criminalistics | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Investigations

Criminalistics is a scientific discipline that deals with the identification, collection, and analysis of physical evidence from crime scenes.

Criminalistics is a branch of forensic science that deals with identifying, examining, and interpreting evidence from crime scenes and other sources.  It is important to note that criminalistics and forensic science are not the same thing. Criminalistics is a subfield of forensic science that focuses on the identification, collection, and analysis of physical evidence from crime scenes. Forensic science, on the other hand, is a broader field that encompasses all scientific disciplines that can be used to investigate crimes. This includes criminalistics, as well as other areas such as forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, and forensic psychology.

History of Criminalistics

The history of criminalistics can be traced back to the early 1800s when scientists began to use scientific methods to solve crimes. One of the earliest pioneers in the field of criminalistics was Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer who developed a system of anthropometry, or the measurement of human body parts, to identify criminals.

In the early 1900s, scientists began to develop new techniques for analyzing physical evidence, such as fingerprints, bloodstains, and firearms. These techniques helped to revolutionize the field of criminalistics and made it possible to solve crimes that would have been impossible to solve in the past.

Branches of Criminalistics

Criminalistics is a broad field that encompasses many different subfields. Some of the most common subfields of criminalistics include:

      • Firearms and toolmark identification: Criminalists in this subfield use their knowledge of firearms and tools to identify the make, model, and serial number of firearms and tools found at crime scenes. They also use this knowledge to match bullets and cartridges to specific firearms.
      • Biology/DNA: Criminalists in this subfield use their knowledge of biology and DNA to identify and analyze biological evidence, such as blood, saliva, and hair. They can also use DNA to match suspects to crime scenes.
      • Controlled substance analysis: Criminalists in this subfield use their knowledge of chemistry to identify and analyze controlled substances, such as drugs and explosives.
      • Fire and explosion debris analysis: Criminalists in this subfield use their knowledge of fire and explosions to analyze fire and explosion debris. They can use this information to determine the cause of a fire or explosion.
      • Wildlife forensic science: Criminalists in this subfield use their knowledge of wildlife to identify and analyze wildlife evidence, such as feathers, fur, and bones. They can use this information to help law enforcement solve crimes involving wildlife, such as poaching and illegal trafficking.

Role of Criminalistics in Crime Investigations

In criminal investigations, the role of criminalistics is to provide a clearer picture of what happened by examining and interpreting physical evidence. This involves several steps:

Collection of Evidence

The process begins at the crime scene, where law enforcement officers and crime scene investigators meticulously collect any potential evidence. This might include swabbing for DNA, lifting fingerprints, photographing the scene, and collecting any physical items that might be related to the crime.

Examination and Analysis

Once the evidence is collected, it’s taken to a laboratory for examination. This is where the role of the criminalist (or another specialized forensic scientist) becomes crucial. Using a variety of scientific techniques and specialized equipment, they analyze the evidence to extract as much information as possible.


After the examination, the criminalist interprets the results. This involves making sense of the data and understanding how it fits into the context of the case. For instance, DNA analysis might reveal that a particular suspect’s DNA matches that found at the crime scene, suggesting their presence.


The findings are then compiled into a report, which is used by law enforcement agencies and attorneys in their investigations and trials. In many cases, criminalists may also be called to testify in court as expert witnesses, explaining their findings to the judge and jury.

Criminalists in the Courtroom

Criminalists often testify in court to present the results of their analyses. They must be able to explain their findings in a clear and concise way so that the jury can understand them. Criminalists must also be able to answer questions from the prosecution and the defense.


In essence, criminalistics is the application of various scientific disciplines to the field of crime investigation. It involves the collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting of physical evidence from crime scenes. The field is diverse, encompassing several specialized areas, each with its own techniques and methods. The information that criminalistics provides is invaluable in solving crimes and achieving justice, making it a critical part of our criminal justice.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/15/2023


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