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 California Forensic Science Institute, the largest municipal and regional crime lab in the U.S. It also houses the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, led by director and criminalistics professor Katherine A. Roberts, Ph.D.

With about 50 graduate students enrolled, it's one of the largest and oldest criminalistics training programs of its kind in the country, and one of only a handful in California.  

Students at Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics learn firsthand about advanced genetic technologies, like using hair to identify a perpetrator. In fact, this is where the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., was identified in 2010 through DNA testing.

If you haven't heard the term criminalistics before, you're not alone. But don't confuse it with criminology. Criminology is the study of crime and criminals, while criminalistics is the science and analytics behind the crime. Using biology, chemistry, physics and math, the field of forensics can answer very specific questions at a crime scene.

“Many of our criminalistics students are hired right away because they’ve been involved in all of these incredible opportunities.”
— Dr. Katherine Roberts, director, Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics

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.

Forensics analysis can determine whether a tattered shirt was ruined by a bullet, knife or other weapon by analyzing a single thread.

In the forensic institute’s labs at Cal State LA, firearms are identified, blood splatter is analyzed through luminol testing, shoes and tire marks are inspected, and narcotics and toxicology screenings are conducted. Students are taught to perform all these tests, and many assist the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department while working at the institute.

In the lab’s “crime studio,” students will see bloody shoe and hand prints, gunshot-ridden surfaces, and bloody knives — all of which evoke the real crime scenes they’ll need to analyze as professionals.

Criminalists test residue for DNA and to confirm whether the substance is human blood or something else — including an attempt by the perpetrator to cover up their crime.

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 forensics 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 blood splatter analysis — conducted with the chemical luminol and alternate light sources — scientists can determine the type of weapon used, the distance and location of the victim and assailant, and even assist in identifying the culprit.

The Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center is the largest municipal/regional crime lab in the country. The center is also home to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Crime Lab and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Scientific Investigation Department, as well as the Cal State LA School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.

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 by Patrick Record

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