A white chalk silhouette, drawn against the asphalt. Strewn lines of tape, flashing red and blue lights, and the blaring sound of sirens — murmured, only slightly, by the echoing radio feedback.
To most TV viewers, this scene likely sounds all-too familiar. The tried-and-true formulas of fictional crime dramas aren’t without their tropes. NCIS, CSI, SVU, and other teledramas have mythicized criminal investigation to a point where the striped, yellow line separating reality might be a little blurry.
However, if you’re considering a career in criminal justice, it’s important to separate truth from fiction. More than clever one-liners and a steely glare, it takes a strong and determined disposition to excel as an investigator, as well as an intrinsic drive to see justice served.
So, let’s put the camera into focus and crack down on primetime crime. Read on as we investigate fact vs. myth and learn how real-world criminal justice careers offer different – and much more meaningful – experiences than their cable TV counterparts.
Myth: Nothing solves a crime better than high-tech
In fiction, nothing helps solve crimes quite like state-of-the-art technology (preferably employed by a quick-witted detective). Perpetrators are often pinned down thanks to rapid-paced lab results and groundbreaking gadgets. Who needs a degree when computers do all the work?
Fact: Knowledge and hard work outperform technology
For those solving cases in our communities, high-tech tools aren’t always available. Consider the logistics — like any public service, law enforcement receives money from our taxes; much of the funding is allotted to the most important assets, including salaries, vehicles, and life-saving equipment. The fancy tools we see on television — such as — are not necessarily on the priority list (and many don’t even exist!) Consequently, such bells and whistles aren’t usually used to solve real-world crimes, just the knowledge, skills, and hard work of professionals.
Myth: Crime scenes see high traffic
If you tune in to catch the exposition, you’ll notice that TV crime scenes are a bit of a feeding frenzy. Dozens of detectives dodge under the tape — dispatch of dogs at their heels — and swarm the scene without as much as signing in. Sometimes, even a newscaster or two will work their way into the frame.
Fact: Crime scenes aren’t so casual
Access to crime scenes is only afforded to. Aside from maintaining the confidentiality of the investigation and the victim, officers are there to look for evidence. The more people on the scene, the more likely it is that potentially pivotal evidence will be compromised or misplaced. Sometimes, narrowing in on a suspect can boil down to finding a single strand of hair or a footprint in the sand. Given that fragile evidence already struggles to survive unscathed by the elements, facing a storm of investigators will do more harm than good.
A true crime timeline
Myth: Evidence is analyzed at lightning speed
While detectives may be skilled at investigating crimes, they seldom possess the lab skills to assess the data without seeking input from other experts. On TV, a detective may hand over evidence and stand by as someone vaguely resembling a “scientist” looks through a microscope or scans it into a computer. Within minutes, the evidence has been reviewed and a clue has been discovered – something that points to a suspect or teases another thread to be explored.
Fact: Correct assessment requires skilled professionals following painstaking processes
Designated professionals known as crime scene technicians (CSTs) join detectives on the scene to help ensure that the best practices are followed while bagging up samples.
CSTs then glove up in the lab and spend hours poring over the evidence — assessing DNA and other collected samples. Depending on how much evidence there is and how backlogged the CSTs are, this process can become incredibly time-consuming. We’re not talking hours, days, or weeks, but sometimes even months.
Myth: Cases are always solved, and quickly
It often appears that the best TV cops crack the case just in the nick of time. Fictional crimes tend to wrap up before the episode rolls its credits. In real life, however, things don’t tie up quite as quickly.
Fact: Investigations could go on for years
Investigators often have to think outside the box — requiring them to analyze and reanalyze the facts of the case. Furthermore, as any true crime aficionado will tell you, it could take years to pin down the right perp — and that’s if they’re even caught at all. In 2018, studies indicated that over half the violent crimes in America remain unsolved. This is why skilled, knowledgeable professionals are so important in the field. Sure makes the CSI success rate look a little suspicious, no?
At University of Bridgeport, you can begin your journey toward a fulfilling career in criminal justice. Learn more about our Criminal Justice programs today!
Myth: Want to solve your case? Just find some DNA!
In fiction, DNA always seems to be the final, most important key to solving a crime — really the only puzzle piece required to solve the puzzle. Whether a stray strand of hair, some blood uncovered by blacklight, or flakes of epidermis (skin), it’s a narrative crutch that allows for mysteries to wrap up neatly and quickly — one that doesn’t always play out in real life.
Fact: DNA isn’t the code to cracking every case
DNA may be accurate evidence, but it isn’t always immediately helpful to detectives. In fact, DNA is only useful if you have an existing sample to compare it to. It doesn’t appear to work that way on television, so let’s put this into perspective: as podcast listeners and internet sleuths are likely to know, the case of the Golden State Killer was a . Although the police had access to DNA evidence, they couldn’t pin down the perfect match. Decades later, when technology advanced, clever investigators considered a new approach. With the help of an online ancestry database, police located a relative using the sample. Consequently, cops tracked down the elusive killer and put him behind bars for good — clocking the time it took to catch him at over 40 years , and only because of some innovative police work.
Myth: Fingerprints always offer pressing evidence
Another cliché of the crime genre is the all-important fingerprint, which TV investigators have used to point to the perp for decades now.
Fact: Fingerprints don’t always point police in the right direction.
While everyone’s fingertips have a unique pattern, the differences between similar prints can be difficult to discern, even with the help of computer analysis. This is if you even get a full, clear print, which doesn’t happen often. Moreover, fingerprints are easy to destroy and difficult to preserve — making them incredibly fragile pieces of evidence.
Myth: Stuck in an interrogation? Get the answers you need with a lie detector
In teledrama detective tales, lie detector tests (or polygraphs) are a surefire way to make a perpetrator sweat, and once that needle starts to make broad strokes, both the suspect and the interrogator know they’ve been caught in a lie.
Fact: Lie detectors don’t always tell the truth
While real-world suspects may not be wild about the idea of facing down a lie detector, technology hasn’t entirely caught up with fiction.
In all actuality, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of lie detectors. While the American Polygraph Association claims they yield an accuracy rate of over 80%, many researchers suggest these machines only have about a 50% chance of getting it right.
Myth: Teeth marks take a bite out of crime
Like fingerprints, conveniently placed teeth marks are often used in crime dramas to identify a culprit, as lab techs use 3D-printed models or computer programs to compare the marks with a person’s physical records.
Fact: Bite marks are often toothless as a means so solving the case
While dental records may be relevant evidence for both real and fictitious detectives, the accuracy of bite marks is mostly a myth. Although we each possess unique sets of teeth, they don’t leave personalized signatures. The impressions left by bite marks can vary unpredictably based on angle, force, and other factors.
Myth: A strong witness can slam the door shut on a case
On shows like Law & Order, witnesses can recall every detail of their interaction with a given suspect or victim — down to minute details like their outfit or the exact time they parted ways. Furthermore, they relay their report with casual flippancy — we’ve all seen a few episodes where a dockworker is questioned about a brutal crime while unloading 200-lb boxes from a rig, right ?
Fact: Witnesses are often unreliable
While investigating real crimes, officers seldom question witnesses or suspects in the middle of an eight-hour shift. Furthermore, the information witnesses offer isn’t necessarily reliable due to the fickle nature of memory. When the witness is also a victim, this can make accurate recall even more difficult. Anxiety, adrenaline, and fear can make the details of a traumatic event hazy and hard to identify.
Detecting false depictions
Myth: Every day is a roller coaster full of renegade cops
Whether it’s flooring a van through a shop window to pursue a perp or poking around a suspect’s apartment without a warrant, television crime investigations often appear to be a free-for-all.
Fact: Criminal Justice is about dedication to pursuing justice the right way
Although we hear about devastating biases and failures of justice on the news, most cops are by the book when it comes to following the rules — and for good reason. It’s their duty to enforce the law and protect the people, meaning they’re expected to operate with acute, unbiased instincts — not to recklessly endanger innocent people by going rogue.
This level-headed disposition doesn’t come from taking extreme action in the face of every risk. Furthermore, police must leave a paper trail as they work. For example, discharging a weapon requires extensive documentation after the fact.
Myth: Anyone can be a criminal investigator
From the renegade cops to the steely-eyed detectives, the professionals on TV rarely talk about the hard work it takes to enter the field, and they typically approach each new case as a clean-slate, ready to take on another case.
Fact: Detective work can take its toll, so it requires special training
A career in criminal investigation isn’t for everyone. Unlike stone-cold TV cops, many professionals are deeply affected by the tragedies they see. While most detectives and CSTs become acclimated and find their work fulfilling, it’s critical for investigators to take care of their mental health.
Because of the sensitive nature of this work, it takes time and training to earn a career in criminal justice. Many start as beat cops, and most pursue degrees such as a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice or even a master’s degree.
At University of Bridgeport, our Criminal Justice programs are designed with career readiness in mind. Through comprehensive coursework, expert instruction, and hands-on opportunities, you’ll develop the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in this rewarding field.
Learn more about our Criminal Justice programs today! Jumpstart your career with a bachelor’s or advance your practice in our master’s in Criminal Justice program. Whatever you choose, UB will be with you every step of the way!