Saturday, May 1, 2010
Real police growing weary of the 'CSI Effect' as TV viewers have unrealistic expectations
Their job is to dust for fingerprints and collect DNA. But many police investigators these days say they also spend a good deal of time in the field debunking myths.
Call it the "CSI Effect."
A study by the University of Western Ontario shows investigators often encounter civilians who, because of their exposure to TV police shows, question or second-guess the way they gather evidence.
While most investigators interviewed for the study said they take the comments in stride, some said it's become a growing burden and can prolong the time it takes to process a crime scene.
"I've actually had people get angry at me because I wouldn't powder something," the study quoted one forensic investigator as saying. "So now we just powder it in a sense of appeasing what their curiosity is going to be, and obviously we don't find anything."
Laura Huey, an assistant professor of sociology, interviewed 31 police investigators across the country for the study. Her findings were published in the April edition of the journal Crime, Media, Culture.
Huey said all but three investigators reported encountering victims, victims' family members or witnesses who questioned what they were doing or not doing based on what they had seen on TV.
Forensic identification officers who process crime-scene evidence said such encounters were common.
Investigators reported civilians sometimes think a particular clue has more value than it actually does because of what they've seen on TV. A major-crimes investigator quoted in the study used the example of the discovery of a boot print.
"Well, yeah, OK, we'll take a picture of it and get the imprint, but chances are we're not going to do anything with that boot print unless we have a suspect," the investigator said. "But people, because of the CSI show, they think, 'Oh, perfect! It's solved!' "
Gary Shinkaruk, an RCMP inspector in British Columbia, who was not part of the study, said he can relate. Civilians generally understand that Hollywood can distort reality, but misperceptions persist, he said.
"For instance, looking at an oil stain at a crime scene, they think we can say that oil comes from a 2003 Chevy Camaro, and then we can push a button on our super computer and it tells us we have 'this many' of those vehicles associated to drug dealers," he said.
Civilians are also sometimes under the impression that DNA results can be turned around in a day, when, in reality, it can take months, investigators said in the study.
"It makes them pretty p--ed off that you aren't as good" as the characters they see on TV, said one homicide investigator.
A major-crimes investigator said civilians have gone so far as to attempt to interview witnesses themselves because, he said, they believe they have enough knowledge to conduct interviews from watching TV crime shows.
The study found that investigators have a variety of responses to what one described as "Monday-morning quarterbacking."
A majority said they usually take the time to explain to civilians their methodology and try to dispel myths.
Toronto police Det. Sgt. Rob Knapper, who was not part of the study, agrees with this approach. Part of the function of an officer is to educate the public, he said.
They have to take the time to tell them, "'Don't be silly. It's not like on TV,' " he said.
Some investigators, according to the study, prefer an appeasement approach.
"Being realistic most of the time I will say, 'Yeah, you bring in a good point,' even if in my mind it's stupid," said a major-crimes investigator.
Others try to assert their authority. One forensic investigator cited in the study said a victim's family member insisted he could get a fingerprint off the handle of an old wooden shovel.
"And so I turned around with brush in hand and said, 'Well I have been declared an expert in court, but I guess you know more than I do. So maybe you would like to take this and process the pieces of exhibit over there and see if you can get a fingerprint?' Then he shut up."