Admit it. Somewhere in your family there’s some young person who is still riding that CSI craze toward a career. They see themselves wearing lab coats and pipetting mysterious liquids under cool blue lighting to the tune of a rock music montage. Or they imagine striding inside the yellow tape, pulling on latex gloves and snapping a sharp “What’ve we got?” at the hot homicide detective. Or they imagine running down a dark alley, dodging behind the dumpster to squeeze off a shot at the serial killer they just figured out is the serial killer by the aftershave he wears, the unique scent of kumji berries blended specially for a boutique in Greenwich Village where the first victim had a temp job.
Okay, first off—if it’s that last one, tell them to become a cop. CSIs don’t chase suspects. Most of us don’t even carry guns; that’s not a choice, it’s because we are civilian personnel and therefore not authorized. And because we already have enough crap to lug around.
We also don’t dress in nice clothes, wear heels, and believe me positively no one looks sexy in a lab coat. Angelina Jolie couldn’t even look sexy in a lab coat, unless she wore it open with very select garments on underneath. But I won’t write an entire blog about the differences between CSIs on TV and CSIs in real life, though I could write several. Per day.
Colleges and universities now have degrees in forensic science and/or in crime scene processing. As with any other field, advise your daughter/nephew/grand-niece to examine these programs carefully. The harsh reality is that the field is flooded with applicants who love CSI and it’s a buyer’s market. An agency might not be so quick to hire someone with an AA degree when they can get a BS or even MS for the same salary. Check out the details of the program and their success in placing graduates. The university near me had some personnel changes and veered their forensic science program from the hard sciences to forensic psychology, which might be great for students who dreamt of becoming a profiler, but those who wanted a crime scene job were beat out by students from the local for-profit college who actually received much more practical training in their classes.
The field of forensics is changing as the technology updates. Remember how in My Cousin Vinny the prosecution’s expert testifies that the tire rubber left in the peel-out is the same composition and size of the tires on the defendants’ car? That kind of thing sounds very impressive until the defense attorney does exactly what Joe Pesci’s character did—point out that this is one of the most common tires sold. Information like that used to make up the bulk of forensic evidence, but nowadays, unless you had a clear enough pattern to match that skid mark to that tire, the prosecutor probably wouldn’t even present the evidence. DNA has spoiled us all. Courts no longer want a pile of small pebbles of what could be coincidence which build into a mountain of certainty. They want one big boulder of: this sample absolutely came from that person. So the tire rubber, the pollen spores, the hairs, the fibers, the glass fragments are being left behind.
Quick check: Are you still thinking about Angelina Jolie in a lab coat? Stop. Pay attention.
So what do we spend our time with nowadays? Advise your daughter/nephew/ grand-niece to absorb as much of the concepts governing these systems as possible:
Cell phones. We have a handy system that will download the information…in theory. But each model is different, so even with a case full of cables sometimes the connection won’t be made. Or we find we can download the text messages but not the photos, or the contact list but not the call history. And so on.
Video surveillance clips. At least everyone is going digital now so we no longer have to deal with scratchy VHS tapes; however we have the same problem as cell phones—the systems are all different. Many are sold by some mom-and-pop company that has since disbanded, the employees have no idea how to use it because they don’t need to on a regular basis, and they have no idea where the manual is, if they ever had one. Trial and error. It’s all trial and error. Oh, and a picture that looks great in a 4”x3” window looks like crap when blown up to 10”x8”. And no, we don’t have a handy software that fills in all those pixels so you can read the guy’s tattoo, or see the killer reflected in the victim’s eyeball.
Computers. Although the genius hackers of TV shows do not seem to exist, even the least educated criminal can figure out how to delete their emails. Where does this data go, where is it stored, what is a server, an Ethernet, a wireless connection, the Cloud? (And if you can answer these questions, please write and explain them to me.) You don’t have to know as much as an IT guy. If you do, become an IT guy. They make more.
And best of luck to your daughter/nephew/grand-niece. It’s a great field. Even if the wardrobe sucks.
Blunt Impact will be available April 1, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11 year old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe.
Also, Kindle owners can find a bargain in my new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the death of millions of people.
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.