As demonstrated by the popularity of such television shows as CBS’s hit CSI, and Discovery Channel’s The New Detectives, the intriguing field of forensic science is capturing the attention of many across the nation. But beyond entertainment and education, forensics plays a very real and crucial role in criminal investigation within our police departments. From collecting evidence at a crime scene, to processing it in the lab, and even testifying in court, forensic technicians unveil evidence that criminals aren’t even aware they left behind. So what does this have to do with TST’s focus of this month, Science for All? Jason Birchfield studied criminal justice in college, now he’s the Forensics Supervisor of the Baltimore County Police Department Crime Scene Unit. Jason’s educational journey didn’t seem to be on a path to a scientific career, but he now views science as an indispensable resource. Read on to learn how Jason is a working example of why science is for everyone.
1. How did you become an FST?
I really did not get interested in the field of forensics until after high school. In college, I took a variety of classes in an attempt to find a subject that sparked my interest—an introductory criminal justice course did just that. I clearly recall the first time I observed a fingerprint brush during an instructor demonstration. Although I had an interest in the field of criminal justice, I did not aspire to be a police officer. At this crossroad I sought advice—the undisputed counsel was "go to school for something of interest and you will succeed." After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice I became a private investigator, gained some field experience, and eventually attained a position with the police department as an FST. After three years I was promoted to my current position as supervisor.
2. What are some of the duties held by an FST?
We are responsible for identifying, collecting, and preserving evidence at crime scene investigations in support of law enforcement activities. Photographing crime and accident scenes—including burglaries, robberies, deaths, autopsies, and assault victims—is necessary to record the appearance of evidence. FSTs also identify, collect, and secure physical evidence such as blood, body fluids, hair, fibers, firearms, and narcotics for laboratory testing and use as evidence in criminal prosecutions. We search for and develop fingerprints at crime scenes and participate in laboratory processing, as well as photograph and fingerprint suspects and victims. Other responsibilities include producing castings of footprints (see photograph), tire tracks, and other impressions; preparing court presentations of evidence; and testifying in court.
3. Describe a typical day in your job.
Currently, I am the day-shift supervisor of the Crime Scene Unit. I arrive at work early, check with the prior shift to see if any crime scene calls are holding, and determine what additional calls I will be responsible for during the day. I then delegate duties and decide which employees will handle which areas within Baltimore County. As the supervisor, I am required to personally respond to any homicides, suspicious deaths, or police shootings; respond to and process crime scene calls when my shift is short-handed or exceptionally busy; and, read and approve the reports and evidence packaging that occurs during my shift.
4. What background is needed in your job?
The minimum educational background required for an FST is a bachelor’s degree within a subject such as criminal justice, criminalistics, law enforcement, biology, or chemistry. However, employers also weigh field experience when hiring forensic technicians. Students interested in the field must also be aware that a complete background investigation will be conducted upon application for this type of position. Many of our applicants holding graduate degrees in forensics do not pass the initial background check and are therefore not hired.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the International Association for Identification can provide interesting material and contacts.
5. What type of forensic evidence do you primarily rely on?
The importance of obtaining fingerprints in criminal investigations has long been considered one of the most valuable types of physical evidence that can be found at a crime scene. There are three different types of fingerprints: visible, impression, and latent. Latent fingerprints are composed of several chemicals exuded through fingertip pores and are left on virtually every object touched. To retrieve these latent prints, we collect evidence from a crime scene, bring it to the lab, and process it using different techniques such as, cyanoacrylate (super glue fumes), ninhydrin, fingerprint powder, magnetic powder, chemical dye stains, and digital photography. After the prints are recovered through those methods, digital images are taken and enhanced. Prints are then examined; once the unique characteristics are identified, the prints are imported into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System database to search for possible hits.
No two people have the same fingerprints; we clear more crime using prints than any other type of forensic evidence.