Melissa Lower worked as an Oklahoma City 911 dispatcher for more than three years.
She had a bachelor's degree in forensic science from the University of Central Oklahoma, so when she saw a job listing for a civilian position with the police department, she applied.
Lower is one of the first four civilian investigation specialists (CIS) hired to work in a police department pilot program.
“I thought it would be fun to go out and serve the community,” she said. “It's like a Cracker Jack box; you're never going to know what you get.”
The four civilian investigation specialists, along with two civilian crime scene investigators, graduated from a five-week training program Friday morning at police headquarters.
“I have always had a big respect for the police department and I have always been interested in CSI ... so I thought this was a good job and a good opportunity to combine both,” said Audrey Mann, a civilian investigation specialist.
The six graduates will spend the next eight weeks on the street, doing field training, police Capt. Dexter Nelson said.
“We want the public to know these investigators will be out on the street. ... they will be in a uniform that will look like a police officer, but they will not be armed. They will not respond to any call that can involve any suspect being in the scene or any call that will require an officer present,” Nelson said.
“They are not police officers, they are civilian investigators.”
About their work
Police Chief Bill Citty said officials used the Tucson, Ariz., Police Department's program as a template for the new program. The Oklahoma City Police Department's civilian investigation specialists are expected to take low-priority calls and police reports and to process crime scenes.
Low-priority crimes are those where a suspect is not present when the specialists process the scene, such as residential and commercial burglaries, vandalisms, auto burglaries, white collar crimes and identity theft.
“This allows us to take the calls off of sworn police officers — again, having them more available for calls for service where you need a sworn police officer versus a civilian,” Citty said.
With the hiring of its first two civilian crime scene investigators, the Oklahoma City Police Department is starting to transform its crime scene investigations unit, Citty said.
“We have really talked about it for years about possibly civilianizing the CSI unit. We have always had sworn-in officers in those positions, but it really doesn't have to be,” the chief said. “There are so many programs out there like the one at UCO that students are going through that really qualify them for those positions.”
Returning to patrols
It was among the recommendations in a 2010 study that the department staff the unit with civilians and put the officers back in the field in enforcement positions, he said.
“It allows us to put those sworn officers back into the positions where you need a person who carries a gun and is capable of enforcing the law,” Citty said.
As officers retire or transfer out of the unit, civilian crime scene investigators will be hired until all the positions are filled by civilians, Citty said. No commissioned police positions will be eliminated.
One of the two civilian crime scene investigators is Kiersten Finkle, a recent graduate from UCO, who has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in forensic science and minors in biology, chemistry and criminal justice.
“I always had a deep love for science when I was growing up, and when I found out about forensic science I was hooked,” Finkle said. “And once I found out more and more, I knew crime scene investigations was where I wanted to be.
“I expect to be constantly surprised. I think every day is going to be a new day, whether it is the seventh homicide I've worked or not, I expect it to be completely different and new.”
Applicants who applied for the positions were required to have at least a bachelor's degree in forensic science, law enforcement, criminal justice or crime scene investigation.
“They all come to us with a certain degree of expertise, and this way, we don't have to initially train them to that full extent,” Nelson said, “but we will acclimate them to law enforcement and the types of investigations they will work.”
The switch will save the department money, Citty said.
“It will cost you more if you have an officer go take a report out in the field versus having a civilian taking that report,” he said.