Interview with Forensic Identification Specialist Donna Brandelli

Donna in SP_2012

What is your field of expertise and what does working in this area involve?

My field of expertise is crime scene investigation, fingerprint comparisons, AFIS entries, and chemical processing using a variety of chemicals in an effort to develop latent fingerprints. Every agency is different in terms of requirements and training.  I was trained by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Crime lab, which is the third largest lab in the U.S.A.   My training in crime scene investigation and fingerprint work required class room training, testing, competency tests and annual proficiency tests.  The training lasted approximately two years and included mock crime scenes, shadowing experienced personnel at crime scenes, then being evaluated at specific types of crime scenes by experienced personnel as I processed the scene.   As a CSI, I respond to all crime scenes and process the most complex scenes such as homicides, officer involved shootings, multi victim cases, and violent assaults.  I document the scene using photography, videography, and sketches prior to and as I collect the evidence.  I am responsible for fully documenting a crime scene.  I may or may not have assistance, depending on the type and size of the scene. I may be the “primary” where I make the decision on how best to document the scene or I may be the one called a “secondary” where I am assisting another CSI.   We work hand and hand with the detectives.

My training in fingerprint comparison required me to make 10s of thousands of comparisons and make 600 identifications (exclusions and inconclusive determinations did not count toward the final tally of 600) with no erroneous identifications or conclusions.  I then had to do several thousand more comparisons and write the initial reports, which were reviewed again before I was allowed to conduct independent casework.  I had to work independently for several years before I was allowed to do comparisons for homicide cases.  As a fingerprint examiner, I analyze, compare, evaluate and verify latent prints collected from crime scenes or items of evidence. I may do the initial comparisons or the verification.  As the initial examiner, I am responsible for all notes, documentation of the print, and writing the initial report. Most often, I am comparing an unknown print to a known print in an effort to individualize the print and make a positive identification or an exclusion.  Sometimes, I was requested to compare a known print to a known print, depending on the circumstances of the case.

My training in AFIS required me to enter several known exemplars into the computerized data base and obtain a “hit” with the known identifications. AFIS entry requires evaluating a print for sufficiency for entry into the various computerized data base.  If entered into the computer, I document the print, mark the necessary minutiae on the unknown print, and enter the print for searching against a large database of known prints in an effort to identify the print/suspect.

My training in chemical processing required me to process several types of cases using a variety of chemicals and record my results, as well as learn the reagents and the expected results. I processed a variety of evidence items submitted from police agencies across Los Angeles county from an array of crimes.  I have processed evidence for local, county, state, and federal agencies.

Each aspect of the training required me to have lectures, readings, and frequent evaluations to ascertain my progress.  At the culmination of the formalized training, I was then given a competency test to evaluate my abilities.  I was required to take a yearly proficiency test for each of the above areas.  This was necessary for my continued acceptance as an expert witness in all of the above areas.  I testified as such in several superior courts around Los Angeles County to include high profile cases.

When I left Los Angeles County, I became the supervisor of Torrance PD in California.  I was challenged with taking a newly civilianized unit, creating training protocols, policies and procedures, implementing competency and proficiency testing, coordinating training and helping to design and equip a new forensic laboratory.

How did you come to be involved in this line of work?

I was working as a dispatcher for Los Angeles County and completing my Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice when an opportunity presented itself in which I could transfer to the Crime lab and receive training.  While at the lab, I obtained my Masters’ degree in Forensic Science and completed most course work for my PhD in Human Behavior with a focus on Criminal Justice.  I wanted to work in Forensic Science and my best opportunity was with Los Angeles County as I was already an employee there who met the qualifications.

What do you think is the most common misconception about your field of work?

When I testified in court, we often had to discuss the “CSI Effect” which was named due to the popularity of the CSI television shows. Many people believed that every scene left evidence, every piece of evidence would lead to the identification of a suspect and it could be done quickly, and every type of forensic testing should be used on every piece of evidence.  That is not the reality due to a variety of reasons including the type of crime, the type of surface or evidence items, the time and cost constraints.

How would you describe the state of the forensic science system in your country?

I would say that, overall, the quality is good in larger cities or counties.  However, the training varies or lacks in many smaller cities or agencies.  California, where I trained and worked is progressive in that many agencies are now either fully civilianized or in the process of civilianizing all forensic work.  This is good in that the sworn officers can do what they were trained to do and the forensic professionals can do what they were trained to do.

Currently, the federal government is involved in creating national standards.  These will not be mandatory for all labs initially, but will come to be the expected norm by the courts.  New bureaucracies have been created and the professional organizations are getting involved.  As with all things in which the federal government is involved, the bureaucracy is boggling, and directives will be made without funding.  The larger agencies usually get the lion’s share of all federal grants and smaller agencies are left to struggle with the implementation of rules and regulations.

At Torrance PD, we were working towards accreditation and all our notes, reports, examinations, etc were done as if we were accredited to make it easier when accreditation did occur. Working in Los Angeles County we were fortunate to have a strong forensic community that was able to fund, create, and support a lot of training.  I was also able to find a lot of free or low cost training by searching websites for online training.

You’ve recently relocated to another part of the United States. Is it particularly difficult transferring jobs in this line of work?

It has been exceptionally difficult for me to find work here in New England.  Most agencies here still use sworn officers to do CSI work and some fingerprint work.  Although, it can be done better and less expensively using civilians.  This was shown in Torrance.  In the 4 years I was there, we increased fingerprint and DNA identifications by 400%, even though documentation was increased dramatically.  We also responded to hundreds more calls a year than was done previously.  A million dollars was saved by switching form sworn officers to civilians.

In New England, it seems as if unions have control of the work.  I live in Connecticut.  I’ve applied for several open positions, but receive a notice almost immediately after the closing date stating someone from within who is qualified and has more seniority got the position.  I applied for positions with the state of MA, and was told by one agency that I was over qualified for the position, but I was required to live in the state in order to work for the state.  Since I can’t move, that isn’t an option, even though I was more than willing to travel.  In RI, there is a very small laboratory.  The larger police agencies use sworn officers to process their crime scenes.  So, I am currently applying for city agencies around New England that are willing to allow me to commute.  Since I am used to the extremely long commutes due to Los Angeles traffic, driving an hour or an hour and half doesn’t bother me.

Do you have any advice for those wishing to follow your career path?

I always tell people to look at several agencies in the area in which they want to work.  Look at the job announcements and see what qualifications they are requiring. KNOW what you want to do and work towards that goal.  When I do interviews for jobs, it is not unusual to see people with Master’s degrees applying for entry level jobs. Try to get an internship or do some volunteer work at a laboratory.  Get a degree in a science of some type, that is becoming part of the new requirements.  Understand the job is not like TV.  The hours are long.  You will work weekends, holidays, nights, days, birthdays, etc.  You will miss school events, etc., especially if you work at a large agency.  You will work shift work and it may not be the shift you want. You will probably make better pay at larger agencies and have more opportunities for cross training and continued training.  If you aren’t working in the field, don’t go into an interview and say forensics is your passion and then be unable to name a book or an article or a class or training you read or attended. If you are going to talk about your education and classes, make sure you are using the correct terminology.  Seriously, I’ve heard it all when I’ve been on interview panels.  If you can’t testify in a court, go and sit in the court room.  See how others testify and know how the court rooms are run and the expectations.  You need to put yourself ahead of someone else.

Be aware, if you work in law enforcement, and most forensic positions are in law enforcement, you will be expected to go through a background check which will include your past work history, talking with friends and relatives, credit history, arrests/convictions, drug use, and in some cases a psychiatric evaluation and lie detector test.  So, rightfully, some people will not be able to do this job.  Better to understand that before spending a lot of time and money on education.   This is not to say you can’t work in a private lab analyzing evidence.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s a great career.  I love it.  I’ve learned a lot from a lot of dedicated people.  It’s not for everyone.  You need to be honest with yourself and understand whether you are the kind of person that can go out to a gruesome crime scene and deal with what needs to be done or if you are better suited to stay in the laboratory and analyze evidence.  Some agencies (such as New England agencies) only want civilians working in the lab.  Other places, like CA agencies expect all their people to go out into the field and process a crime scene at some point in their career.  Some job classifications, such as CSI, obviously require it more than say the DNA analyst or firearms expert who only goes out periodically.

Suggested Links:

Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s Department

Video: L.A. Sheriff’s Crime Lab at the Hertzberg Davis Forensic Science Center

Torrance Police Department

News Report: In Torrance Police Department, forensics is women’s work

News Report: New lab will help Torrance police nab criminals

Crime Scene Investigator Network

American Academy of Forensic Sciences

International Association for Identification

 

If you’re a forensic scientist (academic or industry) or a crime scene investigator and would like to be part of this series of interviews, get in touch by emailing locardslabblog[at]gmail.com.

This is Part 3 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.

Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin

Interview Series Part 2 – Interview with Forensic Expert Robert Green OBE

Interview Series Part 3 – Interview with Forensic Expert & Consultant Gareth Bryon

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