It seems that these days you can’t flip on the TV without stumbling across some kind of show about forensic science. Whether it’s engrossing documentaries such as Gabriel Weston exploring the history and development of forensic science on BBC4, or staples of the entertainment genre such as CSI, NCIS or Bones, these shows have done a lot for bringing one of the more thorough and technical aspects of criminal investigation to the forefront of people’s minds. This has led to universities and even ourselves seeing a huge growth in enrolment on forensic courses.
But what do these shows get right? And what do they get wrong? Below we’ve used our own detective skills to track down some liberties and some realities in how TV shows present forensics and criminal investigations.
Getting It Right: Method
For the most part, the criminal investigation in a film or TV show will be based on real-life processes and procedures that crime scene investigators utilise. How do they manage to get this aspect so right? Many TV shows dealing with the crime genre will often hire a former law enforcement officer as a technical advisor to ensure best practices of criminal investigation are observed. This might involve being on set to advise first hand or it could simply involve reading and editing the relevant parts of the script for accuracy.
Getting It Wrong: Fingerprints
When fingerprinting a suspect, they have to be taken very delicately in order to avoid smudging. One of the issues with police procedurals is the fact that perfectly formed fingerprints seem to be wherever the crime scene investigators look. For example, if a gun is the murder weapon and is left at the scene they’ll easily take a print off it, but when you think about how you would grip a gun it would be very hard to get an accurate fingerprint.
Getting It Right: Blood Splatter
When it comes to blood splatter, TV and film seem to believe that more is better. Occasionally they get it right though – Dexter, the TV show about the crime scene analyst/serial killer, was reasonably accurate at portraying the methodology and intricate recreation of blood splatter patterns from murders.
Over the course of his job, Dexter used red string to trace the paths of blood from source to end-point – calculating the intricacies of the crime which has been committed using his insider knowledge. The writers had obviously done their research.
Getting It Wrong: Paperwork
We get it – no one wants to settle down to watch a gritty crime show only to end up watching the hardboiled detective go through report after report at his computer for two hours. With that said, crime scenes demand intricate and in-depth documentation.
Crime scene photographs need to be submitted as evidence, diagrams of the crime scene have to be digitised and submitted as evidence, each item of evidence needs to be documented, then a report has to be written to reflect everything seen and done at the crime scene. With that in mind, two hours at a crime scene can create double that time in reporting rather than being out in the field and chasing down leads. Exciting!
Getting It Right: Procedure
One of the many reasons that The Wire revolutionised the police procedural show was because it took a case and built it up over the course of a season. It dug into the minutiae of building a case, collecting evidence and logging it all, rather than blasting through a new crime each episode.
In fact, the show got procedure so right that there were reports of real-life criminals watching the show to learn how to counter police investigation techniques!
Getting It Wrong: Technology
CSI seem to be under the impression that the police have access to futuristic technology that wouldn’t be amiss in Minority Report. To prove the point, one episode involved a member of the lab team using a handheld device in order to instantly retrieve a suspect’s criminal record.
The reality of technology at your locally police station is far less glamorous – their mainframe will literally just be a basic, albeit huge, database of information because that’s all they need and all they’re interested in.