How to Refer to Crime Lab Employees in Your Crime Fiction Novel
Criminalist. Forensic scientist. Forensic investigator. Crime lab scientist.
Are these titles referring to the same job? Are they different? What do you actually call people who work in crime labs and process crime scenes? What are their actual job titles? Are they forensic techs? CSIs? Lab geeks?
In this post, I explain the different types of job positions in traditional crime labs, the tasks that each type of employee performs, and where you can go to figure out what to call crime lab and crime scene characters in your books.
The Org Chart
The employee structure in a crime lab varies widely throughout the country. One of the main differences is the size of the lab. Large labs in metropolitan areas or statewide lab systems will have more complicated setups than smaller crime labs. The NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Forensic Laboratory, which has hundreds of employees, has a completely different setup than my old lab, which was quite small, with 25-30 people.
Every crime lab has an “organizational chart”, or “org chart” for short. The org chart details the hierarchy of the crime lab employees. An org chart is required for accredited crime labs in the USA. (“Accredited” means the lab meets certain quality criteria.)
Here is an org chart for a traditional crime lab within a large law enforcement agency. It only shows the overall management structure. Here’s another more detailed example that includes a lot of positions in a bigger agency. (It’s also downloadable.) Org charts can get very convoluted if the lab is part of a multi-laboratory system in a large state (for example, the California Department of Justice).
The hierarchy of the actual job positions in a crime lab is different from lab to lab; however, crime lab personnel in almost every agency can be broken down into three main categories: management, forensic scientists, and support staff.
Management typically includes the laboratory director, managers, and supervisors. Lab directors are responsible for all laboratory operations. This is a big job and can be quite stressful. Lab directors review budgets, manage the employees directly under them, meet with other organizations and agencies that the crime lab must deal with, and much more.
Crime lab managers report directly to the lab director. The number of managers and what sections in the lab they oversee will be different from lab to lab. They may also have a different job title (supervisor). In my old lab, which was on the smaller side, we had three managers that reported directly to the lab director: physical science (fingerprints and firearms/toolmarks), biology (serology/DNA and CODIS), and chemistry (controlled substances, trace, and toxicology).
Managers oversee the technical operations in their section, manage employees, perform administrative tasks, attend meetings, and more. They rarely perform forensic casework.
Most crime labs also have a special manager who oversees quality control/quality assurance (QA/QC). Quality is such a big deal in the forensic world that there’s an entire position dedicated to it. The QA/QC manager keeps track of everything.
The QA/QC manager at my old lab used to tell us “If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” He or she helps put quality systems in place for all aspects of crime laboratory work. Everything that forensic scientists and other lab personnel do is governed by some sort of policy. QA/QC managers maintain the integrity of these policies and help with accreditation. They also keep track of training records, coordinate competency testing, prepare and coordinate audits (external and internal), and more.
Some labs may have supervisors directly below the managers (or some variation of this). In my old lab, the managers managed multiple forensic disciplines, and there were casework supervisors for each discipline. The supervisors were directly involved in the technical aspects of casework and managed the employees below them.
Forensic scientists (who also go by the other job titles listed at the beginning of this post) are by far the most numerous employees in the lab. They do the bulk of the actual laboratory and analytical work for the cases that are submitted to the crime lab. In addition to performing casework and other lab duties, forensic scientists write reports, testify, perform technical reviews, perform lab maintenance, prepare for audits, attend meetings, and give educational presentations.
Some forensic sections in the lab have forensic technicians (called “techs” for short). Techs help with the day-to-day tasks for that section, such as ordering and organizing supplies, quality control checks of new reagents and supplies, preparing reagents, instrument maintenance, and data entry. Techs usually don’t perform casework, but this job description does vary between laboratories.
Support staff include evidence technicians, IT support, and administrative personnel.
Evidence technicians (also called evidence custodians) receive and log the evidence as it comes into the lab. (The “evidence technician” job title is different from lab to lab. Other labs use this term to refer to people who work crime scenes.) Evidence technicians start the chain of custody and keep track of the evidence in the storage rooms. After the analysis is complete, they release the evidence back to the agency. They also conduct periodic audits of the evidence storage areas.
IT support staff are in charge of networking, computers, and the laboratory information management (LIM) system. (You wouldn’t believe how many computers are in a crime lab. Each person in the lab typically has a computer, and most instruments that forensic scientists use have a dedicated PC.) Not every lab has dedicated IT personnel, though. Sometimes forensic scientists take on non-casework duties such as IT tasks. If the lab is part of an agency (state, county, city, etc.), then that IT department will provide support.
Crime Scene Personnel
People who process crime scenes have three possible affiliations:
- Sworn law enforcement: police officers who have undergone additional training for processing crime scenes
- Dedicated civilian employees: civilians who are employed by a law enforcement agency
- Crime lab employee: civilian crime lab employee who works at a lab that provides crime scene services in addition to forensic casework
Crime scene investigators can work alone (smaller, simpler cases) or in teams (for large, complicated cases). If they are working in a team, they will have a “point” person or lead who is in charge of the scene.
What to Call Crime Lab and Crime Scene Employees in Your Books
When figuring out the best job title for the crime lab and investigative characters in your books, the best place to look is forensic science job boards. These sites have actual job postings for crime lab/scene and other forensic personnel. You can see the different job titles and job descriptions, and if you see a lab near the location of your book, then you can use that job title or get a glimpse of how a lab in your book’s location would be set up.
The two main job boards for forensic science jobs are the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the International Organization for Identification. I’ve linked directly to their employment sections here, but be sure to check out the rest of the website. These sites are great resources for other forensic information.
I’ve listed a few examples below that I took straight from the job listings for different crime lab positions. (The Roman numerals indicate the different promotion levels.)
Forensic Scientist – DNA
- DNA Examiner
- Criminalist II
- DNA Analyst
- Crime Lab Forensic Analyst – DNA
Forensic Scientist – Latent Prints
- Senior Latent Print Examiner
- Fingerprint Technician
- Forensic Latent Print Analyst
- Police Forensic Scientist II (Latent Prints)
Crime Scene Investigator
- Forensic Specialist I (Crime Scene)
- Crime Scene Technician
- Crime Scene Investigator
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re creating your characters and their jobs is that the laboratory work and the investigative work are separate. Crime drama TV shows have perpetuated a common misconception that people working in crime labs actually investigate the crimes, which isn’t true. (You can read about other common CSI myths here.)
By now you should know that there are multiple terms for the same job in crime labs, how the employees in crime labs are organized and what they do, and where to go to find out what to call crime lab and crime scene characters in your books.
Do you have any more questions about how crime labs are set up or how to refer to the characters in your books? Let me know in the comments below!