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Have you ever watched a crime drama unfold on television? If so, you know how crime scene investigation is portrayed in the media. There always seems to be that single strand of hair or other obscure piece of DNA evidence that links the perpetrator to the crime and acts as the smoking gun allowing the detective to solve the case.

However, in reality, the work of a crime scene investigator (CSI) is much more nuanced and complex. If you are considering a career in crime scene investigation, it is crucial to understand the reality of what crime scene investigators do so you can make an informed decision regarding whether or not this is the right career path for you.

What Is a Crime Scene Investigator?

A crime scene investigator is typically an employee of a law enforcement agency (such as a police department) or a coroner’s office. The primary responsibility of a CSI is to process crime scenes, collecting and preserving evidence as needed. In addition to collecting physical evidence, these investigators also take notes, photos, and other documentation of crime scenes.

The work of a CSI is vital, as evidence collected and processed by a CSI can be used to either build a case against a suspect in court or exonerate those who have been wrongly accused of a crime.

The Reality of CSI on TV

Crime scene investigation shows rarely depict the work of these professionals accurately. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of myths and misconceptions about careers in crime scene investigation and what they entail.

How TV Depicts Crime Scene Investigation: Myths vs. Reality

By debunking some of the commonly perpetuated myths about crime scene investigation, those who are considering a career in CSI can be better informed to make confident decisions.

Myth #1: Every crime scene is thoroughly and efficiently processed for evidence.

In the real world, not all crime scenes require the work of a CSI. These days, patrol officers and other law enforcement officers receive more crime scene investigation training than ever before. Some officers carry their own fingerprinting kits and can perform their own investigations on the scene without needing to call in a dedicated CSI. This is especially common for crime scenes with minimal evidence to collect or a clear admission of guilt from the person who committed the crime.

This is not to say that CSIs are not needed. Their work is in high demand, but the reality is that not every crime scene requires a thorough collection of evidence.

Myth #2: Crime scene investigators focus solely on homicides.

When you see a CSI working on television or in the movies, they are often processing horrific crime scenes following a homicide or assault. While it is true that CSIs are called upon to handle these kinds of crime scenes, the truth is that crime scene investigators collect and process evidence from a wide range of crimes. In fact, it is common to see a CSI collecting evidence following a drunk driving accident or a hit-and-run. CSIs can expect more of these types of calls than homicides and the other more gruesome crime scenes that are commonly depicted in the media.

Myth #3: A single CSI is responsible for all the evidence from a crime scene.

This could not be further from the truth. When a CSI is assigned to a crime scene, they are expected to work alongside other members of law enforcement to carry out their responsibilities. A CSI is far from the only one responsible for collecting and processing evidence from a crime scene. These investigators may also work with detectives, patrol officers, forensic scientists, medical examiners, and other professionals to ensure that evidence is thoroughly collected, documented, transported, and securely stored.

Myth #5: Detectives thoroughly examine the evidence.

Another way in which the work of a CSI is misrepresented in the media is the portrayal of how evidence is examined. All too often, television shows depict CSIs and detectives working closely together to investigate and examine evidence. In reality, the work of processing a crime scene, collecting evidence, and actually investigating the crime is carried out in several ways. While each police department varies in how it handles investigations, CSIs and detectives usually carry out very separate functions. It is actually quite rare for a detective to come to a crime scene lab and look at evidence up close, just as it is unlikely that a CSI will actively participate in a criminal investigation.

Myth #6: Fingerprints always provide an immediate and precise match.

More than likely, you have seen TV episodes and movies where a suspect is linked to a crime scene based on fingerprint evidence alone. In reality, it rarely plays out this way.

For starters, fingerprints are much more difficult to retrieve and lift than is depicted on TV. Getting quality fingerprints is challenging (and, in some cases, impossible) off many surfaces. Even when a fingerprint is lifted, the process of matching it can take days or even weeks. Unless the print is an extremely clear one, it is unlikely that a print can be linked to a person with 100 percent certainty. In other words, while fingerprints can be a valuable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, they are hardly the be-all-end-all that they are portrayed to be on television.

Myth #7: DNA testing is valuable, efficient, and infallible.

Just as fingerprint lifting and testing are glorified in the media, the same can be said of DNA testing. Like collecting prints, collecting DNA is not as easy as television shows and movies make it out to be. Likewise, DNA testing can be costly and time-consuming—so DNA results are not always the magic key to solving a crime. DNA collection and testing are not perfectly accurate, either, so mistakes can occur, and it is not always possible to make a suspect match based on DNA evidence alone.

Myth #8: Being a CSI guarantees an exciting day (every day).

While it is true that working as a CSI does come with its share of excitement, some days will be relatively monotonous. This is especially true when you consider that a single crime scene may have dozens or even hundreds of pieces of evidence that need to be individually processed, which can be extremely time-consuming and tedious.

Real CSI: What Do They Actually Do?

The everyday work of a CSI can look quite different from one department to the next. However, in most police departments across the country, the “typical” day of a CSI will involve visiting any number of crime scenes to collect, process, and transport evidence for safekeeping. Most of these scenes will be the location of relatively minor crimes, such as home invasions and hit-and-runs. It is less common for CSIs to process homicide scenes and other major crime scenes—but they certainly do see their fair share of excitement from time to time.

Job Description and Salary of CSIs

So, what do crime scene investigators do? In most departments, a CSI is responsible for identifying, collecting, documenting, and preserving evidence that can be used in the investigation and prosecution of a crime. These professionals work alongside other members of law enforcement (including detectives and patrol officers) to secure crime scenes, collect evidence (such as DNA fingerprints), and follow strict procedures to ensure that evidence follows the proper chain of command.

In addition to collecting physical evidence, crime scene investigators also document crime scenes using photographs, video, and their own written notes. These can come in handy down the road if the crime scene needs to be reconstructed for any reason.

The salary of a CSI will vary depending on several factors, including education level, years of experience, location, and job title.

Related Career Paths

If you are considering a career as a CSI, you might also be interested in these related career paths:

  • Medical examiner
  • Forensic scientist
  • Criminal investigator
  • Detective

How to Become a CSI

The steps you need to follow to become a CSI will depend on a number of factors, including the specific state and department where you are looking to work. Each police department sets its own requirements when it comes to hiring CSIs, so they can vary greatly from one agency to the next.

Education Requirements for Crime Scene Investigators

Some departments may only require a high school diploma or equivalent (such as a GED) for crime scene investigators. However, it is becoming increasingly common for departments to prefer applicants with a minimum of a Bachelor of Science degree in a related field, such as criminal justice.

Qualifications and Certifications Needed

Because crime scene investigators may also hold police powers, it is also not uncommon for applicants to need police officer training and certification in the state where they plan to work. Each state has its own processes and requirements for getting certified as a law enforcement officer, so you will need to familiarize yourself with the steps in your state. However, it is likely that you will need to complete a law enforcement academy or other specialized training before you can be qualified to work as a CSI.

Likewise, some police departments may give preference to applicants who have not only completed a formal degree program but who have also completed a crime scene technician certification program. Some departments may even offer this training and certification internally.

Necessary Soft and Hard Skills for Success

All crime scene investigators need to have a solid understanding of the law, especially as it pertains to evidence collection and handling in their state and jurisdiction. Meanwhile, technical skills (such as crime scene photography) can come in handy when it comes to processing and documenting evidence.

Soft skills that can prepare CSIs for a successful career include problem-solving and attention to detail. Even the seemingly smallest pieces of evidence can make or break a case, so being detail oriented is a must. Working as a CSI also involves collaborating with others in law enforcement and criminology, including detectives and police officers. With this factor in mind, strong interpersonal and communication skills will pay off many times over in this line of work.

Explore Criminal Justice Degree Offerings From Post University!

The reality of working as a crime scene investigator is a far cry from what is often portrayed on television and in the movies. Still, this work can be extremely gratifying—especially for those with an interest in both forensic science and law enforcement. If you are interested in taking the first steps toward a career in crime scene investigation, Post University has programs to suit your needs.

Post University’s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Crime Scene Investigation can serve as an excellent stepping-stone—offering an industry-focused curriculum that helps students build a foundation of practical skills. And with both online and on-campus programs to choose from, you can choose the option that best suits your schedule.

Learn about our Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program by requesting more information today!

The Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree is not designed to fulfill the educational requirements for any professional credential, such as a police officer certification.

Please note jobs and/or career outcomes highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs or career outcomes expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s programs and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions advisor.