The term Criminalist is seldom used in Criminal Justice agencies, but the position is well-known and respected. Anyone who has ever watched CSI, Bones, Flash, or similar TV shows have seen Criminalists in action.
The Role of the Criminalist in Criminal Justice Law
The Criminalist is a forensics puzzle-solver. A Criminalist may or may not be a forensic scientist, but for a certainty, the Criminalist understands how physical evidence fits a crime scene. The criminalist protects the integrity of the crime scene, gathers evidence, transfers the evidence to the lab for processing, and takes an active role in the processing of the evidence.
Once evidence of a crime has been processed, the Criminalist works closely with detectives, who interview witnesses and gather other, non-physical evidence, to put together a clear idea of what exactly transpired and who the most likely suspects are. The Criminalist also writes reports and testifies as an expert witness at trials.
What’s the Difference Between a Criminalist and a Forensic Scientist or CSI?
None, according to the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC). The term ‘criminalist’ is most often used when applying to degree programs; the university class schedule for the degree program generally uses the term. Television is most apt to use the term ‘CSI’ which means ‘Crime Scene Investigator.’ In daily operations, the expressions Forensic Scientist or Forensic Specialist may also be used.
However, a criminalist may not have the training of a forensic scientist. In some law enforcement agencies, qualified detectives may rise through the ranks to become a criminalist, though not degreed as a forensic scientist. This is becoming exceedingly rare, so in general, the two are considered alike.
Although each of these is essentially the same job, some law enforcement operations may use differing terms depending on the exact roles. For instance, some criminalists will go into the field to collect evidence while others will remain in the lab, conducting tests. Still others working with and in or have oversight of the lab may also conduct field operations in much the same way as a police detective. The exact role and the title used often depend more on the organizational structure than any real difference.
How to Become a Criminalist/CSI/Forensic Scientist
To become a Criminalist, the first requirement is an analytical mind. Critical thinking skills are vital, so the student interested in a career as a Criminalist/Forensic scientist would take special care to excel in Philosophy and Logic courses. In addition, an understanding of physical sciences, especially biology and chemistry, is needed. Given the highly technical world in which we today live, a comprehension of computer, engineering, and internet-related subjects would be useful.
Training for a career as a Criminalist would include obtaining a BS in Criminal Justice, possibly minors in specific physical sciences. A Master’s degree in a related field would be an excellent addition, though not necessarily required.
In most jurisdictions, expect to start on the streets and work your way up, though with the demand high for skilled personnel, this may not always be the case.
How to Apply for a Position as a Criminalist
Most major cities have some kind of Criminalists in the departments, whether they have an actual forensics lab or not. Check with local and County agencies to determine the positions and roles. Of course, you can also seek a position as a patrol officer while letting Human Resources know of your training and desire for a future position as a Criminalist.
If there is a Crime Lab in your locality, you can apply directly with them or through whichever government entity controls their budget. Most often it will be either the County or the State.
Additional Information Related to a Career as a Criminalist
Remember that your education will not stop after you receive your degree. A Criminalist must maintain a growing and up-to-date body of knowledge so be prepared for lifelong learning. If you do not have an inquisitive mind and enjoy learning, another career may be a better option.
If you start out in a lab position, the on the job hours are generally forty. If you are a field Criminalist, you can expect a different schedule each week, depending on the cases handled. Some weeks may require very long, very late hours because evidence does not wait–it must be collected and processed as soon as possible after a crime has occurred.
Average/Starting Salary of a Criminalist
The median wage for a Criminalist in America is $25.41 USD, or $52,840 per year.