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Hamilton County, Ohio

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Coroner's Office / Crime Laboratory

3159 Eden Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45219
PH: (513) 946-8700  |  FX: (513) 946-8730

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Commonly asked questions about the crime laboratory

Do you have any job openings in your laboratory?

Our laboratory employs about 20 scientists, and two evidence technicians (administrative specialists). Turnover is low but for each of the past few years we have hired one or two people. Openings are advertised on the websites of professional organizations most often viewed by forensic scientists. These include AAFS, ASCLD, MAFS and other sites depending on the discipline of the vacant position. For example, a need for a firearms examiner will be posted to the AFTE site or a toxicologist to the SOFT employment listing. Typically we receive 50-120 applications for an opening but only interview a small number of them. We do try to promote from within whenever possible. A typical career path is to come into the lab as an entry level drug analyst and then cross-train in some other discipline. When we need to hire someone with experience, however, this approach is not appropriate. If you want to know if we have any openings, check the websites listed above.

What educational background is needed to work in a crime lab?

Forensic Scientists are scientists. For most disciplines, our accrediting body, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) stipulates a minimum educational requirement of a Bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology, physics, or forensic science. For some disciplines such as questioned documents or firearms examiners, it is only necessary to have a BA or BS with "some" science courses. Auditors define "some" as at least two science courses. The questioned document examiners and firearms examiners, however, must have had extensive additional training under a qualified examiner. Degrees in criminal justice, anthropology, or criminology are not sufficient. Our own laboratory over the past 20 years has tended to hire graduates with an MS or BS in forensic science who have also done an internship in a forensic lab.

DNA analysts must meet additional criteria. Strict quality control regulations require at least 12 credit hours in the specific areas of: 1) biochemistry, 2) genetics, and 3) molecular biology. The analyst must also have had training in statistics or population genetics. A master's degree is required for a DNA Technical Leader (supervisor position). Every other year the laboratory undergoes an external DNA audit during which the auditors inspect the college transcripts of the analysts.

My personal recommendation has always been for an aspiring forensic scientist to pursue a BS degree in a basic science (chemistry is best) and then seek a MS in forensic science. This not only distinguishes you from other candidates but also increases your technical competency.

What schools offer programs in forensic science?

In our area the closest schools offering BS degrees in forensic science are Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY and Ohio University in Athens, OH. In addition Marshall University in Huntington West Virginia, and West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia offer a masters program. These schools have been in operation for over 30 years and are well respected. Of course many other programs have sprung up in the past few years. You should only consider schools that are accredited by FEPAC, and schools that offer an internship in a forensic laboratory as part of the curriculum.

How can I get a job in a crime lab?

There are only about 350 publicly supported crime labs in the U.S. so the job market is very competitive. You should be prepared to travel to where the jobs are. Check the openings listed on the websites for AAFS, ASCLD, IAI, AFTE, MAFS, SOFT etc. to get an idea of the locations of jobs and the job requirements. Application procedures vary widely among government agencies. Some require taking a test, others require polygraph examinations, and most require employee drug testing. Obviously, applicants must have no criminal history or history of drug abuse (to include marihuana). Forensic scientists are professionals and therefore their dresws and demeanor are professional. Be careful what you put out there on social media for the world to see. Employers are also looking for a professional appearance and good verbal communication skills that will hold up well on the witness stand. Be especially careful about drafting cover letters. They represent an opportunity to demonstrate your writing ability to communicate clearly and concisely. Our laboratory issues about 15,000 technical reports a year. Many are introduced into evidence and must stand on their own. Clearly communication skills are important.

Does your lab offer internships?

We offer two, unpaid internships each summer to top senior forensic science students from a local forensic s cience program. The students chosen may have to go through an interview process and must pass a background check. First priority is given to students from the Cincinnati are. These are students who have already made a substantial commitment to a forensic career. They need only some practical experience before entering the job market. School has provided them with sufficient skills to benefit from being in a forensic lab. They have been exposed to basic evidence handling requirements so we can trust them around evidence. Even though we are not an educational institution, we have a professional obligation to insure the quality of forensic graduates is maintained. Because we are a tax supported government entity charged with the examination of physical evidence, we focus on that mission. We have no plans to increase the number of internships.

Can I or my group visit your lab?

Normally, the answer is NO. We also must refuse requests for "Shadowing." It may, however, be possible to arrange for a phone interview with an analyst if the caller has a prepared list of questions. Like most crime labs, we tend to be understaffed and overworked; hence we have to concentrate on why the taxpayers hired us---to process physical evidence in serious criminal investigations. We limit tours to those people such as investigators and prosecutors who have a direct need to see how we function. The laboratory is a secure, limited access area because we must insure the evidence is not disturbed, changed, contaminated or lost. Also, because we are part of the Coroner's Office, the laboratory is a bio-hazardous environment. Visitors are not always aware of the chemical and biological risks.

Can someone from the crime lab come speak to my group?

We encourage our scientists to go out into the community and give presentations. School requests should be from a Middle School or higher. The requester must mail or fax a written request to the lab director stating when, where, who and why the speaker is being requested. Many of our analysts are willing to give presentations on what we do in a forensic crime lab, how a student should prepare for such a career, and why to stay out of trouble. Requests for pathologists from the Coroner's Office to talk about autopsies and forensic medicine should be directed to the Coroner's Administrator.

How much money do forensic scientists make?

The best way to answer this question is to look at the job notices on the forensic websites. In our own lab, however, we have three main, basic pay ranges: Forensic Analyst I, II, and III. After an entry level around $42,000 for about 1 year a forensic analyst I will typically start around $48,000. The county commissioners typically allow supervisors to grant merit pay increases of 1% to 3% a year. There is no automatic cost of living increase in Hamilton County. After about five years, an analyst is eligible for promotion to FAII. The range for this position starts around $59,000. After ten years employment, promotion is possible to FAIII. This pay range starts around $67,000. Salaries and benefits vary of course between geographic regions.

Do crime lab analysts go to crime scenes?

In our jurisdiction, we respond to crime scenes only in very rare situations. Law enforcement investigators are responsible for collecting and preserving evidence for submission to the crime laboratory. Analysts normally spend most of their time in the lab examining evidence. The laboratory processes about 13,000 cases per year so we don't have time to go to many crime scenes. In some jurisdictions, forensic scientists do collect evidence, so it varies from place to place.

What do analysts actually do in the laboratory?

Most lay people do not appreciate the fact that there is a differentiation of labor in the laboratory as well as in the criminal justice community. Drug analysts identify confiscated controlled substances (illicit drugs) using scientific instruments. Toxicologists identify those same substances, as well as many other poisons, in body fluids and tissues. Serologists examine dried blood, semen, and other biological stains on clothing, weapons, and vehicles. Serologists also perform DNA testing and enter DNA profiles into the national database (CODIS/NDIS). Questioned document examiners analyze forged signatures, altered documents, and perform handwriting comparisons. Firearms examiners compare known and questioned bullets, determine firing distances, restore obliterated serial numbers, and enter information into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN). Trace evidence examiners handle a wide range of microscopic materials to include paint, glass, fibers, hairs, cosmetics, adhesives, primer residues,shoeprints, wood, pollen, explosives, and soils. Arson analysts focus on identifying ignitable liquids in fire debris samples. The statistical information elsewhere on this site will give a more detailed breakdown of the types of cases each section processes. Each discipline, or laboratory section, requires special skills, but much of the work revolves around chemical instrumentation such as chromatographs and spectrometers as well as optical and electron microscopes. The analyst usually knows very little about the facts of the investigation and is merely providing an analytical service for the investigator. Each analyst prepares a written report which is returned to the investigator with the evidence. The police integrate this report with other findings of their investigation and present the information to the prosecutor's office for adjudication. The prosecutor or defense attorney can call the analyst to testify at trial if necessary. Analysts also spend time performing equipment maintenance, quality control, safety and administrative functions, reviewing scientific literature, dealing with phone and e-mail inquiries and training police. In general crime laboratories are becoming more and more reliant on advanced technology using auto samplers and robotics. Analysts are encouraged to do research as time allows, present papers at scientific meetings, and publish work in scientific journals. Some of our analysts have been requested to speak all over the United States and several foreign countries throughout the world.

How does our local laboratory differ from what we see on CSI and other TV shows?

TV shows are purposely made to be dramatic in order to keep the viewer's attention. Thankfully in real life we don't see such drama. It is true, however, that a career in forensic science is exciting, rewarding, and very interesting on a daily basis. First of all on TV shows like CSI you will see one analyst doing the work of seven different people in real life. No one person goes to the scene and collects evidence, interviews witnesses, makes arrests after a shootout, and then takes the evidence back to the lab where they perform microscopic analysis, DNA analysis, and firearms analysis. Well trained local police officers handle all the investigation and most of the collection of evidence. Forensic analysts are rarely called to the scene in Hamilton County. In addition, forensic analysts specialize in one particular area of forensic examinations. At the Hamilton County Coroner's Laboratory we have four analysts that specialize in Serology and DNA. Three analysts handle Firearms related testing. Three scientists analyze all the confiscated street drugs. Five chemists analyze dugs, poisons, and alcohol in body fluids as toxicologists. And three analysts test a wide variety of microscopic trace evidence like, paint, glass, fibers, hairs, cosmetics, adhesives, primer residues, shoeprints, wood, pollen, explosives, and soils. Scientific technology changes frequently and our lab is very well equipped, but in real life casework takes time and diligence. We never solve a case in an hour. Sure there are times when analysts will drop everything, work extra hours, and rush a case to get an answer for an important ongoing investigation, but it is meticulous work that takes time and careful thought. Our lab is certainly not as glamorous looking as that on TV. We are cramped for space and do the best with what we have. There is no mood lighting since we like to actually see what we are working on. And there is nothing superfluous in our lab. Everything has a use and a purpose and is not always the best that money can buy but gets the job done just as well. For instance, we do not have Hummers to drive around. Our main investigators car is a 2006 Chevy Trailblazer. Most importantly though is the fact that we are completely unbiased scientists. We are not "we are not out to get the guy" like they are on TV. We are just as concerned about proving the innocence of an accused as we are proving the guilty.

3159 Eden Avenue
Cincinnati, Ohio 45219

PH: (513) 946-8700
FX: (513) 946-8730

Lab PH: (513) 946-8750
Lab FX: (513) 946-8772


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