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America's First Crime Lab

LAPD Forensic Specialist Ray Pinker and Detective Miles Ledbetter, 1935

LAPD forensic specialist Ray Pinker (left) and Detective Miles Ledbetter examine possible evidence at a home as part of a homicide investigation Los Angeles, 1935. Photo from the L.A. Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library

On July 1, 1923, Officer Rex Welsh of the Los Angeles Police Department was assigned to be the department’s first criminalist and tasked with setting up a scientific laboratory to support criminal investigations. This was part of Chief August Vollmer’s efforts to modernize and bring innovation into the department. The new assignment introduced the first public-funded crime lab in the United States, preceding the FBI’s version by nine years. Welsh had some college training in science and an interest in applying scientific analysis to police investigations. As the new Scientific Investigation Division, he set up a tiny lab in the old Central Police Station, located at First and Hill streets, starting with an old microscope, some chemicals and glassware.

LAPD Officer Rex Welsh

LAPD's first criminalist, Officer Rex Welsh. Photo from Hertzberg Davis Forensic Science Center.

Six years later, the LAPD added a second staff member to the lab with the hiring of Ray Pinker, a civilian with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology from USC. Pinker became the nation’s first civilian police forensics scientist. He assumed the technical work of the lab while Welsh focused on narcotics analysis. The lab gained greater scientific credibility under Pinker’s scientific expertise and methodology and went on to become a model for other cities. Pinker also pioneered the use of paraffin tests and gamma rays for determining use of a firearm, breathalyzers, lie detectors, color and 3-D crime scene photography.

Through the 1930s, Pinker and the officer assigned to the lab (Officer Leland Jones replaced Welsh after Welsh was tragically killed in a boating accident in 1934) were LAPD’s entire forensics team of two, performing lab analysis, responding to crime scenes, attending autopsies, and testifying in court. It was not long, however, before detectives began appreciating the value of their work. Pinker went to work on some of the most notorious crime cases in Los Angeles, including the “Black Dahlia” murder in 1947.

Dr. Frank Webb and LAPD Forensic Specialist Ray Pinker, 1938

Dr. Frank R. Webb examines human remains from a Los Angeles crime scene with LAPD forensic specialist Ray Pinker looking on, 1938. Photo from the L.A. Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library

During the 1950s, the television series “Dragnet” featured a police forensics character inspired by Pinker, even naming the character “Raymond Pinker.”

Pinker retired from the LAPD in 1965 after 36 years as Chief Forensics Specialist. He went on to teach forensic science at California State University, Los Angeles. Pinker died in 1979.

Also see the Los Angeles Times article “The Real-Life Sleuth Who Inspired ‘Dragnet’ Character” by Cecilia Rasmussen.

L.A. Video

L.A. Videos

Also see L.A. Video: Hertzberg Davis Forensic Science Center.

Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center