degree||High school diploma up to bachelor's degree|
|Program Length||2-4 years||0-4 years||0-4 years||0-4 years|
|Additional Training||Police academy training required for some positions; on-the-job training||Police academy training||Police or fire academy training; on-the-job training||On-the-job training|
|Certification and Licensure||N/A||State law enforcement license||Several professional certifications available (required for some jobs and advantageous for other positions); may need investigation license for employment with private companies||Professional certifications available (voluntary); state law enforcement license required for many positions|
|Experience||0-3 years||5-10 years||0-5 years||0-5 years|
|Job Outlook for 2014-2024||Much-faster-than-average 27% growth; 3,800 additional jobs*||1% decline in growth; 1,400 fewer jobs*||Average 5% growth; 700 additional jobs*||Average 5% growth; 1,800 additional jobs*|
|Mean Salary (2014)||Roughly $58,610*||Roughly $80,540*||Roughly $58,980*||Roughly $52,880*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Forensic Science Technicians
Forensic science technicians collect evidence from crime scenes, preserving the scene and transferring evidence to crime laboratories. They utilize laboratory equipment and computer databases to investigate firearm ballistics, analyze DNA and check fingerprints. Most forensic science technicians work for police departments, crime labs, morgues or coroner's offices.
Technological advances and public awareness have combined to provide job growth for forensic science technicians. In addition to collecting and analyzing evidence, these professionals play a crucial role in trial testimony, presenting evidence and assisting in criminal prosecution.
Forensic science technicians need to be extremely detail oriented and possess critical thinking skills. An associate's degree or bachelor's degree is required for most positions, and a bachelor's is necessary for crime lab employment. Major options include forensic science, chemistry, biochemistry and related natural science subjects. Rural areas may train applicants with a high school diploma. According to the Occupational Information Network (ONET), 42% of surveyed professionals earned a bachelor's degree, while 28% had an associate's degree.
Here are some real job listings for forensic science careers found online from November 2012:
- A Colorado state investigative agency sought a latent print examiner to identify and examine physical evidence and provide court testimony. A bachelor's degree in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology or forensic science was required along with one year of full-time professional experience.
- A Florida law enforcement agency was looking for a forensic technologist to examine firearms, trace evidence, impression evidence and latent prints. Applicants needed a bachelor's degree in physical, biological or forensic science. Professional experience could substitute for 4-year degree on a year for year basis.
- An Illinois police department advertised for a forensic science administrator to manage forensic scientists throughout the state. Candidates were required to have a bachelor's degree in natural or forensic science with three years of professional experience working as an advanced caseworker. However, a master's degree was preferred.
While a bachelor's degree is required for many positions in forensic science, many professionals choose, or are required, to obtain police officer academy training as well. Sworn police officers may find advantages applying for certain agency positions. You could also gain an edge by obtaining an advanced degree or graduate certificate. Master's degree programs allow prospective professionals to gain specialized experience in areas such as toxicology, chemistry or digital forensics.
Police detectives collect evidence at crime scenes. They conduct interviews with witnesses and suspects, and they observe, pursue and arrest suspects for criminal prosecution. In addition to employment with local law enforcement agencies, detectives may find work with state or federal investigations agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Secret Service.
This career presents a high rate of injury. The work schedule is typically characterized by staggered shifts, and overtime work is common. Due to budgetary restraints at the local, state and federal levels, these professionals may see limited job growth over the coming years. While experienced police detectives, particularly those employed by federal agencies, earn above-average income, lower salaries and high turnover rates are common for local police department positions.
Almost exclusively, police detectives are promoted through an advancement protocol within a law enforcement agency. You will typically need to complete police officer/peace officer academy training and pass background and drug screens, as well as physical examinations. Promotion to detective generally requires the successful completion of a written examination. Many professionals also choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field and complete continuing education training to augment professional experience. If you want to work for the federal government, you'll likely need a bachelor's degree.
Although many police detective positions are applied for internally, some specialized agencies recruit qualified applicants through classified job listings. Here are a few online job postings for police detectives from November 2012:
- A large Texas university advertised for a certified university police detective to investigate cases related to financial fraud and public corruption crimes. An associate's degree or some college background was required in addition to at least ten years of professional experience.
- A federal government agency sought a detective to perform criminal investigations and law enforcement within a network of health care facilities and administrative departments.
- A Cleveland health care network looked for a detective to be responsible for criminal investigations. Ohio peace officer training was required in addition to five years of internal experience as a patrolman or three years of police officer work. An associate's degree was preferred.
As previously stated, promotion to detective involves advancement through the ranks of patrol officer positions. Performance is also an essential element of advancement. Continued education and bilingual abilities may set applicants apart for many positions. Although a bachelor's degree is not required for many local positions, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice may prepare you for careers with state or federal investigative agencies.
Fire investigators collect evidence at the scene of a fire to reconstruct the criminal elements of arson and determine the origins of a fire. They are often asked to testify in criminal trials or civil law proceedings. According to BLS 2014 data, 79% of fire investigators were employed by local government agencies, such as police departments or local fire departments. Some professionals find employment with federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Although the need for fire investigators is spurred by the growth of American cities, safer buildings and fire protection practices, budgetary restrictions may somewhat inhibit employment growth for these professionals.
Basic requirements for fire investigators may include a high school diploma and academy training. Some positions require a 2-year or a 4-year degree with a specialized background in fire science, prevention and criminal investigations. Professional certification and state licensure may be required for some positions.
Here are some real online job posting summaries for fire investigators from November 2012:
- An Indiana town posted a job ad for a deputy fire marshal with fire inspector or fire investigator certification. A high school diploma was required.
- A Texas local fire department sought an investigator to determine the circumstances of fires. In addition to investigating arson crimes, the investigator might also participate in insurance fraud and murder investigations. A bachelor's degree in a relevant field plus one year of criminal justice experience were required. Professional experience may substitute for education on a year for year basis. A background in arson investigation was preferred.
- A Nevada fire department was looking for a fire investigator. The position was open to department employees. Two years of military or public contact experience could qualify one for this job. An associate's degree in related field with one year of experience or a bachelor's degree in related field also meet eligibility requirements.
According to ONET, 47% of surveyed fire inspectors had some college education and 27% of professionals earned an associate's degree. A wide variety of certifications are available to provide a competitive advantage for positions that don't strictly require professional credentials. These certifications are issued by agencies like the International Association of Arson Investigators, which issues the Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) credential. Other certifying organizations include the National Association of Fire Investigators and the National Fire Prevention Association.
Private investigation is a broad industry that involves a wide range of tasks, including collecting evidence, conducting background checks, searching computers, conducting surveillance and investigating insurance fraud. Professionals may be self-employed, but you could also find work through a private agency, business or organization, such as an insurance carrier.
Fast-as-average job growth is expected for private investigators, based on BLS 2014-2024 projections. Much of this may be attributed to the proliferation of cyber crimes, requiring professionals with computer and network security training. Fraud examiners, adjusters and investigators for insurance claims, however, should see below-average growth over the coming years, according to BLS projections.
Licensure requirements for private investigators vary by state. Many positions require professional experience, including police officer or criminal justice experience. In addition to procedural training, private investigators may train in specific areas of investigation, including white collar crime or accounting fraud, computer crime, loss prevention or insurance fraud.
Here are some job ad summaries for private detectives found through online listings from November 2012:
- A Dallas security firm advertised for a private investigator intern. Successful candidates would attend private investigator basic training. Individuals with military backgrounds were desired.
- A Florida health care systems contractor looked for a senior investigator to inspect fraud and abuse cases in compliance with its corporate investigations department. A bachelor's degree and five years of relevant experience were required. Work experience in public law enforcement and white collar crime investigations was preferred. Accredited Health Care Fraud Examiner (AHFI) or Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) certification was preferred.
- An investigations agency in Georgia sought a licensed part-time private investigator for surveillance. Two years of experience in insurance surveillance were preferred.
While requirements vary for private investigators, applicants with public law enforcement experience may have an advantage. Professional certification may also be a benefit. The American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) offers a variety of specialized certifications, including the Professional Certified Investigator (PCI) credential. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners issues the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential.
With job growth centered around the criminal enterprise of hacking, you may also wish to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree in a field such as cyber security. A growing number of professional organizations offer membership and certification in computer and network security.