Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day in the Life of a CSI

A few days ago a young student contacted me about a paper she was writing. What is a day in the life of a CSI like? It was an excellent question with a not so simple answer. You see, the job of a criminalist is largely reactionary. We have to wait for crimes to occur before we spring into action and criminals are never courteous enough to send an RSVP. The only things scheduled in our lives are meetings, courtroom testimony, and vacations, all of which can be upended in the blink of an eye. Knowing that, I wasn't sure how to answer her question because there never is a "normal" day in the crime lab. You walk in the door each morning with no idea what you might find. The day may be dull or you may get called to the worst mass murder in state history.  I suppose that CSIs have to remain emotionally and physically fluid. Like a race car ready to switch gears from neutral to red-line in seconds.We tend to go with the flow and accept change easily.  So I thought it might be best to describe both a "slow" day and a "busy" day while admitting that most days have elements of both.

The "Slow" Day:
I wish I could say that every day is like an episode of CSI: Las Vegas but I'd be lying. We don't even get a soundtrack. CSIs have a lot of boring duties. First, there's report writing. As writers, you may not fully appreciate how boring this can be but report writing is dull and unimaginative. It has to be. As Joe Friday loved to say we just want to convey the facts and rarely do we inject opinion. Then there are the meetings...ugh. Some productive, most a waste of time, and all of them mandatory. You may be stuck in a four hour meeting on verbal conflict resolution or a lecture on the proper investigative response to a nuclear detonation (which surprisingly to me was not run like hell). Some training is by request. These are the specialized schools or classes where we learn to apply the skills of our trade. Sometimes a good school feels more like a vacation but in the back of your mind you recognize that lab requests are piling up in your inbox..

Court can be a mix of both good and bad.  You never know what an attorney will ask you so that keeps you on your toes and presents a bit of intrigue to the proceedings. That's assuming you actually make it into the courtroom. Since there is no way to tell how long any given testimony will take you often have to wait around for your turn. This may be hours or even days. The magazines are old, the coffee sucks, and the television is permanently turned to either the weather channel or Judge Judy. It's kind of like hell without the culture.

When you aren't tied up with those fun activities you'll likely be working on laboratory requests. These too can run the spectrum from interesting to mundane. Let me tell you...after processing three hundred documents with Ninhydrin the shine of the assignment rubs off a little. Sometimes you get something fun like a gun or knife used in a serious crime or something requiring a novel or unique processing technique; but you're more likely to be processing trash or beer bottles from a stolen car or gang party. The good news is that there is never a shortage of lab requests from detectives all of which will be labeled "RUSH". It doesn't matter how petty the crime is, they needed it yesterday.

The "Busy" Day:
I think it's safe to say that every CSI lives for the busy day. Whether you are running from call to call or at one of the biggest scene of your career, the adrenalin rush and excitement seem to know no limits. Some CSIs in large crime ridden cities may disagree with that last part because they go from call to call every shift of every day but most CSIs don't experience that. You may go from a burglary, to a bank robbery, to a rape, and then a suicide; all before lunch! I've had seven deaths and an aircraft arson all in a twenty four hour span. Yes, it can be tiring and taxing on your body but it beats the hell out of report writing. You may be running on little or no sleep. If you're lucky you can stop by a drive thru window or a patrol officer will run and grab you something to eat. Oftentimes you're too busy to care. Of course, almost every busy day is followed by a slow day of paper work and report writing but, in that moment, out there running from call to call, you feel alive. You feel needed.

There is something about being a CSI I can't really put into words. Being entrusted with the responsibility of chasing bad guys is worth all the tedious aspects of the job.  Of all the people in the city or county, they called you. It's your turn to make a difference. The busy day is where we learn to be better CSIs. There is no college course that can compare to an actual crime scene. This above all else, is probably why I love the busy days. I learn, I grow, and I build my confidence in a career filled with criticism and doubt. So, what is a day in the life of a CSI? It's a spin of the Roulette wheel, a roll of the dice. You never know where your number will land but you know that no matter what...you'll be playing again the next day.

In some ways it's comparable to writing a novel. I have an outline but my story develops organically, much like you I would guess. There are times I write a scene that I love; a scene I never envisioned when I sat down to type that morning. Other days I just read and research. Sound familiar? If you're writing a scene with a CSI try to imagine what kind of day they are having. How will the activities of that day affect their demeanor, their dialog, judgement, or their critical thinking? Will they be physically taxed or ready to spring from the starting gate? No matter how you write it, a day in the life of a CSI is never the same. Whether slow of fast a CSI's day is just waiting to be written.

Written by Tom Adair, author of the 2012 crime thriller The Scent of Fear. Tom also blogs at forensics4fiction.com.


  1. That's the tricky part about writing realistic crime fiction—that much of it is tedious. Even crime scenes, which take hours, can be tedious for readers. So we have to find ways to keep the story exciting—pushing the edge.

    Thanks for an informative post.

  2. Even small bits of the "slow" day would be interesting to most readers.

    Thanks again Tom, for some great detail we can all use.


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