August 14, 2007
Brian Stampfl, CSI detective, City of Seattle
When Seattle created its Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) unit in 2004, Brian Stampfl wasted no time applying for one of the highly coveted positions. With a resume that included service as a police officer for roughly a decade, a police-academy instructor for almost two years and a detective in Seattle's sexual assault and child abuse unit for three years, he had little trouble nabbing the job. Now, as one of the city's six full-time CSI detectives, he spends his weeks combing violent crime scenes for evidence and documenting that evidence for court.
Q: How did you make the switch from police officer to CSI detective?
A: You have to apply for the detective position just as you would any job. They announce that there's an opening and they have requirements – for example, maybe you have to [have been] on the job for three years.
The path to the CSI unit within the Seattle Police Department is a long one. We are all detectives, and in order to become a detective you must first become a police officer. So one needs to think of this as a law enforcement career, since they will experience patrol first and then can move on to detective at a later date.
Realistically, this process will take a minimum of five years. Openings are few and far between. Those that come to CSI tend to stay here. This is a great job.
Q: What training did becoming a CSI detective involve?
A: We had an in-house training program that was eight weeks on a variety of topics related to crime scene investigation: fingerprinting, ballistics, burial recovery, [bullet] trajectory.
How TV bends the truth about the job:
"CSI detectives do not track down and interview the suspects. We also do not do the laboratory analysis of the evidence. The other problem with [CSI] shows is their use of technology. We do not have computers that flash images of shoes at high speed and make comparison matches to the footwear impressions found at the scene of a crime."
Q: What's a typical work week like for you?
A: We respond to all violent crimes – homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, gang shootings, violent assaults – anything that has a fair amount of evidence associated with it. Processing a scene can be broken down into three categories: photography, evidence collection and what we call "crime scene mapping." We have sophisticated equipment that allows us to take very precise measurements so that we can create a [digital] crime scene map of the area, and then we can place the evidence within that map.
We also have close to 300 cars that are brought in to the department each year. Sometimes the cars themselves are crimes scenes. Other times they contain evidence. If a car is the subject of an investigation, a detective may request that we search it for evidence, photograph it or whatever they need us to do to assist in their investigation.
We interact and work together with the Medical Examiner's Office, the detectives assigned to the case, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, the Prosecutor's Office, and occasionally we assist other agencies on large-scale investigations – like the FBI.
Q: What's your work schedule?
A: I work 9 to 5, but there's always somebody on call for 24 hours. It rotates. We have three detectives and a sergeant on call at any given time. We'll be on call for one week and off for two.
Q: When you're on 24-hour call, how often do you get called to a scene in the middle of the night?
A: It can be several times – four or five times during the week – down to nothing.
Q: About how many field calls do you go on each week?
A: Each week is different. We may be called out into the field between one to six times in a week.
Q: What percentage of the job do you spend in the field?
A: Probably 30 percent, and the other 70 percent is spent packaging the evidence and writing about it. Each of us may have anywhere from one to five, sometimes more, cases that they are in the process of writing [up] at any given time.
Documenting and preparing [an investigation] for court is the hard part. You can be the world's greatest crime scene investigator, but no one will ever know it if you can't write a great report to back it up. It can take months to several years for a case to go to trial. The reports we write must be able to tell the story of what we did at the scene, and it must be so thorough that it makes sense several years later.
Q: How do you maintain work/life balance?
A: Being gone for long – and at times, odd – hours is not easy. My wife is very understanding because she knows that this is my work and that I love it. My son, who is three, does not quite understand what is going on and still expects me to wrestle, play and run with him regardless of how much sleep I have. My solution is fight through the times when I am tired and make the weekends when I am not on call fun for my family and myself.
Q: What characteristics should a budding CSI detective have?
A: Detail oriented – the work really begins when searching for that one fingerprint, the drop of blood or the fiber that may be the key to solving a case. Having the ability to slow down and search for evidence where no one else would have makes the difference between a good investigator and a great one.
Stamina – the amount of time it takes to process a scene varies wildly and can take anywhere from one hour to several days. Being able to work long hours in the rain, cold, heat, confined spaces or around foul smells is a requirement for this job.
Great report writer – with each report I write, I always have one of my co-workers proofread the report. Taking any type of writing class is a plus. Actually, writing is the best way to improve. It just takes practice.
Q: How can hopeful CSI detectives investigate job opportunities?
A: They need to first look nationally, because it's a very competitive field to get into, and they need to contact the agency or agencies they're interested in and find out what the requirements are. Quite a few colleges have forensics programs, like Seattle University. Do the research and ask the crime lab or the individual police department what their requirements are. Each agency is going to be different.
If you're interested in being a police officer [often a first step for hopeful CSI detectives], right now, across the United States, there's a huge demand for that. The ride-along program [where civilians tag along in the patrol car] is probably the closest thing to a shadow program. And if you were to contact a recruiting officer at an agency, I think they would be more than happy to help you and hook you up with a ride-along.
Q: Are there CSI jobs that don't require working your way up to detective?
A: The shorter route for someone who wants to go straight to CSI is to find agencies that hire civilian employees directly into their unit. This is where it takes some research and checking the job postings.
Our department does hire civilian employees for some specific work: Our latent print unit is all civilian, and these folks specialize in the recovery and analysis of fingerprint evidence. We also have a photo lab staffed with full-time people who do forensic-level photography and developing. And last, we have a video unit, which also does forensic analysis of videos. I consider these other units within our department to be a critical aspect of the whole CSI concept, and we all work very closely.
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