How to Become a Less Jaded CSI
Written by Maria C. Pettolina   

THIS ARTICLE IS A FOLLOW-UP for those of you who reached out with kindness and bravery after the emotional wellness article “Even CSIs are Allowed to Have Feelings” was published by Evidence Technology Magazine. One recurring theme was that yes, trauma causes stress in CSIs, but an equal cause of stress is how we are treated by officers, supervisors, and command staff. Indeed, things are changing, where crime scene units are being staffed and supervised by civilians who have the same background and experiences as us. Some crime scene units are even being separated completely from law enforcement agencies. But many of us are still civilians in a commissioned world.

This article appeared in the July-August 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

This is certainly not all-encompassing and does not in any way single out all supervisors and all officers—because I have had some really amazing ones, both civilian and commissioned. For those of you who are commissioned, I heard you when you told me you felt slighted at times simply for being a member of the crime scene unit. Little did you know, you became one of “us”!

Overall, the consensus is that “they” simply do not understand and appreciate what it is that we do. As a result, we feel disrespected, we feel a lack of compassion for our emotions, a lack of esteem for our work—and then we become jaded. The CSI unit sometimes catches a stigma as being difficult to work with, when in fact we are there to assist the case with our expertise as investigators with one shared, common goal. I just want to do my job and do it well. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Being a police officer is a job I could never do, so I became a scientist.

But, is it really us against the world? Or is it an age-old perception that has been instilled in us by the previous generation of understandably jaded CSIs—and by recognizing this, can we collectively change it? Change: A word that terrifies people in law enforcement organizations. Many years ago, I actually sat in a room with an entire crime scene unit while the chief told us, “Change is happening. If you don’t like it, you can leave, and you will be replaced.” Not exactly the best application of a change-management strategy within an organization.

Sometimes it feels like there is a “good old boys club” and we as CSIs were not invited. Let’s be honest, we would be more interested in being invited to sit in a STEM club anyway. After all, we have science and medical degrees. We have the specialized training. We are the experts! There have been many times where I have arrived on scene and was directed on what to do by everyone from a seasoned detective, to the coroner, to a rookie sergeant. Well, if you knew what to do, why did you call me? I have not seen these coworkers in advanced forensic classes. If you call a forensic anthropologist out to a crime scene, you do not tell them how to recover, document, and identify bones. At times, if I was asked a question and I gave a well-researched answer, a follow up response could be, “Are you sure?” At some point, you stop offering an opinion and become robotic. Why did I dedicate a decade to this, to include three degrees, a mortgage payment in school loans, and more than a thousand hours of training, if everyone else already knows my job? The answer: Because I absolutely love it and I know my job has made a difference.

What makes us jaded? Well, first there are the material things. Most of us are lacking a pension, and the pay, the protection of a union, the mobility within the organization, and the perks. We are required to have a degree, but sometimes departments only give officers substantial tuition reimbursement. We work overnight hours, on-call, and—contrary to belief, and what makes us unique to other law enforcement units—often there is only one of us left to run an entire city.

Next, maybe the communication aspect of the job makes us jaded—or, rather, the lack of communication. We become jaded by our interactions. When I am processing a firearm in a homicide, and get called to a burglary, and let an officer know I will not be available for at an hour because I am the only one on duty, and I am told, “You will come now,” do they know I had other job duties? Is this officer my new supervisor and no one told me? Do they know I slept three hours last night and put the same uniform back on because I worked the traumatic homicide scene alone? I promise I am not trying to “get out of calls”; I just need to prioritize very important work and maintain my sanity.

I have often felt like it was perceived that when we as CSIs went to a scene, we snapped some photos, picked up some “garbage,” then came back to the office and watched television. I cannot say that some past CSIs didn’t set that bad precedent for us, but please don’t follow in their footsteps. I was not watching television, let alone eating dinner. Instead, I would spend endless hours after a crime scene response documenting, processing, and packaging evidence, writing reports, drawing sketches, and preparing for court. I love the science, wholeheartedly, but I am not a fan of the politics and, sometimes, the egos associated with it. Sometimes those egos are officers, supervisors, and command staff, and sometimes they may be the CSI in the next cubicle.

I was recently contacted by a CSI who works for a 24/7 unit who told me officers can exercise on duty, but CSIs cannot, because their command staff said they are not essential and not sworn. How is that for supporting mental health? CSIs are always non-essential, until they are not. Wait, are you telling me I have an option to come process the scene during a snowstorm, a flood, or a pandemic? I will be the first to admit that the pit of my stomach would feel a measurable spike in anxiety when I would hear “that officer” ask for a crime scene unit to respond to their scene. Although this statement is a bit dramatic, I felt like I was driving to a scene to voluntarily expose myself to emotional distress. I am more hesitant to admit that once or twice, while driving to those same scenes, I have had to pull the vehicle over and get out a few frustration tears so I could pull myself together professionally. In my first CSI role, some of the best advice I received by a seasoned CSI was, “Keep your head low and keep moving.” But why was I not being reinforced to hold my head up high with pride, and to use my voice and my knowledge for power? Because they already knew the truth: “Nothing would ever change.” But I am here to tell you it can change, as long as you believe that.

I have given training to a room of officers and have been flat-out told, “We are not doing that,” with their supervisors silent in the room. The silent supervisor made the rest of the officers think that behavior was acceptable. If that was an educational setting in my professorial role, I would have asked the student to leave. But as a CSI, I just had to take being insulted in front of a room of 25 people, because surely my supervisor would address this. As a result of being offended, I was hesitant to speak up in the next meeting or briefing because I began believing the “why bother” mentality. What I found with my experience is that, at times, commissioned supervisors do not like to ruffle commissioned feathers, which leaves CSIs in a nest all our own.

Lack of supervisory support as a stressor in the forensic field has been well-published (Holt et. al. 2019; Leone & Keel 2016), but has anything changed as a result? My sergeant once told me, “Comply and then complain” when I was on crime scenes. Issues would inadvertently go unaddressed and unresolved. I was advised to do exactly as the patrol supervisor said, which was a backward way of telling me not to think. Have you ever been told to enter a scene and collect something, and when you ask about the legality—or, more specifically, “Is there a search warrant or consent?”—you are told you don’t need one? My one and only job is evidence. The rules that apply to police officers do not always apply to civilian CSIs. But, if you suggest to an officer that actions taken on scene could get evidence thrown out in court, I promise you that their sergeant will step in and make you do it and you will be labeled as difficult.

As a CSI, have you been seen as aggressive by command staff for being assertive, been seen as bossy for being a leader, been labeled as difficult for telling the objective truth, been perceived as being “too much” for asking questions, or even been perceived as being miserable for not smiling while you are sweating inside of your PPE and haven’t sat down in 13 hours while you watch the rookie officer hand out coffees to everyone but you? Or, best of all, have you ever asked an officer of rank what they have out on scene before you respond so you can formulate a game plan, only to be told, “You just need to get here now.” As the old saying goes, “If you are not blue, you are not true.” The courts certainly see us as “true,” because our expertise is making or breaking a case. If the evidence is not documented and collected correctly and legally, it is us in the hot seat. To answer on stand that we did something because an officer told us to does not sit well with a jury, and it calls into question all of your hard-earned expertise.

Now, as a full-time professor, I continue to dedicate myself to my education and this science. I sacrificed more than I am willing to share to succeed. I dedicate my free time to reviewing forensic research or having an educated conversation with all of you to educate myself, my students, and my colleagues. My learning never stops, and I work hard for it, so I am no longer apologetic or restrained for being more educated than most. It just took me a scene “retirement” to accept I am an expert and I will never again be cautious for being an educated female. But—that is an entirely different article for a different time.

A lack of compassion and empathy correlates with stress and can affect our overall emotional wellness. When stress increases, our confidence decreases. We will hurt our performance if our tenacity and motivation is suffering. How can we come together to wield a collective change? How can we strive to train our new CSIs to be less jaded and more confident? How can we support a team mentality among an entire department to evolve with the science? The solution is quite easy and doesn’t involve advanced trigonometry or physics. We need to focus our efforts on education, awareness, pride, respect, and relaxation.

Education
If “they” do not understand, teach them! If you want to be considered an expert, be prepared. You don’t want your supervisor delivering all the training; it should be the CSIs with their boots on the street. This could be a new-officer training at the academy and if you are not on the schedule for that, get on the schedule. It could be an in-service training, a briefing training—or, even better, a command-staff meeting. Give patrol a tour of the lab. Do a ride-along to understand other roles. We learn from one another, so this may also be a great time to learn the job of someone else, introduce yourself, and address any misunderstandings either side may have.

Awareness
Make others aware of how forensic science has evolved and its importance in the 21st Century. Did your efforts assist in solving an important criminal case? Share it with the department. Do something fun for National Forensic Science Week. Is there new research on bloodstain pattern analysis? Share the research article with the major-crimes unit sergeant. Even better, get published and share your contribution with anyone who will read it. Did you go to specialized training that may help another unit within the department? Share it with those detectives. Volunteer to speak and present at community events, schools, police conferences, and forensic events. Make everyone aware that we are investigators and analysts, and no longer just technicians.

Pride
Hold your head high, stand up tall, take care of yourself, wear a clean uniform, shine your boots, and remember, if someone else doesn’t understand you, you have an amazing network of CSIs who know exactly how you feel. Go to a forensic meeting or conference. Network and get a motivation booster. Get enthusiastic again! Let your confidence as an expert inspire you and others, not shrink you.

Respect
There is no better way to gain respect and open dialogue than asking for feedback and building rapport. If you worked a major scene, reach out to the patrol sergeant to ask how things went. You don’t need to ask your supervisor to open up conversation. Let them know who you are. It will make it much easier when the tables are turned and you need to contact them about a concern. I built a great rapport with patrol sergeants in my early career because they would never know when there was a gap in CSI coverage. They would just call for a CSI unit and hear radio silence. If the gap in coverage involved my shift, I sent them an email to let them know. I would receive immediate feedback simply thanking me for communicating. The next scene I walked on, the patrol sergeants knew my name.

Relax
Not everyone is truly against you—they just don’t understand. If you show up with a chip on your shoulder, the people around you will react to your energy and body language. Don’t take it personally. You can’t change the perceptions of everyone, and sometimes people have a bad day. Try to remind yourself why you love this field as much as I do.

This article is not going to make everyone happy, and I already know I will get feedback from people who disagree with me. I also know there will be many who relate, who care, and who want to make a difference. I once again thank Evidence Technology Magazine for the platform and all of you for hearing my voice. I never had to silence myself more than I did when I was a civilian crime scene investigator. But experience has taught me education, awareness, pride, respect, and some hard-earned relaxation are keys to prove to others, and to yourself, that you are a true expert.


About The Author
Maria C. Pettolina, CSCSA, has over a decade of forensic experience and has worked as an investigator and a supervisor in crime scene and property and evidence. She is currently employed as a forensic consultant in Colorado and is a national speaker on emotional wellness for crime scene investigators. She is the owner of Future Focus Forensics, which offers expert training and consultancy services. Pettolina is a doctoral candidate and is published in the field of forensics. For the past seven years, she has been the lead instructor for a forensics program at a university in Colorado. She has over 1,200 hours of specialized forensic training and has been introduced as an expert in numerous criminal trials. She is a Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst through the International Association for Identification.


References

Holt, T. J., K. R. Blevins, D. R. Foran, and R. W. Smith. 2016. Examination of the conditions affecting forensic scientists’ workplace productivity and occupational stress. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/250233.pdf

Leone, M. C., and R. Keel. 2016. Occupational stress and the crime scene investigator. Journal of Law and Criminal Justice. 4(1):63–74.

 
Next >






Lifting Latent Fingerprints from Difficult Surfaces

ALMOST ANYONE can find, process, and lift a latent print that happens to be in a logical and obvious place like a door handle, a beer can, or a butcher knife. But sometimes, a latent print is not just sitting there in a logical and obvious place. Sometimes, you have to use your imagination to find the print and your skills to lift it.

Read more...