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Getting in Touch with the Forensic Side of Law Enforcement

Getting in Touch with the Forensic Side of Law Enforcement

Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith

These days, a career in law enforcement doesn’t mean you have to patrol the mean streets of an urban jungle or walk the cell block of the state prison. One of the most popular areas of police work today is forensics. But the term “forensic science” means so much more than what you see on Wednesday’s episode of “CSI.” Simply put, being a forensic specialist is the ability to apply specific sciences to legal and criminal situations to answer questions, and there are many areas of interest to choose from.


The use of firearms evidence identification can be traced back to the early 1800’s, but the first court case involving firearms evidence took place in 1902 when Oliver Wendell Holmes used ballistics to prove that a specific gun was the murder weapon in one of his cases.

He had read about the science of individual firearm identification and asked a gunsmith to test-fire the alleged murder weapon into a wad of cotton wool and then use a magnifying glass to match the bullet from the victim with the test bullet. Holmes won his case based on the forensics of the case.

The development and use of “ballistic fingerprinting” databases in now widely debated throughout the United States. Some of the other areas involved in forensic firearms investigation include gunshot residue testing, the trajectory of the rounds fired, and bullet wound creation and identification.


Fingerprint evidence is the first “CSI” topic I learned about as a college student in the late 1970’s. A fingerprint is an impression of the friction ridges on all parts of the fingers and often the palms as well.

As a young cop I learned all about loops, whorls and arches and how to not only take a suspect’s fingerprints (back then we used real ink to “roll” the prints) but how to protect a crime scene so that an evidence technician could come to the scene and attempt to lift latent prints to help identify the perpetrators. Fingerprints can now be lifted not only from typical crime scene surfaces like a doorframe or a knife handle, but even from a deceased body or a very rough surface.

All fingerprints now taken from suspects are entered into the FBI’s database know as IAFIS, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, for later potential comparison. The fingerprinting of all suspected criminals was introduced in 1906 by NYPD Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Faurot in 1906, and while it is not the exact science we once thought it was, fingerprint evidence is still a staple in helping law enforcement identify criminals and their crime scenes.

Blood and Other Bodily Fluids

I was not much a science student in college, but when I took “Biology 101” I convinced the professor to let me do a presentation on using DNA as evidence in a criminal case, and I was fascinated!

This was pretty cutting-edge stuff at the time; the first person convicted of rape as the result of DNA evidence was Tommy Lee Andrews in 1987. Andrews raped a woman during a burglary in Florida and was sentenced to 22 years for his crime. In 1989 the overturning of Chicagoan Gary Dotson’s rape conviction using DNA evidence made international headlines.

These days, the collection and use of blood, fluids, and any other matter used in DNA profiling is commonplace, in fact, it’s so common in the media, in fiction and in entertainment shows like “CSI” that it can actually hamper an investigation or wrongly influence a jury who is expecting there to be DNA evidence in every crime. The study of blood splatter patterns, the use of chemicals like luminal to locate previously removed blood evidence, and locating footprints and fingerprints in coagulated blood left at a crime scene are just a few of the many ways that the study of blood evidence can be used to solve heinous crimes.

Digital Forensics

This is probably one of the fastest growing areas of forensic science.

The goal of computer forensics is to explain the current state of a digital artifact, which can be anything from a computer storage device (like a PC’s hard drive or a USB memory device) to an electronic document or image (such as an email or a JPEG file), which can then be used to determine something as simple as what information is stored or evidence as complicated as the detailed sequence of events in a given case. Computer forensic experts can help solve anything from child pornography cases to high level financial crimes.

In the case of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy in 2001, her personal PC was examined to determine who she had been emailing (her parents) and what websites she had visited (a popular nearby running park) which led investigators to search Rock Creek Park, where her body was discovered nearly a year after her disappearance. Digital forensics also includes mobile device forensics, which changes and evolves as does cell phone technology. Digital forensics has helped law enforcement close many a case that might have otherwise gone unsolved

Forensic Archaeology

While most of us think of archeologists as scientists who study dinosaur bones and ancient burial grounds, forensic archaeologists have long been helping police investigators solve criminal cases that may have seemed hopeless.

Many years ago my own agency investigated a case in which our only crime scene was a scattered group of human bones found in a corn field. Thanks to the help of a forensic archeologist and an enormous amount of good old fashioned police work, our detectives were able to solve a double homicide, bring a murderer to justice, and bring peace to the family of the victims. Forensic archaeologists not only deal with bones and bodies, but they may also help analyze weapons, clothing, and other evidence long since buried and perhaps forgotten by everyone except the offender.

This is only a tiny overview of all the specialties involved in the forensic side of law enforcement. Trace evidence, facial reconstruction, skid marks analysis and other accident reconstruction, toxicology, and even forensic psychology are a few more areas for you to look into if these topics interest you. The bottom line is, if you’re serious about crime scene investigation, explore your options, do your research, get a great education, and then get out there and start solving crime!

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