Lisa Smith quit her job as an FBI forensics expert two months ago to come work in the Howard County police crime lab, a career move that wouldn't have made sense 10 years ago.
But Smith, 24, a former mortician's apprentice and an up-and-comer in the forensic crime field, is making more money, her commute is cut in half and she joins three other former FBI specialists in the county crime lab.
With Smith's arrival Aug. 20, four of the crime lab's seven civilian members are former FBI experts, proof positive that the suburbs are an attractive alternative to big-city lifestyle.
The suburban counties surrounding Washington -- and the FBI headquarters -- have attracted well-trained talent from the federal ranks. Smith, a forgery expert who worked on New York's highly publicized Tawana Brawley case in 1988, believes she's made a key career move by coming to Howard County.
"I'd expect to top out at the FBI at a salary of about $30,000, compared to about $38,000 I can expect to make here," said Smith, a Baltimore resident who used to commute nearly 90 minutes a day to Washington. "Howard County has better advancement opportunities than the bureau, and I'll be able to do more."
From a law-enforcement career perspective, the Howard County Police Department does not carry the prestige of the FBI. The lab here does not have the facilities, equipment and manpower that puts the federal crime lab a cut above the rest.
But lab technicians here have broader responsibilities and can expect to do everything from fingerprinting to identifying bodies. And Smith got a $2,000 increase in her annual salary, up from $24,800 at the FBI.
Valerie Herrington, 29, who joined the county police crime lab last October, said she got a similar raise when she left the FBI lab after nearly 11 years as a fingerprint technician.
With Howard County police putting added emphasis on forensic crime-solving, helped along by a $175,000 fingerprint computer scheduled to go online Jan. 1, the FBI seems dull in comparison, Herrington said.
"The atmosphere and the work is much better here. At the bureau, you are assigned to an agent and you do the same thing every day," she said. "I don't miss the bureau at all."
The reality for FBI officials is that the suburban counties, with growing populations and escalating crime problems, are attractive -- and better-paying -- training grounds.
"We hate to lose good people, but I've got to admit I wouldn't want to do that commute every day," said Jim Dearborn, a spokesman for the FBI office in Baltimore. "Some of the counties, like Howard, can afford to pay more than us. I guess we have to expect to lose some people."
County lab technicians often go to crime scenes alongside officers to gather such evidence as bloodstains, hair fibers, footprints or tire tracks that may have been left behind. The department solved all nine homicide cases reported last year, with forensic evidence playing a part in each case.
R.C. Bartley, the head of the Howard County crime lab, came here six years ago after a 16-year stint in FBI headquarters. At that time, he took a small pay cut to come to county police, but "frankly, it was worth it to get rid of that commute," he said.
Bartley, who lives in Ellicott City, said the federal retirement program took a substantial chunk of his paycheck every week. The benefits program in Howard County, which offers a retirement plan after 20 years, compared with the 34 years he would have needed at the FBI, also played a factor in his leaving.
"People have given up the bureau because coming here is a chance to improve the overall quality of your life," he said. "You get top-of-the-line training at the FBI, but you have a lot more chances to do things here."
The crime lab in Howard County was previously staffed mainly with sworn police officers. In August, four of the officers were put back on the street, with Smith and three other civilians hired to take their place.
Two of the new technicians, Douglas M. Read and James J. Biltz, are recently retired Baltimore County police officers with nearly 25 years' experience each. Both spent approximately 15 years as a crime-lab technician in that department.
Biltz's expertise is in homicide, arson, bombing and firearms investigations, and Read has experience in fingerprinting, crime-scene sketching and composite sketching.
Both were technicians in the investigation of the 1986 Amtrak wreck in the Chase area of Baltimore County.
"We've got some people here who've had their hand in this stuff for a while," Biltz said. "It's pretty hard to find an area where we're lacking."