Everywhere we look, regardless of network or cable package, crime dramas dominate television airwaves.
You’ve seen them. The first scene opens with a team of detectives – clad in gloves and biohazard suits – lifting fingerprints off bed sheets, shower curtains and windowsills. After the commercial, those same detectives immediately match the prints they found to a seedy-looking suspect from a seemingly endless database of criminals. By the end of the episode, the detectives have located said suspect, shaken him or her down and elicited a confession. All in just over 40 minutes.
Whether you prefer the cerebral forensic experience of CSI, the boots-in-the-streets grittiness of Law & Order: SVU, the sinister Robin Hood style of Dexter or some combination thereof, American audiences are tuning in to this type of TV by the tens of millions.
And maybe you’re one of those people that thinks, “I could do that!” as you watch some savvy detective outwit an outlaw, unlock the psyche of a serial killer or slap on cuffs and also analyze blood spatter.
But if you’re looking for a criminal justice career based on what you see each week on the small screen, think again. Experts agree that the fantasy of TV doesn’t match up very well with the reality of the job.
“Just remember, these shows are for entertainment,” says Frank Dolejsi, director of the forensic science lab at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). “[The biggest myth] is that cases are always solved in an hour and you can be a police officer, a scientist and a forensic pathologist all at the same time.”
In an effort to paint a realistic picture of what criminal justice students can expect on the job, we’ve asked experts to weigh in on other misconceptions that often arise in today’s TV crime dramas.
Myths & Realities
Myth #1: The person collecting evidence at the scene is the one analyzing it in the lab.
Reality: "The lab people stay in the lab. They’re not out fighting crime,” says Kevin White, an 18-year veteran police officer and crime scene technician (CST) with the Eden Prairie police department.
White says he spends a lot of time processing each crime scene to determine whether there is any evidence that can be collected. If he is able to find evidence, he says, it gets packaged and taken to a forensic laboratory where it is tested for the presence of DNA.
The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database is considered the world’s largest repository of known offender DNA records – aiding in more than 25,000 criminal investigations in 2010 alone – but it’s not perfect.
By its very nature, CODIS is a collection of known offenders. If DNA is collected from a suspect whose fingerprints have not been entered, guilty or not, that suspect will not be identified using DNA.
Moreover, if a sample collected is very small, poorly preserved or highly degraded, matching it can be very difficult.
If the lab does find a match, the sample is sent back to the local police department and officers begin tracking down the suspect and building a case against him or her.
White says the entire process – from collecting DNA at the scene to sending it to the lab for analysis to testing it against known offenders – depends on the timetable of each person involved, and can take up to a year to complete.
Myth #2: Crime scenes are usually processed quickly and easily.
Reality: If I were processing one scene by myself, it could easily take a full 10 hour shift just to locate evidence, collect the evidence, document everything and clean up,” says Jason Weber, a former CST with the Owatonna police department and Rasmussen College instructor in the School of Justice Studies.
The idea that a scene can be processed and evidence collected within minutes of arrival is a huge myth, Weber says. What TV viewers sometimes forget is that DNA evidence is made up of biological material, which can deteriorate or be compromised quite easily.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been processing a crime scene and see cops standing in the middle of it, talking about what happened,” White adds. “Even they don’t realize that DNA is constantly falling from your body – and mixing with the evidence.”
Myth #3: Fingerprints are easily collected and matched.
Reality:"Just because I lift a fingerprint doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to anything,” White says. He goes on to explain that the ability to lift a fingerprint depends on the surface he’s processing – porous surfaces are particularly difficult – and the amount of biological evidence available.
Even if a CST processes a scene perfectly, there is still a chance the evidence found will not match a known suspect. Despite its effectiveness as a crime fighting tool, CODIS suffers from an enormous backlog of samples waiting to be typed and entered into the database.
In addition, different surfaces create a host of additional hurdles.
Chemicals exist that allow CSTs to lift fingerprints from difficult surfaces but they’re very expensive and can damage the piece of property on which they’re poured. So, when processing a scene for prints, CSTs need to weigh the quality of the print with the likelihood of a match.
Weber agrees: “When lifting fingerprints, you have to wear gloves, a mask, boot coverings, and other protection gear …. If you do not properly lift the print, it is not valuable.”
Myth #4: Law enforcement professionals turn off emotions when they’re on the job.
Reality: "Police officers see stuff that people shouldn't see and we see a lot of it,” White says. “Holding a dead child in your hands affects you. Having to draw your weapon and shoot at someone affects you. You never forget some things.”
White talks about how TV shows often show a police officer or detective shoot a suspect or process a heinous crime scene and be back at work the next day. TV cops, he says, are often portrayed as stoic or unaffected by the things they see and do on a daily basis.
“We’re human just like everyone else,” White says.
Myth #5: Every day is exciting when you’re a CST or police officer.
Reality: "[The job is] 98 percent complete sheer boredom; the other part is just crazy. It can go from 0 to 100 mph in a split second,” White says.
Much of the time – 95 percent, White estimated – the job of a CST or a police officer is documenting evidence, collecting information and writing reports.
The reason so much time is spent on organization and following protocol is because any of the work done by a CST or police officer can be the subject of a criminal investigation. For example, properly written reports can be used to help attorneys prosecute suspects. Conversely, sloppiness and poorly followed protocols can be used by defense attorneys to argue a breach in the chain of custody.
Myth #6: A criminal justice degree will automatically qualify you to be a police officer, CST or forensic scientist.
Reality: "It is important to know that college [alone] will not make you a crime tech,” Weber says. He was required to complete more than 400 hours of specialized training – after becoming a police officer – before being allowed to process a crime scene by himself.
A college degree will put you on the right path and provide you with a good foundation for a career in criminal justice, Weber says, but additional training and a passing grade on the Police Officer Selection Test (POST) is needed before you’re able to work in the field.
White – who earned a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice 10 years after becoming a police officer – also has some advice for those still uncertain about how best to get into the field.
“You’re going to want some type of criminal justice degree. Earning a college degree shows you’ve completed something,” White says. “To become a cop you’ll still have to go through all the skills training – that‘s the meat and potatoes of a cop job. To become a crime scene technician, you might have to do two, three, maybe five years as a beat cop first.”
If you’re looking to work at a state facility like the BCA, forensic training is even more extensive.
“If you want to work in a forensic science lab, you’d better like science,” Dolesji says. “Scientists who work in the [BCA crime lab] are required to have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in a physical science, and many have advanced degrees. [BCA forensic scientists] receive one or more years of specialized training before they are authorized to perform examinations on evidence.”
So there you have it ...
Is it all you thought it would be? Are there things in this list that shocked or surprised you? Let us know in the comment section or start a conversation on the School of Justice Studies Facebook page.