How to buy crime scene investigation products

Here are some things to consider when purchasing CSI equipment

By Tim Dees

The typical citizen may believe you can trot out every shiny gadget they’ve seen on TV to investigate the break-in of their lawn shed, but we know different. With a limited, real-world budget, what do you buy? Here are some things to consider when purchasing CSI products:

What’s your experience?
Every jurisdiction has its own crime profile. Do you investigate more auto thefts than burglaries? How often do you handle a sexual assault? Your purchases should fall in line with the cases you process. Think about where you came up short in the past, and what could have remedied the situation. Your prosecutor’s office should have a voice here, as they know what evidence they need to make a winnable case.

Can you homebrew?
A specially designed “rape kit” is certainly handy, and available for purchase ready-made. They’re also costly, and contain glass slides, swabs, combs and other items you can buy separately or obtain from a local hospital. Pre-package these so your investigator doesn’t have to do it on the fly, and save some money for other things. Evidence markers with a built-in photo scale can be fabricated from giveaway plastic rulers. An old aquarium makes an adequate fuming chamber. Be creative.

Basics are important
Equipment for basic tasks like dusting for latent prints has to be readily available and serviceable, or your officers will “forget” to collect this evidence. Precut “lifters” are much easier to use than a roll of plastic tape. Elimination prints won’t get taken unless there’s a decent kit at the scene.

Shelf life
Buying in bulk may be false economy. Drug field test kits, fuming cartridges, batteries and other consumable items don’t last indefinitely, especially if they’re stored under less-than-ideal conditions, like the trunk of a patrol car. Buy only what you expect to use before these items deteriorate.

Big ticket purchases
Investment in a major piece of equipment usually means training someone to use it. How often will re-training or update training be required? If your operator(s) leaves the agency, does the equipment fall idle? Have you considered the recurring cost of consumables like reagents, film, sample containers, etc.?

Whether you have had to buy a service is a big factor in assessing whether you really need the benefit of an expensive device. How much did that service cost, how many times did you use it, and how many times would you have used it if it had been available in-house? Obtaining funding can be contingent on showing what savings you will realize by having the desired gear.

And, just in case you didn’t know, about half the stuff you see on CSI doesn’t exist.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

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