RTI uses cookies to offer you the best experience online. By clicking “accept” on this website, you opt in and you agree to the use of cookies. If you would like to know more about how RTI uses cookies and how to manage them please view our Privacy Policy here. You can “opt out” or change your mind by visiting: http://optout.aboutads.info/. Click “accept” to agree.

A group of students in a lab

Merriam-Webster defines People of Color (POC) as: 1) a person whose skin pigmentation is other than and especially darker than what is considered characteristic of people typically defined as white ,  2) a person who is of a race other than white or who is of mixed race.

This three-part blog series on POC in forensics will (1) examine the landscape of POC in forensics, (2) explore why POC are underrepresented in forensics, and (3) propose a path forward to increase representation.

Looking ahead: Where do we go from here?

With a projected 27% increase in forensic science jobs by 2024, it is vital that POC are positioned to gain successful, long-term employment in the field. A multifaceted approach is needed that seeks shorter-term advances while also recognizing that increasing diversity in the forensic sciences will require more fundamental improvements in key institutions, such as our education system. Family support, early exposure to STEM, mentorship, and recruitment are all important factors that can influence someone’s decision to enter a career in forensic science.

Early Exposure to STEM

Early exposure is key to fueling student interest in STEM. It helps children and youth understand the world around them and prepare them for future advancement. However, students in low-income areas may not have access to computers, the Internet, or other technologies needed to learn about and pursue STEM-related topics. Creating successful partnerships between STEM professionals and schools in economically disadvantaged communities allows students to experience hands-on learning. Established in 2014, STEM RTP provides enhanced STEM programming for local schools and enhances science curricula for students in underserved communities. Partnerships like this are crucial for fostering student interest and engagement.

Enhance Collaborations with HBCUs

Another way to increase educational and career opportunities for POC in forensic science is to enhance collaborations with educational institutions, particularly historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to explore the concerns of the community while providing mentorship for students. In an effort to build relationships and a hiring pipeline between law enforcement and in the community, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance recently awarded RTI and its partners with a project to collaborate with HBCUs in the “development of officer recruitment and retention programs and resources to increase the representation of people of color within law enforcement careers.” This type of approach could be replicated in the field of forensic science. In another example, RTI recently partnered with North Carolina Central University (NCCU) to establish the NCCU-RTI Center for Applied Research in Environmental Sciences (CARES). This partnership, which includes shared laboratory space at RTI, will focus on the “role the environment plays in health and disease and the disproportionate impact on underserved populations.”

Place an Emphasis on Collecting Annual Data

Finally, revisiting an old adage that we “measure what matters,” more emphasis needs to be placed on collecting annual data across all disciplines of forensic science, including in positions in private laboratories; federal, state, or local government agencies; universities; and law enforcement organizations. A recent study by Yim et al. that reviewed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey found that Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous individuals are largely underrepresented across the forensic sciences.  However, the authors noted that a limitation of the survey is the categorization of many disciplines under umbrella categories, such as “miscellaneous life, physical, and social science technicians” and related occupations such as “biological scientists” or “chemists.”  These data can be generalized across forensic science disciplines, but they may not be a one-for-one, and thus the authors note that the data may be exaggerated. One step to quantifying representation across the forensic science field specifically could be data collection through forensic membership organizations or through a large-scale survey similar to the national surveys employed for state and local law enforcement or other areas of the criminal-legal system. Without accurate and timely data on the current state of diversity within forensic science, we cannot adequately assess our ability to increase participation or evaluate the effectiveness of particular programs designed to drive engagement and recruiting.      

Advancing Diversity - Promising Initiatives and Necessary Change

Efforts such as these provide examples of ways in which academic institutes, research organizations, federal and state government, and the private sector can enhance POC interest in pursuing careers in the forensic sciences. Recruitment, mentorship, and relationship building can provide the support that POC need while helping to understand and address the apprehension many POC still have regarding potential careers in science or medicine. These programs and other efforts across the country demonstrate that progress is being made to address some of the “causes” discussed, and we should applaud these efforts. However, more widespread implementation of similar programs is needed to begin patching the leaks in the recruiting and hiring pipeline.

Sustained success will require society to recognize that past actions and policies play a role in the underrepresentation of POC in forensic science. Policymakers, educators, and organization leaders must examine where opportunities exist to implement programs and policies that ensure that POC are on a level playing field. Leaders and members of influential forensic associations as well as federal agencies that conduct and fund forensic science research must also make this a priority.

A promising example of a program combatting this issue is the National Institute of Justice’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, which uses podcasts, forums, and other forms of outreach to promote forensic science to POC. More efforts like this are needed to overcome POC’s barriers and challenges in entering forensic science.

To suggest that the required changes will happen overnight would be naïve. However, greater awareness of the issue as well as innovative strategies and partnerships are vital first steps toward change.

Learn more about RTI's work in equity-centered research and our Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE).

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Lawrance Mullen (Forensic Scientist), Nelson Santos (Principal Scientist), and Nichole D. Bynum (Research Forensic Scientist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.