The “CSI Effect”

investigationGenerally speaking, I am not one who can watch TV shows or movies about police.   Many of my friends refuse to watch these kinds of movies or shows with me because they don’t like my constant criticism of the shows as unrealistic.  I like a good story as much as the next person but I don’t like how our profession is presented as entertainment.  I realize that the story wouldn’t be nearly so good if it reflected reality.

With the constant array of detective or policing type shows available I think that a certain mythology has grown up around the work that removes reality and portrays us in only one aspect of our job:  crime fighter. While we are crime fighters, it is only about 20-30% of our overall job.  I realize that it makes good TV to show the constant car chases, shoot outs and other adrenalin inducing action but in fact that isn’t our reality for the most part.  We do a large variety of tasks, where the issue is rather vague and many of the tasks conflict with each other.  It is a complex job that demands that we be ready to pursue and tackle criminals, write traffic tickets to unhappy citizens, tow abandoned vehicles, referee angry neighbor disputes over barking dogs and write detailed reports about all of it.  Dealing with ill-defined problems and finding solutions using the law, common sense and some empathy is a better descriptor of what police do.

Another aspect of this mythology is what we have now termed the”CSI Effect.”  The television show, CSI and others like it seem so real that the methodologies and activities of these fictional characters in a contrived story now influence juries in criminal trials.  As you know, criminals are tried by a jury of their peers – regular folks from all walks of life.  The problem we see now is that jurors now have a distorted view of forensic evidence.  “Why didn’t the police get the DNA of the tire track in the burglary case to tie it to the defendant who drove through a farm yard with unique dirt and debris after committing the crime?”  In fact we have limited resources and limited access to DNA and as a result we must pick and choose where we use it.  Generally DNA analysis is reserved for serious felony cases of crimes against persons like serious assaults where someone is seriously injured.  We simply can’t use it on every case.  So we go to trial on the evidence we have.  The law says that a jury must convict if the evidence in the case indicates that the defendant committed the offense beyond a “reasonable doubt”–not the same as beyond ANY doubt.  But juries are shocking us with acquittals of defendants because they had an unreasonable expectation of what police can do.

When you are watching CSI or any other TV show or movie about the police, just remember –IT IS NOT REALITY.

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.