How To Become A Firearms Or Fingerprint Examiner

The basic educational requirements for firearms examiners and fingerprint examiners vary from agency to agency. College degrees, once the exception in these two fields, are rapidly becoming the norm. There are, however, still a few agencies that do not require a college degree for their firearms and fingerprint examiners.

Most agencies that require college degrees as a part of the minimum qualifications do not have specific degree requirements. Once again, however, there is a trend toward degrees in the sciences. The reason for this is twofold: Academic courses in the natural sciences are beneficial to firearms and fingerprint examiners both in the context of capably performing their duties and providing scientific testimony to the court.

Having a science degree also allows the firearms or fingerprint examiner to meet the same qualifications as other forensic scientists working in crime labs and, thus, qualify for the same salaries. Historically, firearms and fingerprint examiners have not enjoyed the same pay scales as other forensic scientists because they lacked science degrees.

Anyone setting out to become a firearms or fingerprint examiner would be best advised to obtain a degree in one of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, or physics) or in forensic science. This both prepares the individual academically and maximizes the hiring opportunities when competing for a job with others who are less academically qualified.

Forensic science degrees are not typically designed specifically for firearms or fingerprint examination; they do provide, however, a broad education in all aspects of forensic science. An exception to this is a course of study in fingerprint comparison now offered by Marshall University in West Virginia. This is currently the only such program in the country.

Firearms examination continues to rely primarily on on-the-job training. Until 2002 firearms examination training was strictly done in house. Agencies hiring trainees for firearms examiner positions would assign the trainee to a senior examiner who would oversee the training according to a training program the agency had developed. Formal training programs used by police agencies were typically patterned after a recommended curriculum developed by the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE). In 2002 the ATF opened the first firearms examination training academy in the nation. The academy is offered free of charge to police agencies throughout the country. Attendees must be sponsored by police agencies.

One of the problems with in-house training programs of any sort is the expenditure of personnel hours not related to casework for both the trainer and the trainee. To train an inexperienced individual to the level where he or she can take on casework responsibilities in firearms or fingerprints usually requires as much as two years. While the trainer is not entirely lost to duties other than training during this period, a significant amount of time is involved.

For this reason crime lab managers have been reluctant to hire trainees. Most job postings still seek experienced examiners. This has made entry into these fields difficult. With programs like the ones at Marshall University and the ATF academy, managers will doubtless become more open to hiring inexperienced trainees. This outcome will become even more likely as more of these programs come into being.

Another requirement for individuals in firearms and fingerprint examination work that is becoming increasingly more common is certification. As in other professions, certification is an effort to establish that an individual meets some minimum level of professional qualifications.

Certification in fingerprint examination has been in place for many years and is offered through the International Association for Identification (IAI). Would-be examiners must pass a written examination that focuses on actual comparison of questioned prints to known prints. Many agencies require their examiners to become certified by IAI as part of the conditions for employment. To date, no courts have required certification in order for a fingerprint examiner to be allowed to testify, but that could change.

Firearms certification, on the other hand, is a relatively new program that has been developed by AFTE. This is currently a strictly voluntary program, and no agencies or courts require it, although this also may change as the trend of requiring expert witnesses to have formal credentials continues to expand. Accreditation is a lab-wide program developed by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) and administered through the Laboratory Accreditation

Board (ASCLD-LAB). This program accredits the entire laboratory operation (facility, procedures, and personnel). The argument for AFTE certification and IAI certification, as opposed to ASCLD-LAB accreditation, is that if an examiner leaves the accredited lab to go to work at an unaccredited lab, the accreditation does not follow him or her, while certification does.

So, why all the fuss about accreditation and certification? It comes down to increasing scrutiny by courts on the credentials of individuals passing themselves off as "experts." These accreditation and certification programs have been borne out of the need to demonstrate scientific competency to the court.

As of 2002 more than half of the 350 crime labs in the country were accredited by ASCLD-LAB. While a majority of the fingerprint examiners throughout the country were then certified by IAI, only a small percentage of the firearm examiners had sought and obtained AFTE certification. Several states, including Texas and New York, have passed laws that require crime laboratories that analyze physical evidence and present their findings in court to be accredited. This trend will no doubt continue to spread.

Accreditation and certification programs are not a one-time event. Re-accreditation must take place every five years, and maintaining certification requires ongoing training. The quality assurance programs of most laboratories also require trainees to pass competency tests before they perform independent casework and require all examiners to pass ongoing proficiency testing as the years go by.

In summary anyone considering a career in fingerprints or firearms should first acquire a degree in some general area of science or in forensic science. Once they are hired by a law enforcement agency, beginning examiners should plan on an extended period of training that may or may not include mandatory certification. They should also expect to be required to pass annual proficiency tests and undergo peer review of both their casework and their court testimony.

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