In less than an hour, television crime scene investigators (CSIs) regularly and easily solve grisly murders and other crimes through fingerprints, DNA, and other forms of futuristic forensic science. These virtual CSIs partner police work with forensic science to get the bad guys off the streets.
However, working as a CSI is far less glamorous than television portrays, and the reality is very different than what viewers see characters Horatio Caine, Temperance (Bones) Brennan, and Abby Sciuto doing on TV.
While these shows have CSIs interrogating suspects and arresting perpetrators, in real life, CSIs shoulder different responsibilities. Their role is to help police detectives solve crimes by collecting and analyzing the physical evidence found at a crime scene, and interpreting what happened during the crime. They do not arrest the bad guys; police officers put on the cuffs.
In a world where the above scenario, not the televised version, is reality, the debate between using sworn and civilian CSIs rages on. There are those who believe that all individuals stepping across the yellow barrier designating a crime scene should be sworn officers, while others find the role of CSI has become so high-tech that the only way to succeed is to go with civilians possessing a scientific background.
However, some departments are finding one way is not necessarily better than the other. POLICE Magazine recently interviewed two departments to learn how they are handling this issue. One department, the Greensboro (NC) Police Department, has been using non-sworn staff to document crime scenes for more than 30 years. The second department employed only sworn CSIs until 2010 when it hired its first civilian CSI. Today, the Raleigh-Wake County City-County Bureau of Identification in Raleigh, NC, relies on the work of both sworn and civilian CSIs.
"Years ago, all of our CSIs were sworn, but we have moved away from that. Now we employ the best candidate for the job, whether it's a sworn officer or someone with a scientific background, and we've found that works very, very well," says Andy Parker, deputy director of the bureau.
Solving Crimes With Science
Raleigh-Wake County City-County Bureau of Identification was created by the North Carolina Assembly in 1937. From its inception, CSIs were to be sworn individuals, which was fine until about 2009, when Sam Pennica, director of the bureau, says they were struggling to get an adequate—and qualified—applicant pool for open CSI positions. "We needed applicants with a science background, with a passion for and a desire to do crime scene work," he says. "We were getting a lot of applicants chasing a dollar because our pay is good, but we needed more highly trained and educated applicants with training in forensic science."
Eventually, Wake County voted to approve putting civilians in this role, and in 2010 the department hired its first civilian CSI. This employee came to the bureau with a bachelor's degree in anthropology; two master's degrees, one in criminology and the other in forensic science; and on-the-job forensic experience.
"She set the bar pretty high, and she proved to us that there were people out there wanting to get into forensic science who did not want to carry a gun and a badge and be a sworn officer. Our first applicant said she wanted to be able to solve crimes with her brain," Pennica says.
He adds this candidate proved she could do that almost immediately. Pennica says she showed "I can do this job as good as, if not better than, the officers with guns and badges, and she quickly earned everyone's respect."
When this hire was made, the bureau had 22 CSIs, all of whom were sworn. Today, the bureau still employs 22 CSIs, but only eight are sworn.
The Greensboro PD handles things a bit differently. This agency has 18 civilian CSIs, and four civilian CSI supervisors. The field CSIs provide 24/7 service and go to calls on their own, or when an officer takes a report and realizes he needs a CSI at the scene. "Additionally, our non-sworn CSIs respond as solo units, and share call responsibilities with patrol for calls involving property crimes, vehicle break-ins, and residential burglaries—calls where the suspect is no longer on the scene," says Kelly Tranter, director of the department's Forensic Services Division.
At these types of calls, the department dispatches a single CSI to take the report and do follow-up processing.
Greensboro also has a forensic team, which consists of four civilian CSIs who hold the position of forensic specialist. These employees work Monday through Friday and maintain an on-call status. Their primary responsibility is to serve as lead CSIs on homicide cases. If there haven't been any homicides, these individuals work in the lab handling trace evidence and other laboratory service requests.
Model a New Mindset
Tranter believes the shift toward the acceptance of civilian CSIs has occurred because of advances in forensic technology. "There is so much to learn now," she says. "It's become more science-based. We now need CSIs who have the education, skills, and mindset to think about a crime scene scientifically."
As this paradigm shift took place, so too did a shift in law enforcement's views on what makes a good CSI. Pennica points out that in the past, the old-school CSI had a mindset that leaned toward law enforcement rather than science, but that mindset doesn't work well in today's high-tech forensic world.
"Basically, we're now looking for sworn officers who think like scientists," says Pennica. "But enforcing laws, stopping cars, interviewing witnesses, and interacting with suspects is a whole different ball game than taking a scientific approach to collect forensic evidence at a crime scene. They are completely different skillsets."
So, what does make a good CSI? Well, Parker says whether someone is sworn or civilian is not on his list.
What does top his list is a good sense of logical deduction. He explains, "In the crime scene world, you're taking a lot of nebulous information that's being thrown at you from victims, detectives, even law enforcement. Then you have physical evidence you are interpreting in conjunction with all this other information. You have got to be able to sort through that logically to deduce what likely happened. If you do it right, you catch the bad guy—and it's the right bad guy."
Parker likens it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but without the picture on the box to guide you. "We get this 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and its thrown all over the room, but the box with the picture on it is gone. We don't know what we are trying to build so it's very important we take the physical evidence and put it together correctly to paint a picture for the criminal justice system. But not everyone is good at putting together a puzzle like this."
In this scenario, the Greensboro PD and the bureau look for an educational background in science. "It doesn't need to be a major in science, but candidates do need some sort of scientific background," says Pennica.
Practice Good Policy
Hiring civilians is not possible, however, without full department buy-in for non-sworn CSIs, which begins at the top, agree Pennica and Tranter.
Before making the move, department leaders need to have open discussions with sworn officers about the reason for the change, the skills the department seeks in the civilian counterparts, what will be expected of these hires, and the fact that sworn and non-sworn CSIs will be treated the same.
"The conversation we've had with our sworn CSIs has been, 'How often do you really use your power?'" says Pennica, who notes that in the bureau CSIs are never put in a position where they take enforcement action.
"We've found that the sworn officers who really care about the agency and want to see it flourish accept the change because there are not many cops out there with degrees in forensic science," he adds. "But there are a lot of smart, highly energetic young professionals with these degrees who couldn't care less about the gun and the badge; they just want to use science to solve crimes."
Once civilian CSIs are on staff, it's essential that command staff set the example. "If you have a sergeant showing biases toward civilian CSIs, that's going to trickle down to patrol officers," says Tranter. "There has to be a cultural shift that trickles from the top down."
Policy should also treat everyone the same. At the bureau, everyone is issued the same color uniforms to create greater unity among staff. Its pay scale for civilian and sworn CSIs is also the same. Bureau CSIs start at $43,500 and their pay goes up for every year of experience, if they know a foreign language, if they have a master's degree, and so on.
The bureau also changed its overtime system and made it uniform for sworn and civilian CSIs. Pennica explains that a sworn officer can work 160 hours in a 28-day cycle. They only receive overtime after they exceed 160 hours. Thus, a department can have them work 80 hours one week, 80 hours the next week, and give them the next two weeks off to avoid paying overtime. However, with civilians, they are tied to a 40-hour work week and when they exceed that they receive overtime pay.
"We felt it was fair to treat everyone equally because we could have a sworn CSI working next to a civilian CSI at a crime scene, and one of them is getting overtime and the other has their hours flexed out later and doesn't get anything," Pennica says. "We felt that wasn't fair so we put everybody on the same 40-hour work schedule."
Top it Off With Training
Civilian CSIs need advanced training, however. Though they may come to a department well versed in forensic science, they may be lacking in the fundamentals of police work.
To counter this, the Greensboro PD has launched a 16-week CSI academy to train its non-sworn hires on the fundamentals of CSI work. These employees receive four weeks of training on the core skills of a CSI, including crime scene/evidence documentation protocols, forensic photography/videography, scene diagramming, report writing, testifying in court, the types of evidence, and so on.
This is followed by 12 weeks of field training with certified CSIs.
Because Greensboro's CSIs also do some field work in terms of dealing with victims, witnesses, and interviewing, and carry an ASP, mace, and wear a bullet-resistant vest, they attend parts of the police academy for sworn officers as well.
"We seat our recruits in academy courses that are relevant to them," Tranter says. "There are a lot of topics that are shared because our CSIs' duties correlate so much with patrol's duties."
Tranter adds that putting CSIs in classes with training officers builds relationships from the very beginning. "They get to know each other and have a foundation to build from," she says.
In addition, she says the academy training helps the department create competent CSIs who understand everything from presumptive blood tests, to how to use their cameras, to scientific theories.
The bureau puts all CSIs through the same training, whether sworn or civilian. But sworn officers are still required to qualify on their firearms.
Pennica adds, however, that training is for naught if the right person isn't hired from the get-go. He says using civilian CSIs can be a win for every department, but only if they hire the right person from the start.
"Set the bar high, and make your first [civilian] hire a good one—one that civilians and sworn officers will respect, and the rest will follow," he says.
Ronnie Garrett is a Fort Atkinson, WI-based freelance writer who has specialized in writing about law enforcement issues since 1995.