CSI Effect: Calif. Forensics Unit is All Female

The Torrance Police Department's forenics team has been entirely comprised of women for the last year.


TORRANCE, Calif. — Gabrielle Wimer was nine months pregnant and working a crime scene when she found the closest thing to a smoking gun for a forensic specialist: a clean, detailed fingerprint.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I got a beautiful print right here,’ ” she recalled. “And I turned and my belly just wiped it off.”

That was it, she said: “I’m done until I have this baby.”

Now almost 3 years old, Wimer’s daughter is still too young to understand her mother’s job. All she knows, Wimer said, is that it’s for the police. “Police,” she’ll say. “Mama’s work.”

Wimer is a forensic identification specialist for the Torrance Police Department — one of seven experts in charge of collecting evidence from scenes, analyzing it for clues and helping detectives close their cases.

And for about a year now, the team has been made up entirely of women.

Law enforcement is dominated by men. According to the FBI’s most recent statistics, only 11.9 percent of officers nationwide in 2012 were women.

Science is also dominated by men, who tend to collect higher degrees and higher salaries than women.

By all accounts, forensic science — the marriage of the two — should be the same. Instead, more women are finding jobs, filling classrooms and creating careers for themselves in the field. In places like Torrance, they’re not just catching up to their male counterparts, they’re outpacing them.

The Torrance Police Department once used sworn officers to handle forensics duties. Cops learned on the job, usually working the unit for about two years before they moved to another assignment.

But in February 2010, the rotating officers were replaced by civilian experts with years of experience.

Donna Brandelli was brought in to jump-start the civilian unit. She had spent two decades with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, first as a dispatcher and then as a forensic specialist.

She steadily built up the Torrance division, developing protocols, finding new equipment and improving communication between officers and her civilian crew.

There were challenges at first.

“It’s hard enough coming in here as a civilian in a law enforcement environment, and then to be a female civilian?” Brandelli said. “We had to break through that.”

When the women started showing up at crime scenes, some detectives were skeptical, members of the team said. A few were reluctant to hand over the scenes for processing.

But soon the department started seeing an increase in cases closed with the help of forensics. Detectives began stopping by the lab to congratulate — and thank — the unit for its work.

“It completes our investigative unit. The results are right there: People are getting arrested for crimes they’re committing in our city,” said Sgt. Robert Watt. “Those forensics people are just as relentless as our detectives.”

———

The radio crackled as Tina Bazzo drove to her first scene of the day. A man had called police after spotting three people trying to break into his neighbor’s home.

The homeowner took her to the backyard. A window screen had been flung onto the grass; a large shard of glass lay nearby.

Bazzo snapped a few photos before she began to dust for prints, her brush twirling black powder onto the broken glass.

“This is the ideal surface for prints,” she said. “So if we’re gonna find them, we’ll find them.”

No luck. A pattern on the glass indicated the would-be burglar was wearing gloves.

“It’s not like the movies, huh?” the homeowner half-joked.

“I wish,” Bazzo said. “I’d be solving this thing in an hour.”

The 30-year-old was 10 when she got her first fingerprinting kit, a Christmas present from a family friend. She dusted everything in sight.

“I love my job,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

———

Sometime in the last decade or so, more women began studying forensic science. Some credit the so-called “CSI” effect, saying strong female characters in crime television shows — think Abby Sciuto on “NCIS” — have inspired more young women.

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