Death of a Crime Scene Unit?

J.S. Cruser

Crime Scene Training/Accreditation Supervisor

When you see repetitive postings for a job position within the department, the first thing everyone thinks of is that no one must want to do that job and that people are avoiding it like the plague.

Unfortunately, the Crime Scene Unit seems to have been put into one of those such positions. We have put out circular after circular looking for officers and sergeants who want to work some of the most interesting scenes within the police department. Typically, we have little to no curiosity about the posting and may only receive a single applicant.

Classified Positions

We have asked many people at roll calls, crime scenes and at the academy about why is there so little interest and without hesitation most people’s response is that they believe that with the advent of the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) that the Crime Scene Unit positions and officers were or even had already been, “civilianized.”

That could not be further from the truth.

The CEO of the HFSC has assured us that he wants classified positions in the Crime Scene Unit long term. However, there is a lot of confusion. From idle chit-chat at crime scenes, roll calls, even to our own circulars that include such ominous wording as “consolidation,” “independent,” “removed on a for cause basis,” and “governed by the Meet and Confer Agreement for Fiscal Years 2011 through 2015.”

These words and phrases seem to have generated a very negative idea of job stability in CSU in 2015.

We have tried to combat the wording of the circular. After all, other divisions have abolished positions and divisions have been consolidated, but they don’t put it on their job postings as a warning notice. These divisions have met with little success in getting it removed.

We have visited roll calls at different stations in an attempt to drum up support for working in the Crime Scene Unit, but in the past we have had to accept officers who were on their first assignment after being on probation. Fortunately, these officers have worked out very well in our unit, but anyone can understand how having a relatively new officer investigating an officer-involved shooting or high-profile murder scene could be problematic.

Would you want a doctor just out of medical school performing complicated first-time heart surgery on a critically ill patient?

People also cite the lack of investigator pay for CSU, or that they would have to take a pay cut to leave patrol to work as a CSU. That is correct. Unfortunately, there is little that our management can do because of contractual limitations currently in place.

However, the Houston Forensic Science Center has made up for a lack of competitive salaries by going above and beyond in the funding of training, equipment and overtime. We have been able to send our personnel to just about any job-related training that interested them. In years past, we were tightly limited by a small budget as part of a larger division. The move to the HFSC’s budget has allowed us to equip our investigators with new tools such as cameras, lights and much more. We have been trained on new state-of-the-art laser scanners that never would have been previously funded.

We are also continuing to fight for certification pay that would equal or even surpass patrol and investigator pay.

One of the other complaints we also hear when talking with officers is that it is a lot of work. Yes, it can be a lot of work. The reports and hours can be long, but there is paid overtime to be had as needed. Often the hours are not bad and most of the time you can take time off work whenever you need to.

Reasonable Caseload

On the plus side, our investigators’ caseload is only a handful of incoming cases a month.   Depending on your efficiency, they can usually be completed in a couple of days’ work or less. Yes, we are also working on becoming an accredited Crime Scene Unit and there are a lot of common practices that have to be followed. But most of our personnel are adjusting with only minor issues.

As our pool of HPD applicants has dwindled over the past few years, we have unfortunately begun to approach the end of the road for the Crime Scene Unit; that is, unless we can find more classified HPD officers and sergeants who want to join us.

We have met with upper management of the HFSC and they have unconditionally and continually expressed their support at having classified police officers in the Crime Scene Unit. That said, if we cannot recruit additional talent within HPD, the Center is going to move forward with replacing CSU vacancies with civilians. In fact, they have already begun accepting civilian applications for the positions as they look to maintain current staffing levels as well as expanding the unit to allow us to accommodate more calls for service.

I have worked in the Crime Scene Unit both as an officer and as a sergeant for a little more than 12 of my 22 years here at HPD. I still enjoy the job of going out to a crime scene and trying to figure out what and how something happened. I am a firm believer that our scenes should be investigated by people who have invested their time and career in the police department and who have had the experience of investigating crimes.

I and all the other officers and supervisors here want this unit to continue to be staffed with classified officers. But when the time comes – and it pains me to say this – we will move forward with adding civilian to our staff due to attrition.

So if you see any more circulars for positions within the Crime Scene Unit and you ever thought you might like to do the work, call and talk to us. Ask to complete a rotation. Or apply for an open position.

It’s not perfect by far, but you might be surprised by what you will find.