How to Be a 21st-Century CrimeBuSter

Behind the Scenes At Cal State LA’s California Forensic Science Institute

You've seen "Dexter," "CSI," and "Law & Order: SVU." And while the scenarios on TV aren't exactly what happens in a real criminalistics lab, forensic scientists are key to understanding what happened at a crime scene. And they're often the linchpin to apprehending and trying a suspected criminal.

California State University, Los Angeles is home to the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, the largest municipal and regional crime lab in the U.S. The center also houses the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, which offers a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in criminalistics. The center is also home to the California Forensic Science Institute, led by executive director Katherine A. Roberts, Ph.D.

With about 35 graduate students enrolled, the criminalistics program is the oldest continually-operating graduate program of its kind in the country, and one of only a few in California.  


Graduate students in the criminalistics program learn firsthand about advanced genetic technologies, such as using biological evidence like hair to identify a perpetrator. In fact, it was forensic scientists at the Los Angeles Police Department, Forensic Biology Unit at Hertzberg-Davis who identified the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., through the use of DNA technology. 

If you haven't heard the term criminalistics before, you're not alone. But don't confuse it with criminology. Criminology includes the scientific study of the nature, management, causes, and prevention of criminal behavior, while criminalistics is the application of the natural and physical sciences to legal matters. Applying the principles learned in biology, chemistry, physics and math, the field of forensic science can help to answer very specific questions, such as who committed the crime and how and where a crime was committed.

“Many of our criminalistics students are hired by our local forensic science laboratories thanks to the incredible opportunities offered at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center.”
— Dr. Katherine Roberts, Executive Director, Cal State LA' s California Forensic Science Institute

What was the trajectory of a bullet through a wall or window? Analysis of bullet holes left in walls or other objects can tell scientists which direction the bullet came from and at what angle.

What do tire markings reveal? Intricate analysis of these marks can identify the type and direction of a vehicle.

By analyzing a single fiber microscopically, forensic analysis can be used to examine whether damage to an item of clothing could be attributed to a bullet hole rather than wear and tear.

In the criminalistics program labs at Cal State LA, firearms are identified, bloodstains are detected through luminol testing, shoe and tire marks are examined, and narcotics and toxicology screening and confirmations are conducted. Students are taught to perform these tests, and many intern with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department while completing their education.

In the Crime Scene Reconstruction Studio, students examine bloodstained shoe and hand impressions, gunshot residue on various surfaces, and bloodstained knives — all of which evoke the real crime scenes they’ll need to analyze as forensic practitioners.

Criminalists test apparent bloodstains to screen and confirm whether the substance contains human blood. These stains may then be further analyzed to obtain a DNA genotype profile.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Metropolitan Los Angeles area is home to the most forensic science jobs in the country, earning, on average, $92,250 a year. It’s a hot profession, with the need for forensic scientists expected to grow 17 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Graduates from Cal State LA’s two-year forensic science graduate program go on to work in forensic laboratories, federal agencies and consulting firms across the nation.

The program trains students to locate and protect evidence at crime scenes as well as how to work with law enforcement officials, conduct analyses and research, and even testify in court.


Through bloodstain pattern analysis, forensic scientists examine the location, shape, and dimensions of bloodstains at a known or suspected violent crime scene with the goal of reconstructing the nature, timing and other details related to the crime.

The Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center is the largest municipal/regional forensic science laboratory in the country. The California Forensic Science Institute is committed to the advancement of the forensic sciences through a multidisciplinary program that focuses on research development, professional training, student support, and community engagement. The Hertzberg-Davis center is also home to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Scientific Services Bureau and  the Los Angeles Police Department, Forensic Science Division.

The center offers an interactive, high-quality graduate program for students interested in pursuing a career in forensic science. Shown (from left to right) are current students Andrea Munoz, Adrian Rendon, Kayla Balasbas, Chelsea Wiley and Naomi Weisz. For more information, visit the M.S. in Criminalistics program at Cal State LA.

Story by Angie Marcos
Photographs & Video by Patrick Record

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