Today, my good friend K.A. Richardson is here to tell us about the real CSI.
As well as being an author, Kerry passed her BSc in Crime Scene Science in 2008, progressing into a CSI role with the police. After working for 2 separate police forces for three years as a CSI, Kerry was redeployed following government cuts and continues to work for the police, though in a different role.
Kerry keeps her skills and knowledge up to date by going out on jobs with CSIs every now and then so she’s definitely the woman we need to write this post!
The world of crime scene investigation can seem very daunting to those whose knowledge consists of what they see on TV. Shows like CSI and NCIS glamorise the role, portraying female CSIs with long flowing locks of hair, high heeled shoes, and smart dress suits, and male CSIs with chiselled appearances, trained to disarm people with a single glance. It shows evidence is always recovered at a scene, fingerprints bring forth identifications virtually instantly, and DNA is obtained without any PPE (personal protective equipment) being worn by the CSI, and almost always has identifications through by the end of the show.
If only it were really like that!
If only real CSIs could get the idents that quick, or even have DNA authorised for submission. This blog is to show a little about the ‘real’ CSI – the men and women out in the field who recover the evidence and help catch the bad guys.
What is a CSI?
A CSI – Crime Scene Investigator (also known as SOCO – Scenes of Crime Officer) is a civilian who usually works for the police – there are CSIs used by other agencies but I’ll focus primarily on those employed by the police. They are men and women who have either trained to degree level at university, or have done a forensic training course through the police. Some are ex-police officers, some just had a love of investigation and pursued this as their career. They are generally pretty poorly paid for the job they do – as an example the basic start wage for a CSI in the North East is around £17,500 per annum – this does vary slightly with each police force but as a general rule of thumb it provides an accurate overall start wage. It’s not a lot considering the responsibilities the CSI has to forensically recover evidence that could potentially be the turning point in getting people jailed for a crime.
The CSI will be required to work varying hours, participate in on-call rotas, and occasionally have rest days cancelled to facilitate the demand of work. A CSI reports to the CSM – Crime Scene Manager, who in return reports to their supervisor.
What does a CSI do?
A CSI works alongside police officers to facilitate an investigation by recovering evidence from crime scenes, examining property recovered, providing forensic training to probationary police officers, completing paperwork and statements, managing the evidence recovered and submitting this to relevant agencies, completing notes for each scene attended, attending court when required, and a melee of other duties.
They have to drive a van filled with equipment like boxes, recovery pots, evidence bags, ladders, stepping plates, casting kits (for tool marks and footwear marks), DNA test kits, scene suits, gloves, spare powders etc. They must be able to take photographs during the day and night using various techniques to ensure images are taken to a high standard.
Generally a CSI will carry both a camera case, and their ‘kit’ which is usually a case containing various fingerprint powders, swabs, acetates, rulers, evidence recover containers, evidence bags, cellotape, scissors, Stanley knife, brushes galore, and too many other tools to mention. My case was always highly organised – everything had its place and I could cram more than you would think into my silver aluminium case (lots of CSIs use the standard issue black plastic case but I like the aluminium ones better). I also had a folder – which had things like fingerprint elimination sheets, inked acetates, note forms, paper (for diagrams), pens, permanent markers, ruler etc.
PPE is worn in some form or other for all scenes – CSIs have safety boots, and uniform generally consists of combat trousers, polo shirt and jacket. All scenes generally require the CSI to wear at least one pair of nitrile gloves, and if recovering DNA evidence then masks and additional gloves would be worn to prevent contamination. For major scenes such as murders, rapes, serious assaults etc, then scene boot covers, suits and hoods would also be worn.
Most people would presume that CSIs attend lots of murders – that’s what the TV would have you believe. In fact there are a lot less murders than you’d think. The majority of the day for a CSI consists of attending crime scenes such as vehicle break ins, burglaries, cannabis farms, allotment break ins, taking injury photos in the studio for people who have been assaulted, and dealing with property. In the event that a murder occurs, then it’s not a case of everyone running to the scene to assist – CSIs will be allocated, usually with a CSM, and they will attend, wear appropriate PPE, and process the scene accordingly.
A CSI attends and participates in Post Mortem examinations – there are 3 roles within a PM – a photographer who takes images throughout the examination which is conducted by the pathologist, who is generally assisted by the technician. A dirty CSI who takes the evidence recovered from the pathologist and places this into appropriate packaging for the clean CSI who then writes the bags out, seals them, and completes the relevant notes. Most people will never have seen a PM – there are several you tube clips available and some mortuaries are open to observers if requested and authorised by the pathologist. The CSIs attending will be in PPE, including gloves, masks and suits, not just to prevent contamination of evidence, but also because the PM environment can produce biological health hazards.
CSIs generally head out alone to handle the jobs allocated – they have a personal radio, the same as police officers use, to keep in contact with the control room and each other but generally it’s a pretty solitary job. The scenes processed can be spread across the county in which they work, so there’s a lot of driving involved. A CSI will have passed a police vehicle driving course but this doesn’t mean they get to drive with sirens and at high speeds – the CSI vans aren’t equipped with lights and CSIs have to abide by the standard speed laws, the same as everyone else. In a normal 9-10 hour shift, a CSI can potentially deal with 6-8 standard jobs – often more if the jobs involve property examination etc, or less depending of the nature of the jobs allocated. Examining a plastic bag recovered from a suspect which held possible stolen goods, for example, would take hardly any time at all compared to a burglary where every room has been ransacked.
This post is a brief explanation of what a CSI does – my next CSI blog post will be A Day in the Life of a CSI – it’ll be a more in depth look at the techniques used by a CSI as they perform their vital job.