Instead of hard evidence, like DNA and fingerprints, they rely on psychological profiling to conduct criminal investigations, which I always found to be an intriguing spin on the genre.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the nitty-gritty of police work as it’s portrayed on TV. I’ve always been entertained by how neatly crime scene investigators analyzed and tied together forensic evidence in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, how Dr. Brennan reconstructed victims’ skeletons in Bones, and how Shawn Spencer’s hyper-observant skills helped the Santa Barbara PD solve the most ridiculous crimes in Psych. Remember when Shawn said the museum’s mummy was the criminal mastermind and he was, of course, right?
I guarantee that, at one point, people who consume police procedural shows like water have thought about going into law enforcement, myself included. It’s difficult not to wonder, though, how different criminal investigations on TV are from real life.
Another question to ask is: Can the technology and procedures in real-life criminal investigations catch up to what they use on CSI and Criminal Minds? How capable are actual crime-solving teams when it comes to, well, solving crimes?
Forensic Science Is Not as Straightforward, Infallible, or Bulletproof.
Forensic scientists are very capable, otherwise crime would continue to be rampant and no one will be made to pay for it. But it’s not that simple.
Take a look at forensic evidence, one of the first things investigators comb for at a crime scene. On TV, you can use DNA, fingerprints, blood spatter, trace materials, ballistics, handwriting, or anything else you can test scientifically and basically reconstruct what went down to the smallest detail.
Who pulled the trigger and what kind of weapon did they use? What farmland in the midwest did the perpetrator step on before visiting the crime scene? CSI usually has an answer for questions you wouldn’t even think to ask based on the smallest material evidence they collect.
As much as we would like to believe that this area of criminal investigations is straightforward, it’s not. Forensics is not even 100% accurate. It can fail — and it has.
For instance, bite mark comparisons have led to false convictions in at least 24 criminal trials. According to forensic odontologist Dr. Freeman, investigators typically look at the bruising that bite marks create on the body.
As you can probably guess, bruises don’t provide a perfect model of one’s teeth. Skin elasticity can also affect the indentation that human teeth create on the skin. Teeth may still be unique but bite mark impressions are not reliable, which is why investigators now consider forensic odontology to be junk science.
And while DNA is unique and can help criminal investigations move forward, scientists say that too much hangs on the analysis, which is not flawless. There have been cases where false positives led to wrongful arrests, such as Amanda Knox’s murder trial in 2007.
While the high-tech polymerase reaction chain (PCR) test allows forensic experts to test minuscule DNA samples, the slightest contamination can create false positives and point to the wrong person.
CSI makes it seem like forensics is an infallible science when it is far from it. In fact, it’s created what experts call the CSI Effect on jurors, who are always on the lookout for hard evidence such as DNA or fingerprint confirmation.
Forensic evidence can still fail in real life and shouldn’t be used as the sole basis of an investigation or a jury decision.
Cases Don’t Get Solved in a Matter of Weeks
Police procedurals like Criminal Minds only get 50 minutes per episode, so each murder mystery has to be solved within that time frame. I’ve watched dozens of episodes where the serial killer they’re hunting escalates to two to three murders in a day, forcing the team to work just as quickly.
When they put their minds together, each case gets wrapped up neatly in a week or so.
In real life, criminal investigations take time. There is a lot more legwork and paperwork involved than what they show on TV. Not all teams have geniuses like Criminal Minds’ Dr. Spencer Reid who impressively puts everything together at the right minute.
And unlike on CSI, you can’t identify and analyze samples in a minute. The speed at which things are done on these shows is maximized for dramatic effect. The procedures are also oversimplified, according to Morgan Turano, who has a background in forensic science. While the technology we’re used to seeing on CSI is based on reality, they don’t operate as quickly or as conveniently.
For example, a CSI lab technician simply reads out the type of drug injected into a victim off of their monitor. But in real life, a machine won’t do that for you. You have to be adept at reading graphs to identify the compound in question.
One of my favorite things is when a character sprays luminol onto the scene and the room lights up so they can say, “It’s blood.” But even that seemingly simple test can yield false positives.
Shows like Criminal Minds also often gloss over the amount of background work done to solve mysteries and catch criminals. We can’t really blame TV producers for that. The detailed and painstaking work involved in actual criminal investigations simply won’t make for very good TV.
Investigative Roles on TV, Like Profilers, Don’t Have All-encompassing Roles — Some Positions Are Not Even Real
While I’ve always known that police procedurals sensationalize criminal investigations for our viewing pleasure, finding out that some of the roles don’t even exist in real life really burst my bubble.
For instance, the criminal profilers that Criminal Minds puts in the thick of every case are not real. The BAU exists but the FBI doesn’t have a profiler position. What they do have are criminal psychologists who study the motivations, behaviors, and actions of suspects.
Their job entails offender profiling like on the show but really, most of what they do keeps them in an office. Criminal Minds has kind of conditioned me to think that these positions are dangerous, but real criminal psychologists never actually venture out into the field.
Sure, they may conduct interviews with suspected criminals, but they won’t be like the BAU’s Derek Morgan kicking down doors whenever the situation calls for it.
Even the FBI doesn’t have a highly proficient hacker like Penelope Garcia. If you haven’t seen Criminal Minds, Garcia is essentially an all-knowing being as long as she has access to her computer.
The FBI does have technical analysts but even highly-skilled professionals can’t find the information that she can.
“Garcia, cross-reference all the abused teenagers in New York City from 1994-1997 with kids who had clowns for their 7th birthday party,” sounds like a ridiculous request, but it’s the kind of thing the character can find on Criminal Minds.
In reality, one-person teams like Garcia’s technical analytics department or even the BAU as a whole consist of several people and even more teams. The BAU is actually split into multiple divisions, and each of them focuses on a specific type of crime. These include serial killings, counterterrorism, cyber crimes, crimes against children, and crimes against adults.
And if you want to be a lab technician for the CSI, say goodbye to your chances of solving crimes or running after murderers yourself.
The real CSI has highly specialized positions that don’t involve interviewing witnesses or suspects. They mostly deal with processing the crime scene, which entails collecting and analyzing evidence.
These jobs don’t usually share responsibilities. So if you’re the ballistics expert, you won’t be asked to process DNA or fingerprints on the side.
While CSI shows that detectives often consult with lab technicians, they only do so in a limited capacity in real life. Criminologist Jennifer Shen explains that scientists can’t provide their own theories because they need to remain impartial when they process evidence.
Tests are only useful when the results are analyzed, so it can only be disastrous if the technician has their own theories that can influence their analysis of the evidence.
Some of It Is Real, Such as the Basis of Some Cases and the Competitiveness of the Field.
That said, there is some truth to what we see in police procedurals. As wild as the cases are on Criminal Minds, for instance, some of them are based on real life. Ever heard of the cannibal that fed human meat to patrons at his restaurant? That sounds unthinkable but it is based on a real and relatively recent case. You’d be surprised at how disturbed some people really are.
These shows also portray investigators as highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals, and that’s not far from the truth. To get into the FBI or to become a crime scene investigator, you’d have to have specialized skills given that literal lives are hanging in the balance.
The FBI, in particular, only accepts already experienced agents into the BAU so there is a tall ladder to climb to get into a position that characters from Criminal Minds have.
Shows like Criminal Minds and CSI embellish a lot of the things that really go on behind criminal investigations for dramatic effect. Results don’t arrive as quickly, which means crimes don’t get solved in a matter of weeks. Investigative teams are also not as infallible as police procedurals portray. Tests and analyses of their results are prone to human error, so not every element of police and forensic work is conclusive.
As informed viewers, we can accept that none of these shows will ever be like the real thing. But that’s okay. We can still enjoy drama-filled police procedurals as fictional works of television meant to excite us. Just don’t let it influence you next time you’re sitting on a jury.