Subscribe to get tough, fair journalism seven days a week.
Subscribe today

Category: No Adults Allowed

On the beat with a crime lab technician

Of No Adults Allowed

Ashley Chu’s cool career includes regular trips in the Salem Police Department Mobile Crime Lab, a van equipped with most of the necessary tools to collect evidence from crime scenes all around the area.

“In high school, I took a forensic science class and I volunteered for the Portland Police Bureau in their criminalists unit and armory. That’s how I initially got into the field and gained some experience,” Ashley said.

He’s been a police laboratory technician for Salem Police Department for almost two years, but he’s done similar types of work all along the West Coast and even in Australia.

“Our duties include picking up evidence that officers collected at scenes of crimes and we will do a fingerprint processing and comparison. We also work major crime scenes where we photograph and process the scene, document and collect evidence,” Ashley said.

As part of the Salem Police Department, most of what Ashley does is look for fingerprints, but even that can involve a lot of science.

“We use physical and chemical techniques to develop latent prints. For example if we have a soda can, we perform a visual inspection to see if there are any fingerprints that are visible, if not we can use cyanoacrylate fuming tank (superglue tank),” Ashley said. “When we touch something, we transfer oils and other contaminates onto that surface. The fumes from superglue adhere to contaminations on the surface of the can to make it visible. We use photography techniques to capture that fingerprint.” That means knowing how to operate cameras well is a valuable skill in his line of work.

If there is enough of a fingerprint to be useful, it can be put into a computer database that looks for matches with other fingerprints that have been collected.

“If we get a fingerprint match, the crime techs have to check each other’s to ensure there are no mistakes and then we send the information back to the police,” Ashley said. “Sometimes we don’t find a matching fingerprint in the database. In those cases, we can register the new fingerprint and if the criminal gets arrested later they might be charged with the older crime.”

Either way, he’s helping making the community safer, which is a why he likes his job.

“I like to help people. My big thing is put yourself in the victim’s shoes and remember that they want to feel taken care of and that they want to feel like justice was done. That’s how I try to view every item we process,” Ashley said.

School was a big part of preparing Ashley for his career. After high school, he got a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. Then he got a master’s degree in forensic science that required him to study past research and conduct his own. His research focused on developing a database to compare the markings firearms make on bullets.

He had three big pieces of advice for kids thinking about a career as a crime tech.

“Pay attention in all your classes. Forensic science is such a broad field, a lot of the classes you take can help in this field such as mathematics/physics, biology and chemistry. You also want to get experience, so try to volunteer some place where they are doing this type of work,” he said.

The last lesson was one you can start working on right now: remember you are part of a team in most things that you do.

“With this type of work, it’s not just one person, it requires teamwork. We play a small part in the investigation. I’m lucky to get to work with a lot of good police officers and detectives” he said.  “The cool thing about this job is that every day can be different, you might be doing something in the lab or writing reports and next thing you know, you could be called out to a crime scene.”