For many people, understanding how forensic experts work with evidence for criminal investigations comes mostly from television shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its many spin-offs.
While fun to watch, such shows also perpetrate a number of myths.
For those with an education in criminal justice and a career applying science to criminal investigations, watching these shows can yield more comedy than suspense. While working in forensics has many advantages – good pay in a growing industry and high demand for qualified people – it does not typically include days filled with the kind of drama Lt. Horatio Caine experienced in every episode of “CSI: Miami.”
Here are seven myths viewers likely picked up by watching “CSI” and other crime dramas on television.
Myth 1: Things Move Fast
The constraints of a one-hour television show mean that writers condense the time between finding evidence and acting upon it. For example, it’s highly unlikely after finding a DNA sample from a crime scene that investigators will simply enter it into a computer, have a driver’s license or some form of identification pop up and then get a perfectly accurate, GPS-located address for a suspect, according to Sorenson, Utah, Forensics Executive Director Tim Kupferschmid. The typical turnaround time just to get DNA analysis back is two to five days – and may be as long as 30 to 60 days.
Myth 2: Forensic Experts Handle Police Work
When it comes to television drama, it is far more exciting to show the forensics team interrogating suspects, pulling out guns and kicking down doors than to show them peering into a microscope in a lab. But in the real world, trained police officers and investigators handle police work while forensic experts handle evidence collection and testing in a lab without a gun in sight.
Myth 3: DNA Collection Is Always Helpful
On television, crime scene investigators break out a swab, swipe it over any surface, drop it into a sealed vial and presto, there’s your DNA evidence. However, in the real world, finding a testable sample of DNA can prove very difficult and requires some type of biological material (saliva, blood, hair, etc.) that hasn’t been mixed with someone else’s DNA (a common problem). Unless it somehow contradicts something said by a suspect, finding someone’s DNA at a scene does not always prove useful. And not everyone’s DNA pattern can be found in a database.
Myth 4: Fingerprints are Everywhere
This is an interesting myth because it actually goes back to the influence of television and movies. Long before the latest run of popular “CSI” shows, movies and other television crime dramas made criminals very aware that leaving fingerprints behind is a major no-no in a criminal operation. These days, even those behind the most basic crimes know to wear gloves or even wash down surfaces with bleach to destroy DNA, according to the team of experts at Forensic Outreach.
Myth 5: Forensics is Always Used in Criminal Investigation
Perhaps because of television crime shows, people who serve on juries increasingly expect some type of science to have been used to connect a defendant to a crime. However, because of the expense of lab tests for things such as DNA, forensics don’t always come into play on every case – even a murder – if enough other evidence already exists.
Myth 6: Forensic Labs Are State of the Art
It’s easy to forget while watching a television crime drama that pretty much every character outside of the criminals actually works for the government. Often times, that means tight budgets for both equipment and staffing. The labs on television shows look futuristic, stocked with the latest technology. In reality, forensics teams often work in cramped quarters and are understaffed. Also, a lab typically serves more than one law enforcement agency (New Hampshire has only one lab that serves all law enforcement agencies in the state) and has a backlog of cases.
Myth 7: Forensic Experts and Dramatic One-Liners
Decades from now, long after the memories of the actual plots from the episodes have faded, people will likely remember the one-liners delivered by investigators on crime dramas. And no one did this better than Lt. Caine (actor David Caruso), usually as he put on his sunglasses, standing over a dead body on “CSI: Miami.”
If you become a forensics expert, you might want to be that cool, but it’s not going to happen.
These represent just some of the myths that crime dramas have planted in our television-watching nation’s psyche. Just know that while forensics provides a stable job in a growing field, the reality of your everyday life won’t match the drama you see on television.