What is a CSI?

CSI stands for Crime Scene Investigator. There are several names that may apply to the same job description. These include CSI, ET (evidence technician), CST (crime scene technician), FI (forensic investigator), SOCO (scenes of crime officer), CSA (crime scene analyst), CO (criminalistics officer) and there are more not listed here. The main job of a CSI is to document, identify and collect physical evidence at a crime scene.

What is the role or job description for a CSI?

A job description for a CSI varies throughout the world, each agency defines the duties and role a CSI plays in their department. A generic version is as follows; The CSI is a support person for the investigator in charge of the case. The CSI is responsible for the thorough documentation of the scene(s) and the identification, processing and collection of physical evidence. They need to have an expertise in photography, sketching, processing for latent and patent evidence, which includes but not limited to; fingerprints, footwear impressions, trace, hair & fibers, biological fluid , including DNA potential and blood spatter pattern analysis. Other specialties may be required. The CSI needs to follow the protocol for the packaging, securing and chain of custody for the evidence collected from the scene. The CSI will attend autopsies and assist the pathologist with collection of physical evidence from the body. The CSI needs to take thorough notes to later complete a comprehensive written report. The CSI not only needs above average written communication skills they must also have good verbal skills to work as a liaison between the investigators, pathologists and prosecuting attorneys. They are required to give accurate and comprehensive testimony in a court of law. The CSI is required to work long hours, be agile and heavy lifting is required. The must be able to maintain their equipment, keep updated on all techniques and methodology, use deductive and inductive reasoning and perform a systematic search of the crime scene.

What is the average salary for a CSI?

The salary range for a CSI here in the USA ranges from about $20,000 to over $50,000. The difference in the salary range is mainly geographical but also is based on education, training and experience level.

Do I need to be a police officer before I can be a CSI?

The short answer is no, CSI's are both sworn police officers and civilians. The longer answer is that most CSI's are sworn officers, but there is a large number of civilians doing the same job. The difference between the two is economics and arrest powers. Police Officers are generally paid at a higher level then the civilian counter parts, they usually have better benefits and have an available career ladder. Civilian CSI's have little career opportunities, less benefits and work in the same dangerous environment as their sworn counterpart.

What degree is required before I can be hired as a CSI?

The applicant must meet the requirements of the employing law enforcement agency. Some agencies requirements are higher then others. A smaller rural agency may not require any degree while larger agencies will most definitely require a degree. That degree may be a two or four year degree and may be specific. In order to receive accurate and current information on the requirements contact your local police department, the sheriff's department and the state police in the area your are looking for employment and ask them what their requirements are for a CSI position with them.

Where can I get a degree in Crime Scene Investigation?

There are degrees and certificate programs available in CSI. There are also Criminal Justice Degrees, Forensic Science Degrees and these are both in BS and MS. Check with your local community colleges and universities with academic courses in forensic science or criminal justice. The following is a link to a web site that lists schools that offer master degree programs, listed on the American Academy of Forensic Science or here for CSI training and degrees, Crime Scene Investigator Network.

Where can I go to be trained as a CSI?

There is a difference between education and training. Training is usually offered by the law enforcement agency employing you, education is what you receive from an Academic institute. Once you have been hired by the agency they will generally provide the training required for a CSI position. The best way to get hired by a law enforcement agency is to have the educational background first then seek employment in your selected field.

How do I become a CSI?

The simple answer is to become a police officer and apply for the position as a CSI after a few years experience within the department. There is another avenue and that is as a civilian CSI. There are over 18,000 police agencies within the USA. There are very few police agencies that have full time civilian CSI's working for them, most are sworn officers that do multiple jobs. Those few police agencies that do hire civilian CSI's usually require a college degree and some knowledge of processing crime scenes, but not all agencies have that requirement. To become a CSI you need to be hired by a police agency. The hard part is finding what their requirements are for that position. They are not all the same. To find the best answer for you, our suggestion is to contact your local police department, your sheriff's department and the state police to find out what THEIR requirements are to be hired as a CSI. Education is always required. Some agencies just require a two year degree in almost anything, other agencies may require specific degrees, such as a Master Of Science Degree in Biology or Chemistry or Forensic Science. You will need to contact the agencies in your geographic area to find out what they require to be hired.

The best advice we can give is to get an education that allows you to not only get that job now, but also prepares you for the future. Crime Scene work is very demanding, most CSI's do not process crime scenes all their careers. They will at some point "burn out" and change their career to perhaps working in the crime lab as a forensic scientist. So plan now for not only the current job you are looking for but also getting a well rounded education that will allow you to expand into other possibilities.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Copied from the message forum of ICSIA-Public Forum January 28, 2005

Before I begin I must tell you the following is my opinion based on over 30 years in this field and even though I am retired from law enforcement I still teach crime scene investigation, write articles, write chapters in forensic publications, speak professionally and publicly and have trained literally thousands of CSI's in basic crime scene processing, not to mention being the Director of ICSIA and on editorial and advisory boards, all related to crime scene work.

The CSI's shows have done a lot to bring to the public's attention the "work" of a CSI. Unfortunately it is not like on TV, as you all know. And the job market just isn't there like the Universities, colleges and on-line courses want you to believe.

When I started in law enforcement many years ago the academic criteria was a high school degree or a GED. The preference was for a male, 6 foot tall and had military service with an honorable discharge. Law enforcement was a quasi-military unit. Almost all of the "CSI's" were sworn officers, there was exceptions but very rare ones. During that time period most CSI's were called "Evidence Technicians". There were other names applied but everyone needs to understand the names were only job titles. These titles were created by the agency and some had nothing to do with what the person actually did. The same applied to "Forensic Scientist", most were not forensic scientists in the crime labs but that is another story and best told by others.

For the sake of this forum I will refer to all people involved in processing crime scenes as a "CSI" even thought they had other job titles.

Only the largest of police agencies had full time CSI's. And they were pretty much all sworn officers, again there was an exception, but rare. Because they were almost all sworn officers they had met the requirements of that agency to become a police officer. In those days it was as I had stated above, over 21, High School or GED, male and military service. That was the standard for years. The CSI's received what amounted to maybe a 40 hour course on how to collect and package evidence and take some photos of the scene. They had two kits, one was camera equipment and the other was fingerprint powder, maybe a couple of other items but not much more then that. The CSI's then were sworn officers who in most agencies did more then one job. In some agencies the detectives did the processing while in other agencies the patrolman did the processing. If a "major" crime occurred then the agency could request help from the crime lab, or from a large police agency that had full time CSI's like Chicago PD. The crime lab would send out a selection of their people to process the crime scene, a latent print person, a biologist maybe and someone from the photography section. Even though the people from the crime lab were called forensic scientists, most were not true scientists. And many had only a High School or GED, BECAUSE that was all that was required to be employed. All the training was done "in-house", as it was for most CSI's. The old timers taught the new kids. But still a majority of the work in crime scenes was done by the police officer who only did it when he had to do it.

As the years went by the times changed, as they do in life. The requirements for employment changed to having at least some college, then to having associates degree and now in a lot of agencies a BS or BA degree is required just to be hired. Academically the requirements increased. But most of the training to be the police was still done at the police academy, not in college. College gave a great academic background to build upon with additional training. Unfortunately there were good people that would have made great cops but they didn't have that degree and therefore could not get hired. A degree doesn't mean you can do the job better. But it helps tremendously later in life when you will need it to get that promotion or additional education.

Let me get back on track here, CSI's job market. As the years went by the academic level increased and police agencies were finally getting the funding to increase their manpower. This increase in manpower allowed them to have "specialties", one being a "CSI". But only the larger agencies had such luxuries. The majority of police agencies still had the patrol officer or detective to process the crime scene because they simply could not afford to hire someone to work only as a CSI, that is still true today.

I started with the two tool kits and when I left they had specialized vehicles with over $75,000 in equipment in each of the 50+ Crime Scene Vehicles. Each assigned to a person, no vehicles were shared, no equipment was shared. Everyone had their own portable Forensic Light Sources and all the fancy equipment. That was in 1998 when I retired, now they have even more! But again, the Illinois State Police is only on police agency amongst the thousands out there across the nation. MOST law enforcement agencies struggle to find the equipment needed to do a very basic job of processing a crime scene. MOST police agencies do not have full time CSI's. THAT is the reason why MOST CSI's are sworn officers.

A rural agency is defined by any agency having less then 25,000 population. If that definition holds true then over 90% and in fact closer to 95% of all police agencies meet the criteria of being a "rural" law enforcement agency. What that means in simple terms is not that they are out in the middle of nowhere, it just means they have less means then those agencies over 25,000 population.

A city/sheriff's department of that size of population may have about 50 sworn personnel. That may seem like a lot but trust me it is not, and most actually have a lot less. But let's just use that as starting point. Of that 50 cops there are Chiefs, Captains, Lt's, Sgts, all supervisory or administration. Of that 50 people about 18 are "Officers" of rank or administrators. Maybe more. That leaves 32 left. divide that 32 into three shifts, that is about 11 per shift. Then figure that at any given time 4 people are off because they all get two days a week off. Now we are down to about 7. This is not counting vacation time, holidays, court time, training time, officers off on injuries. If you are lucky you have 5 officers working that shift. There simply is no one left to be a full time CSI. And this was an ideal situation. Agencies of a population of 25,000 may not have 50 officers to start with! And of course those agencies with even less have less to work with.

So now all of you are saying well then there is a place for us in those agencies, I agree! The problem is they won't hire a civilian to do a job they can get done by one of their own officers who they don't have to pay any extra money. Those that have decided to hire a civilian CSI hire them generally at less pay, less benefits and work them to death so they burn out and leave. If you are the only CSI in a police agency you will not have any time off, 24/7 you will be on call. That means all family functions, holidays, etc you will be required to stay in that jurisdiction to be "available" to handle the crime scene call. I know there are exceptions to this, there always is, but those exceptions are rare.

Now let's get to the job market for you. Where are the jobs? They are mainly in agencies with over 25,000 population. If that figure is true then of the 18,000 + agencies out there in the USA then about 5% of them are large enough to have full time CSI's. That means there are roughly 900 police agencies who may have full time CSI's. Of that figure about half of them are still sworn officers ( that is changing ), that means there are roughly 450 police agencies hiring full time civilian CSI's somewhere in the USA. The job market as a whole just is not there to support all the college graduates who want that job.

However there is hope. If you look at the future and what may happen then there is hope for you in the forensic field IF you plan ahead and not just for after college. Trust me on this. At some time in your career as a CSI you will have had enough. That usually comes between 7 to 10 years, then what? What training as a CSI can you use in another area of employment? However if your degree is in one of the sciences, biology or chemistry then you can not only get a job in a crime lab but also open the job market to you in the private sector labs. While you are waiting to get that job as a CSI, your lifelong dream, you can get a job in the private sector IF you have the right degree. A Criminal Justice Degree or a CSI degree is NOT going to do that for you.

I am a cop. I have been one all my career and still feel that I am. I do not understand why anyone wants to be a CSI without being a cop first. It just doesn't make sense to me. It is like wanting to be a brain surgeon but not wanting to be a doctor first. It just doesn't make sense to me. But then I am not 21 anymore and the world and job market is different. If you want to be a CSI I think that is GREAT! But being a cop first will give you more experience then you can ever imagine. Plus there are several avenues in law enforcement that opens up new areas to find a career in.

I retired at 50 years of age with a full retirement and benefits that I will have until the day I die. My spouse will also receive those benefits for the rest of her life, can you as a civilian CSI? Long range planning is a must, live for tomorrow not just for today.

If you want the best of all worlds, get your degree in chemistry or biology, minor in Criminal Justice and you will have the BEST chance of getting the job you want.

I am sorry for the long post but I felt it was needed to explain some things to those that have their heart set on being a CSI. There are exceptions to everything and I am sure some of you will disagree with what I have said. It is your life, you make your own decisions, but trust me on this, a biology or chemistry degree will get you farther in the forensic world then any other degree.

If you doubt what I am telling you then go ask your local police agency, your sheriff's department, the state police, the FBI, the local Medical Examiner and the crime lab what they require to be hired as a CSI by them.

Thanks for your time.

Hayden B Baldwin


Additional information is available at:
The Crime Scene Investigator
Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator