LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – When a crime happens, every step taken from the first 911 call centers around finding justice. But one key part of any investigation has too often been left out of the headlines.

KARK 4 News was granted special access to Little Rock’s Crime Scene Search Unit to learn more about the specialists working every case who are critical in the fight for justice.

The department is home to the crime scene specialists like Bailey Sandoval who handle the puzzle pieces left behind by tragedies.

“It is our job to identify, collect, and preserve items of evidentiary value,” Sandoval explained. “We want to be able to essentially show someone in court the story of what happened.”

Sandoval is one of 10 in the Little Rock Police Department’s all-civilian – and all-female – crime scene team.

“Yes, we are an all-female unit,” she said. “I know that I get to come to work today and share that I can do this with women that also have the same love and passion for this career field that I do.”

These women are trained to look for what others can’t see, from evidence invisible to the naked eye to bullets, shoe prints, and even blood spatter. But although the work may seem like something more at home in the movies, this isn’t “CSI.”

“We definitely don’t solve crimes in 60 minutes or less like you see on television,” Sandoval joked.

Dr. Cheryl May has seen how critical the work is firsthand. As the director of the Criminal Justice Institute, it’s up to her and other instructors to train the next generation of crime scene techs using tools and practice in their state-of-the-art laboratories.

“There’s not a lot of programs like what we have available around the country,” May said. “Students being able to have the ability to actually practice what they’re going to end up doing in the field is critically important.”

Her work also underscores how unique LRPD’s unit is, made up of civilians trained to do one job incredibly well. In fact, May said as far as she knows, there are only four in the state: Little Rock, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Fayetteville.

For every other department in the state, the crime scene work is up to sworn officers; one person doing everything from the groundwork to the report.

“Oftentimes, if they do the crime scene work, then they’re also going to be the investigator,” May explained.

So how rare is it to have a separate, civilian team? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 the job field had 17,600 jobs across the country. For comparison, police officers and detectives were 808,200 strong.

But the need for forensic experts is growing every day, with the growth rate for crime scene teams and forensic science techs at 11% – more than double the national average.

“That physical evidence on those scenes has become so critically important that I don’t think any department can really do without anybody that is specifically trained on crime scene work,” May explained.

It’s a heavy burden to carry. But for Sandoval, one that’s bearable knowing the impact she makes.

“Knowing that my actions have essentially put this person behind bars or given a family justice is the best feeling in the world.”