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A Moment of Clarity

Television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigations have grossly misrepresented the role of crime laboratory personnel.  On television, the CSI investigators do it all, from collecting the evidence at the scene, analyzing it at the laboratory, performing follow-up interviews with suspects and finally, making the arrest.  This is not an accurate picture of any crime laboratory operation.

The reality is that all of the above-mentioned investigative duties are typically divided among different individuals (professions) in the criminal justice system.  For instance, the crime scene technician performs the majority of crime scene processing in the field, forensic scientists analyze the evidence in the laboratory and police investigators/detectives manage the investigation and perform all interviews and make the arrests.  Each one of the individuals is responsible for their own piece of the puzzle and each profession has its own unique requirements.


What do I need to do to get a job as a crime scene technician?

Various cities, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies employ crime scene technicians.   The majority are employed by local agencies.  In Utah, the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, West Valley Police Department and Weber County Sheriff’s Office are the largest employers of crime scene personnel with staffs ranging from 4-20 civilians.  Smaller agencies typically hire 1-2 individuals to handle crime scene and evidence handling duties and can be civilian or a sworn police officer.   West Jordan PD, for instance, has two crime scene technicians and they are classified as civilian positions whereas Davis County Sheriff’s office has four sworn deputies that have crime scene response as an additional duty.

The educational background for these positions is varied and each agency sets its own policy in regards to hiring practices.  The trend is to hire civilian technicians with a BA/BS degree, which can be either a natural science (e.g., chemistry, biology, etc…) or a non-natural science (e.g., criminal justice, sociology, etc…) degree and some agencies employ non-degreed individuals. Crime scene technicians receive specialized training in the recognition, documentation, collection and preservation of physical evidence

The major duty of crime scene personnel is the processing of crime scenes.  An individual should expect a career that requires on-call duty, shift work and availability on weekends and all hours of the day and night.  Unfortunately, most crime scenes do not occur during traditional business hours (8-5) and some scenes can be quite complex and demanding.  Typically, the pay is lower than that of a police officer or a criminalist.

Some crime scene units offer physical evidence testing services with most of this testing relating to latent print processing and comparison, serial number restoration, footwear comparisons, firearms analysis and AFIS. Forensic scientists do the majority of advanced forensic testing.

At the Utah Department of Public Safety crime laboratory, forensic scientists serve both as crime scene technicians and laboratory scientists. The Department does not maintain a separate crime scene team and does not employ crime scene technicians.

What do I need to do to get a job as a forensic scientist with the Utah Department of Public Safety?

The crime laboratory requires a minimum of a BA/BS degree in a natural science (chemistry, biology, forensic science, criminalistics or a closely related field) to work in the laboratory.  To prepare for a career in the crime laboratory, all natural science (and closely related fields) majors must have extensive chemistry and biology related coursework. Individuals with masters and doctoral degrees in the natural sciences are welcomed but not required.

General Education Criteria:

The following are recommend coursework for both chemistry and biology majors:

General Chemistry  (10 semester units)

Organic Chemistry (10 semester units)

Quantitative Analysis (3-4 semester units)

Qualitative Analysis (3-4 semester units)

Instrumental Analysis Laboratory (3-4 semester units)

All forensic scientists assigned to the biology/CODIS section must have the following requirements:

Biochemistry(3 semester units)

Molecular Biology(3 semester units)

Human Genetics(3 semester units)

Statistics (3 semester units) and/or Population Genetics (3 semester units)

Recommended electives include:

Botany (3-4 semester units)

Anatomy/Physiology(3-4 semester units)

A BA/BS degree in a natural science (e.g., biology, chemistry, forensic science, criminalistics), combined with the above coursework, will prepare the student to work in any area of the crime laboratory.

Having taken the coursework to become a scientist, the aspiring student may indeed take additional coursework to further their interest and marketability in forensic science. The following are some suggested areas of study:

Laws of Evidence (CJ course)

Criminalistics course (CJ course)

Investigation course (CJ course)

Crime Scene Processing (CJ Course)

If available, the following courses can also be invaluable:

Analysis of Controlled Substances – If available, this class would ideally be an upper division course that would be taken after having had satisfied the chemistry requirements.  The analysis of controlled substances would be explored in depth to include: color tests, GC, GC/MS, UV/VIS, acid/base extraction, FTIR, quantitative analysis, etc.

Forensic Biology– Similar to the controlled substances class, this would be another upper division course that would be taken after having satisfied at least the chemistry/biology requirements.  This class would explore stain recognition, collection and identification (saliva, seminal fluid, urine, urease, etc.).   Additionally, this class would Ideally provide historical perspectives and be supplemented with additional lectures in modern DNA analysis techniques.

Comparative Evidence and its Evaluation – This class would discuss the broader scope of evidence received in the laboratory.  Topics could include: Latent Fingerprint Development and comparison, Shoe/Tire Track Impressions, Glass fracture analysis, Questioned Documents, pattern recognition and matching.  The class would be geared around the use of statistics to bolster the “science” of determining whether two items of evidence are comparable and the significance of that association.

Firearms Investigation – This class would be used to introduce the student to the science behind the analysis of evidence associated with firearms.  Familiarizing the student with firearms and their mechanical features as well as introducing the concept of striae for the “individualization” of firearms and toolmarks.

Other Requirements:

Due to the sensitivity of forensic science work and the exposure to contraband, all laboratories require an extensive background investigation and include an employment history verification, interview of family, friends, professors and neighbors, polygraph examination (lie detector), drug screen, credit check (financial history), and thorough checks through all existing criminal databases.  It can take up to 6 weeks to complete a background investigation.

 General Training Criteria

Once hired, the new forensic scientist will begin a training phase.   The training can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years and will qualify the forensic scientist in “one” discipline (e.g., controlled substances analysis, serology screening, latent print processing).   Typical training plans are as follows:

  • Analysis of known substances
  • Reading of relevant literature including books and journal articles
  • Familiarization with laboratory techniques and instruments
  • Written examinations
  • Mock case examinations
  • Co-working of cases with an experienced examiner
  • Competency tests
  • Moot court

The above training plan is designed to develop expertise in a single discipline. Training and expertise development never end for the forensic scientist. Thus, the well-rounded forensic scientist is usually not completely trained and experienced in their discipline(s), crime scene response and other duties until they reach 7-10 years of service.

So, I’ve met the educational and background requirements, how do I apply for a position?

 All State of Utah jobs coordinated through the following website:

Use the above link to create an account to participate in the State of Utah job selection process.

   What if I want a career as a police officer or detective?

 For more information regarding a career in law enforcement, please visit the Utah Department of Public Safety – POST website.