Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CSI vs. The Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

I had lunch recently with a friend in the DA's office, who was bemoaning the "CSI Effect" on a case she was prosecuting. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to how the popularity of shows like CSI have caused jurors to expect high tech evidence to be presented in every case. And absent that evidence, there's a tendency to assume that the police didn't do their job.

Which, of course, isn't necessarily the case. DNA evidence, even when it is collected, faces a huge processing backlog. Plus, there's the simple cost/benefit analysis. All of those fancy tests are expensive, so law enforcement needs to pick and choose which cases merit that kind of expense. And sadly, with most, they just can't afford to put that fancy equipment (most of which is several generations behind what you see on TV) to use.

Here's a personal example. A few years ago, my father's car was stolen. The police came, took the report...and somewhat miraculously, found the car (an old Volvo station wagon, on its last legs) abandoned in a bad section of town. When my dad picked the car up, he noticed a discarded cigarette box in the rear passenger footwell. Being an aficionado of crime shows, he knew exactly what to do. Carefully using a pair of tweezers, he picked up the box, placed it in a baggie, and trotted down to the station with his evidence.

"What do you expect us to do with this?" The duty cop asked.

"Dust it for prints," my dad said.

"But you got the car back, right?"

"Sure, but don't you think maybe it might have been used in a another crime? It's not an expensive car, they probably used it to haul something...from a burglary, maybe." (On a side note, clearly the apple didn't fall far from the tree. When he told me this story, I immediately envisaged all sorts of terrible crimes being committed with the help of Bessie the Volvo).

"Yeah, maybe," the cop said. "Hand it over."

On his way out the door, my dad turned back and saw the cop toss it in the trash can.

Now, I'm not bashing law enforcement here. It's likely that the local department simply didn't have the resources to pursue the case. I watched a show last week where an entire unit spent weeks trying to solve the disappearance of a prostitute in a major city, using all sorts of high tech toys to assist them in their search. And that rarely happens. While researching BONEYARD, I stumbled across the term, "the Missing Missing." When certain people- prostitutes, runaways, illegal immigrants- fall off the grid, the cases are rarely pursued. But if a twenty year-old honors student vanishes, chances are it will be a constant news loop for at least a few days. In reality law enforcement resources aren't always applied equally or fairly- there isn't enough money invested for it to be. So if you're serving on a jury for a burglary, chances are you won't see 3-D renditions of the crime scene and a slew of DNA evidence entered against the defendant. Luckily, as my cops friends always say, most criminals are stupid. They're caught literally holding a smoking gun in their hands.

My favorite example from the local crime blotter this week. Mind you, I didn't insert the "duh," that was a nice touch by the SFPD:

On July 15th at 5:20 pm, The Plainclothes Team was patrolling in the
area of 3rd and Quesada when they came upon a group of subjects walking
down the street. The cops recognized some of the members of the group as
active members of a local violent street gang. One of the subjects
recognized the officers as well and alerted his associates. They
immediately split up into smaller clusters. One of the groups ducked
down behind the parked cars at the curb and continued to walk in this
crouched manner to avoid detection. Duh, they were unable to avoid
detection and were stopped. There was a good reason for all the
crouching and hiding nonsense. The officers located a loaded .9mm
handgun, along with a full box of ammunition, that was tossed by one of
the subjects into a driveway. This incident resulted in the arrest of
three individuals on gun and gang charges.

Chalk up another win, thanks to good old fashioned police work, no high tech toys required.


  1. Also, Michelle, regarding your dad's stolen car case, by bringing the cigarette box into the police station himself, he fouled the chain of custody. That box could theoretically (from the defense's POV) have come from anywhere. Who's to say it was ever in the car? The fact that the cops didn't pluck it from the car themselves ended its life as a piece of evidence.

  2. True, Mike- it's a shame the police didn't take it from the car.

  3. My father in law is the evidence tech for the Alaska State Crime Lab. He loves that show CSI, because he says its like what he wishes his world really were. Alaska has an extremely advanced crime lab, and is in the process of building the most technologically advanced (and expensive) new labs in the country. It has a lot of peoples ire up in other states and even the fed because it is a step higher than the FBI's Quantico lab...they're pissed.

    Even so the reality of his job is that there is a two year backup on DNA verifications and six months to a year on toxicology testing. The equipment is all there, but every time Alaska gets a good DNA scientist they get offered a higher paying job in a county lab with a smaller load that our lab that covers the whole state.

    His primary reality involves keeping inventory of evidence, half of which consists of bales of local grown marijuana (aka Matanuska Thunderf&%k), cases of bootlegged hootch taken from dry villages in the bush and his least favourite type of evidence....nasty butt floss thong panties taken for sex crime investigations

  4. Oh, nearly forgot, about 10 years ago he did get to inventory a collection of artwork that was quite interesting. It was a set of several well made tattoos... skillfully removed from the removed original owner by a Hells Angel enforcer whose boss had felt cheated on a cocaine shipment. Sadly the enforcer got away while on bail before the cops could get a warrant to search his trunk.

    Once they opened the trunk they found a medieval executioners axe and a gutting hook and a sack with some individual fingers and an ear. Oh yeah...and a mostly skinned head in trash bag.

    but most of the time he says his job is just boring stress.

  5. I don’t know if CSI does this, since I don’t watch it anymore, but I think my “favorite” thing that television shows do is when they take a photo from a security camera, blow up the reflection from a window to give them a grainy image of a license plate or a face, which they are then able to turn into a crystal clear image that has a clearly readable license plate number or a recognizable face. The photo enhancement software that does what they claim is a scientific impossibility.

  6. I'm no cop, but I've read enough and been around enough to know what the greatest misconceptions about CSI evidence: you almost never catch the guy that way. You can convict him after he's caught, but criminals are apprehended by talking to people, checking fingerprints, and breaking alibis. It's not like people walk around with bar codes representing their DNA tattooed on their foreheads.

    For every CSI episode that a juror sees, they should have to watch an episode of THE WIRE. Two come to mind: one is where Bunk and McNulty investigate a crime scene months later with nothing but a tape measure and a latex gloves. The other is the only time I can think of when they wanted DNA evidence, and the lab had miscoded the samples, rendering them useless.

  7. I agree, I think shows like CSI have upped what people think police can do. However, when I watch those shows I think, "gosh you can't get away with anything, you can get caught by just breathing in a room, maybe I shouldn't be stupid enough to try anything." It is possible that such shows do deter a few future criminals. Of course, as you mentioned, nothing is going to deter Dan the Dumbo from accidentally locking himself in with the evidence, while using his smoking gun to light a ciggy.

  8. It drives me crazy when shows like CSI use ridiculous technologies to solve crimes. Things like zooming way in on a low resolution picture and getting a detailed picture of a suspect. It doesn't say much for the writers if they have to depend on such whiz bang technology to move the plot along.

    On another note, there is a great series of reference books on police procedures for writers called "Howdunit". The volume on Forensics gives a very good overview of what is possible.

  9. Glad your father got his car back, but it was unfortunate that they didn't find the box to begin with.

    I can't believe he threw it away in front of your dad as if to make a point!

    This whole post sounds like a movie:)

  10. I'm not sympathetic to the "processing backlog" and "cost benefit" excuses that keep detectives from developing all of the evidence that is available. It's not the police department's fault, but our own fault as a society, when we don't set our funding priorities so that we take full advantage of all the tools that are available.

  11. Wow, Basil, that's fascinating! There's a book in those stories...
    I completely agree, THE WIRE is, so far, one of the few tv shows that accurately depict true police procedure and investigation. Maybe that's why it never attracted as many viewers as it should have- no fancy blow-ups of grainy security video footage.
    And it is a shame that we apparently spend more money on defense abroad than on keeping everyone safe back home. A friend of mine was working for the government in Afghanistan, and he regularly handed duffel bags full of cash (in denominations of hundreds) to tribal leaders- after a year of that, he still hadn't seen any noticeable diminishment in attacks on their camps. One of those bags alone could have made a huge impact on a metro police department.

  12. A lot of blame gets laid at the feet of CSI for misconceptions in handling evidence...but almost all TV crime shows abuse the time element of real investigative techniques. One scene in NCIS, which spanned maybe five minutes, clues were uncovered by procedures that would have normally taken weeks to procure.

    How does that impact us writers who attempt to portray a more realistic view of investigation?

  13. It's amazing how our perception of forensic science has been molded by shows like CSI. TV makes solving crimes look extremely easy and glamorous, even though, that is not the case! Being a CSI agent takes a lot of work and with new technology advancements its getting even more complicated.