Why crime scene investigators deserve a seat at the table

Crime scene investigators should be included in weekly discussions of the progress of cases and potential directions of investigations

By Casson Reynolds, MSCJ, CCSA

Crime scene investigators (CSIs) are commonly tucked away at a law enforcement agency from the rest of the personnel. They are sequestered with their drying chambers, fumes from various chemicals, odors from collected evidence, and shelves of equipment and evidence packaging materials. They will be called upon to respond to a scene and process for evidence, reconstruct and analyze, document and collect. Once finished at the scene, they return to the agency to submit a report of their findings, send evidence to the crime lab for testing and prepare for the next call.

However, one of the most important aspects of any investigation is commonly overlooked. CSIs are not personally asked for their insight, thoughts on leads, or input on hypothetical situations after the initial on-scene investigation.

King Co. Sheriff's Dept. investigators walk near the scene of a shooting, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, near a scrap metal yard in Kent, Wash.
King Co. Sheriff's Dept. investigators walk near the scene of a shooting, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, near a scrap metal yard in Kent, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Incorporating CSI personnel into investigations

As crime scene investigations and forensics continues to grow within the criminal justice system and law enforcement, many agencies are still working to determine how they should incorporate CSI personnel into their investigations.

Whether a CSI is sworn or not, they have a different mentality than many other detectives/investigators and can provide additional perspectives and theories on cases.

CSIs should be viewed as an integral part of the investigations of an agency and should be consulted at several stages of the investigation, as well as being part of any final case review.

CSIs are more than individuals trained in taking photographs and collecting evidence. CSIs need to understand several aspects of forensic science to include:

It is unlikely an investigator will know everything a crime scene investigator accomplished and discovered based on their report. Ideally, the detective and CSI would have time to sit down together and discuss the case and the possible directions it could take. Many times, aspects of a report will be overlooked or “breezed” through because it will not seem important to the detective; however, as the case continues, the one puzzle piece the detective can’t find may have been sitting there in a report or in the mind of a crime scene investigator all along. CSIs think differently than detectives.

Agencies with a dedicated forensics or crime scene units have a strong advantage in working crime scenes and should work to incorporate this specialized knowledge and skill into a fully comprehensive investigative unit.

Crime scene investigators should be included in weekly discussions of the progress of cases and potential directions of investigations.

How a CSI can enhance investigations

The evidence-based approach of a CSI enhances an investigation and can provide scientifically supported opinions.

A detective should go to a CSI and pose to them theories and scenarios about the incident and crime. The CSI, in turn, should either state that the evidence confirms a detective’s scenario, disproves a detective’s scenario, or cannot be confirmed or disproved based on the evidence. The CSI should be able to support their opinions or insight on the evidence and the aspects of the crime scene. The CSI may need to take the detective’s scenario and form a specific testable hypothesis and conduct experiments in order to provide a valid opinion.

The crime scene investigators should especially be consulted prior to the final case reports and should submit their own final forensic case report. The final forensic case report would brief their actions in the case and specifically highlight actions taken after the initial scene processing and where the evidence led. This final forensic case report would tie all of the evidence together and address many of the hypothetical or case related theories that evidence and testing proved or disproved.

The training and education of crime scene investigators and detectives regarding a mutually beneficial workplace environment is the key to moving forward with today’s enhanced and fast moving crime scene investigations and abilities. CSIs should attend general investigations courses; detectives should attend CSI courses; and the administration at agencies should facilitate and encourage a group approach to ensure a thorough investigation.

About the author
Casson Reynolds, MSCJ, CCSA, is an instructor/developer with the North Carolina Justice Academy tasked with instructing and developing courses in advanced forensics and investigations. He is a Certified Crime Scene Analyst through the International Association for Identification, has a Masters of Science in Criminal Justice from Boston University and was sworn in law enforcement for 14 years. He is the co-chair of the Training Committee of the North Carolina Division of the International Association for Identification and an adjunct professor in the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Forensic Science Graduate Program. He has been recognized as a subject matter expert in federal and state courts in crime scene reconstruction, shooting reconstruction, bloodstain pattern analysis, latent print development and identification, and general crime scene investigations. 

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