Judging by the crime dramas so popular on television, you would believe that a Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) unit is a crucial part of all police departments. In fact, forensic science technicians – the official term for the occupation that includes crime scene analysts working both in the field and in laboratories – make up just a tiny percentage of the profession’s top-employing industries, local governments and state governments. Not every police department in the United States has its own CSI unit, and even those that do often struggle to meet the demand for evidence testing and analysis.
The Statistics Behind CSI Employment
“Many” law enforcement agencies have some form of crime scene processing program, according to the Office of Justice Programs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these agencies have a unit dedicated to crime scene investigation. It may mean simply that a police department has some sort of protocol in place for gathering and preserving physical evidence from a crime scene. Not even 5 percent of all law enforcement agencies in the United States employ a full-time crime scene investigator, according to The Washington Post. In the vast majority of American police departments, crime scene investigation is a part-time job or a part-time duty of another job role in law enforcement.
At first glance, the numbers behind the extremely positive career outlook for forensic science technicians might seem to contradict this statement. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a much faster than average rate of job growth – 14 percent – for this career path, compared to an estimated 5 percent growth rate expected for all occupations. However, the real demand for CSIs isn’t quite as high as this figure would lead you to believe. Forensic science technician is a small occupation as it is, employing just 16,700 workers across the nation, so even that double-digit growth rate will only mean a 2,400 increase in job opportunities.
Local government agencies – like municipal police departments – employ the largest share of forensic science technicians, accounting for 59 percent of the field. State governments are the next top employer, making up another 28 percent of career opportunities.
CSI Employment by Location
Where you’re looking for work will play a big part in determining whether a full-time crime scene investigator role is realistic for you. Generally, larger cities, where the population is denser and crime rates trend higher, tend to employ the most forensic science technicians. The metropolitan areas that possess the highest levels of employment in this field are:
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California
- New York-Newark-Jersey City in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania tri-state area
- Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Arizona
- Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, in the Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia area
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Florida
Not only are small towns less likely than large cities to have a CSI unit in the first place, but those that do often lack the sort of high-tech equipment that larger CSI departments have. Often, this lack of CSI resources is due not to a dearth of interest but instead to budget constraints.
As a result, police detectives in these areas may have a smaller body of evidence to work with as they investigate cases. Because the crime scene investigation units that do exist in small towns also tend to have a smaller staff, less funding and fewer resources, it may not be feasible to bring in the CSI unit to analyze every crime scene. Often, only crimes involving an assault or death, or a burglary or robbery of a considerable amount of money, will be analyzed.
If your desired area doesn’t have a dedicated CSI department, you may opt to pursue a police officer role at a department where your job duties may include some degree of work in crime scene analysis. This path to a crime scene investigation is more common than you might think. Although the “ideal” CSI crime lab setup is a lab that is a separate entity autonomous from the law enforcement agency, this type of organization is, unfortunately, not the norm. “Very few” of the more than 18,000 police agencies nationwide employ a full-time civilian – that is, not a sworn police officer – as a CSI, according to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association.
You should be aware that even this officer/analyst role is not like the CSI life you see on television. Rather than putting all other duties on hold while you obsess over the evidence in your most intriguing new case, you’re juggling an ever-growing inventory of cases – potentially alongside more mundane law enforcement duties.
The state with the highest rate of employment for forensic science technicians, California, boasts more than 2,000 workers in this occupation, but 10 states in the U.S. still employ fewer than 100 forensic science technicians.