Money & Career

CSI-TV gets a reality check

Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

CSI-TV gets a reality check

Every week millions of viewers tune in to CSI to get their forensic science fix. The Emmy Award-winning series -- with shows based in Las Vegas, Miami and New York -- follow forensic teams as they piece together heinous crime scenes. While the CSI franchise is a ratings hit, it's won few fans among the forensic science community. Joanne Wendell, a real-life crime scene investigator with the Vancouver police department, says you shouldn't always believe what you see on TV.

Here are six myths to help you decipher CSI fiction from fact.

Myth: A case can be solved in under an hour.
Reality: Television shows compress events. "Nothing's ever solved in an hour," says Wendell. "I've spent hours crawling around on my hands and knees collecting hair and fibres. You can spend days or even weeks at a scene."

And once Wendell's finished collecting the clues, she has mounds of paperwork to sift through. "There's twice as much work back at the office."

Myth: Laboratory technicians examine evidence as soon as it arrives.
Reality: The lab might not inspect evidence for several months. "The lab is always running at full capacity and is extremely busy," says Wendell. "They prioritize everything depending on the nature of the crime." Meaning evidence from a homicide takes precedence over a break-and-enter case and is examined first. However, it usually takes six weeks -- not 60 minutes -- to receive DNA test results.

Myth: Forensic officers can wear whatever they want to a crime scene.
Reality: There's a definite dress code and it depends on where you work. "In Vancouver we wear our police uniforms, but in Toronto they wear business suits," says Wendell.

Sometimes, when the crime scene warrants it, Wendell wears a "white bunny suit" to prevent contamination. The technical term is "crime scene suit," but forensic officers often refer to them as bunny suits because they're white and they cover the officers from head to toe. "Sometimes I wear a crime suit even if I don't have to because it's [the crime scene] so disgusting. There's no way I would get into my car with the clothes I've worn all day."

Myth: CSI actors use the equipment properly.
Reality: While the equipment is authentic, it's often used incorrectly. "I watched a show and they sprayed a chemical that makes blood glow in the dark," says Wendell. In real life, "you've got to have your camera on a timer and set up on a tripod because it only glows for 15 seconds." However, on the show, "the lights were on and they were just randomly snapping photos, and I know that's not how it works."

Myth: Forensic officers collect and analyze evidence, interview suspects and apprehend criminals.
Reality: It's a lot more job specific than what you see on TV. "My job is to go to different crime scenes and collect forensic evidence," says Wendell. "That's it." Once Wendell packages and labels everything, she drops it off at the lab and then it's up to the detectives to track down the suspects. If an arrest is made and the case goes to court, then Wendell presents the evidence at trial.

Myth: Crime scene investigators are experts in forensics.
Reality: Forensic officers are trained in all areas of the science, but they only receive a basic overview of the entire field, then it's common for officers to specialize in one particular area, such as blood spatter, footwear impressions, knots, or handwriting analysis. "To have everyone specialize [in all fields] just isn't feasible, and there's a time issue," Wendell says.

Even though CSI contains more fiction than science, Wendell says the popular TV drama can help her profession. "The show's revealed an unknown area of policing. It's generated a lot of interest in the field and I think it will attract young people to forensics."

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CSI-TV gets a reality check

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