While the titles may differ, forensic scientists and criminalists perform the same job. They are both responsible for investigating crimes by examining crime scenes, collecting and analyzing physical evidence, identifying and classifying evidence and reconstructing a crime scene based on scientific findings. Forensic scientists and criminalists work at crime scenes and in laboratories to help solve crimes.
Examing a Crime Scene
Forensic scientists and criminalists view crime scenes and determine which evidence should be collected and how. Evidence can include trace substances, such as hair, blood, fibers or gunshot residue; controlled substances, such as street drugs; digital evidence, which includes computers, mobile phones and flash drives; pattern evidence, such as shoe soles or tire tracks; and forensic pathology, which is evidence gathered from human remains. Photographs are taken of the crime scene and evidence is collect and labeled. They may also either videotape or sketch diagrams of a crime scene to use as reference during the evidence analysis stage. Forensic scientists and criminalists also document their observations of a scene, noting the location, position or condition of a piece of evidence. All physical evidence is cataloged and preserved before it’s transferred to a crime lab.
Next Steps In the Crime Lab
At the crime lab, forensic scientists and criminalists identify and classify evidence using scientific means. Once identified, they study the evidence for answers. Fingerprints are run through databases to detect a match, blood and other bodily fluids are tested for DNA, toxic substances are identified, tire tracks are categorized and digital evidence is examined. By studying the evidence and photos of a crime scene, forensic scientists and criminalists attempt to reconstruct the scene to better understand what happened and how, and determine a motive for the crime. Photographs of blood splatter patterns, examinations of the victim and/or tests on weapons can help forensic scientists and criminalists determine how and where a victim was injured, the type of weapon used and even who may have used it.
Many forensic scientists and criminalists hold a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, natural science or criminal justice. Programs in forensic science and natural science provide students with a background in forensics, criminology, evidence collection and analysis, chemistry and molecular biology and crime scene investigation. Criminal justice programs focus on the various types of crime, such as domestic, computer or sexual crimes, understanding criminal behavior and the functions of the criminal justice system. Both types of program can prepare students for careers as forensic scientists and criminalists.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers for forensic scientists and criminalists are expected to grow by 19 percent by 2020. The increase in available jobs will be due to advancements in technological innovations and the increased use of forensic evidence in court proceedings.
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