Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Similkameen Spotlight week of Feb. 21, 2005)

Police Reality Shows Are Anything But

  By John Martin

The strange relationship between media and crime has produced some strange offspring over the decades.  Our fascination with crime and criminality may be natural and unavoidable.  But the way serious crime is being depicted by entertainment media is generating some surreal and disturbing ripple effects.

The popularity of forensics based police shows is serving to establish unrealistic and sometimes silly expectations.  One of my students, an RCMP member from Vancouver Island, recently informed me of the following while investigating a “theft from vehicle”. The victim, after handling the rain soaked, mud covered rock that was used to smash the side window of his car said "Guess you'll be wanting to take this rock with you so you can analyze it for DNA, fingerprints, and anything else you guys can think of." With little fanfare and not wanting to crush the victim’s expectations, the officer took the rock and later returned it to it's rightful home; the quarry.  But not before telling the misguided and optimistic victim, "We'll try our best."

Another RCMP member in the class notes, “The things people see on TV have certainly raised the expectations of what the police are supposed to be capable of.  DNA, for instance, should be very easily found everywhere according to TV, but in reality is not such a simple thing.  The exhibits that are seized have to be handled very carefully or samples can be easily contaminated.  We are even at the point where we have special drying cabinets at the detachment for items such as clothing.  These items have to be dried, to preserve potential DNA, before the item can be sent to the lab for examination.  If an item is stored in a wet condition the DNA degrades quickly.  Each drying cabinet, which is not very large, costs in the neighbourhood of 150 to 200 thousand dollars.  This is just one example of the costs associated to investigative techniques and the expertise required to utilize it.”

Practical and financial limitations just don’t seem to register with the public in this day and age of CSI, Medical Investigations, DaVinci’s Inquest and NCIS.

But more serious are the concerns raised by prosecutors over the “CSI” effect.  A District Attorney in Oregon notes that, "Jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case.  They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television." 

The prosecutor adds that jurors want "CSI" quality science in the courtroom regardless of budgets. Jurors often expect same-day DNA tests and same-day toxicology reports, both of which many districts do not have access to. 

Jurors are routinely asking for DNA tests and discounting other types of evidence.  A murder suspect was acquitted in Baltimore when jurors, despite hearing from two credible eyewitnesses, insisted on DNA results. 

It’s at the point where potential jurors are even being asked during selection interviews if they regularly watch CSI. 

The public, with much credit to the media, has long held unreasonable expectations of law enforcement.  CSI and similar police investigative shows have only exasperated the problem.

I say, bring back Barney Miller; the most authentic and realistic television cop series ever made.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

Prime Time Crime current headlines

Contributing Writers