The 5 Biggest Myths About Crime Scene Investigators

by | Sep 1, 2019 | Lisa Black, On writing | 6 comments

        Okay, you know all the basics—we don’t drive Hummers, wear high heels or low-cut designer sweaters, and most of us don’t even carry guns. But can you make a deeper dive into the reality vs. Hollywood chasm?

1. Someone like me in an ordinary suburb in an ordinary part of an ordinary state does not have immediate access to a database including everyone who’s ever been fingerprinted, 
including job applicants and military.

        Even though you’ve seen this on television every day for the past 50 years, it’s not true. Most departments will access the county or the state’s collection. These may or may not have job applicants in with the arrestees, depending on how the powers that be feel about it. And I’m pretty sure the military doesn’t share with anyone except maybe other high-level federal agencies. If we had a serial killer in Cape Coral or some other high-profile cold case, yes, we would send the prints to the FBI, but it would take a bit more preparation than a simple keystroke.
        Now, that said, I expect that this rosy scenario will become reality at some point within my lifetime. But right now? No.

2. Speaking of databases, we do not have one with the chemical compositions of every substance known to man, from toothpaste to wall paint to motor oil. 

        We can’t tell you this residue is a rose-lavender hand lotion only made by a specialty boutique in Boca Raton…if it’s only made by one small shop, it wouldn’t likely be in anyone’s database, now would it?

        Depending on the instrumentation used I can tell you that this thread contains carbon-oxygen double bonds around 1700 nm as well as epoxides, so = nylon. But that it’s produced by Eastman Chemical for Burlington Textiles and used in trench coats sold by Macy’s? No. Companies make their living through their products. They’re not going to hand out their formulas to anyone who happens to ask, particularly a government agency–you know they can’t keep a secret.

 3. Speaking of companies, we can’t hack into their sales receipts to figure out who bought that trench coat or that lovely hand lotion that smells like roses with a hint of lavender. 

        Private businesses don’t care for people hacking their cash flow information, it’s not legal, and I don’t know about your agency but our IT whizzes have all they can do to keep our network functioning and itself un-hacked.

4. Homicide detectives and prosecutors don’t take us to lunch at nice restaurants. Most of the time, they don’t even like us all that much, and it’s mutual.

        Detectives are either uninterested in the crime scene or too interested, wanting to collect every scrap of paper even if it’s clearly been there since the last millennium–when it’s not them who has to photograph, bag, tag, store and then someday explain on the stand why we collected that and did nothing with it. They will then form the firm opinion that we are lazy and argumentative when we point this out.
          Attorneys are always dragging us in for depositions on our days off and asking endless, droning questions that go nowhere and have little, if anything, to do with the case and everything to do with accepted legal procedure. You need never fear that all parts of the criminal justice system will conspire to frame your innocent self—the odds of us getting on the same page at the same time are slim to less than zero. At least they are in my town.

5. We don’t interview suspects. 

        We don’t interview anybody—that’s a detective’s job. I might collect their prints or their saliva, I might ask if the door was open or closed when they got home, I might ask what their cell phone password is. That’s the extent of any conversation I have with suspects, victims or witnesses.

          Don’t get me wrong, I love my work. The TV shows have made people think CSIs are sexy and glamorous and, above all, interesting–and I’m eternally grateful for that. And I wish I could wear designer sweaters to the station. 

         Every profession has, for better or for worse, its stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals.

          What’s the biggest myth about your job?

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  1. Robin Burcell

    Had to laugh at this post, Lisa. The CSI TV show was one of the worst in promoting myths about evidence collection and police procedure. My husband used to get mad at me for pointing out the fallacies. Had to learn to bite my tongue! It is, after all, entertainment.

  2. Rogue Women Writers

    Love this piece, Lisa — I am consistently amazed at all the mysteries, thrillers and detective shows that often have one character — a 20-something computer whiz — who can hack into any data base, bank account, fingerprint source – whatever. We were watching a rerun of a McBride show (about the attorney who always gets the poor suspect off and gets someone else to confess to the crime in court) and he has the "typical" young associate who taps into absolutely everything for evidence. Thanks for straightening us out on what happens to REAL forensic expergts – like you! Karna Small Bodman

  3. Lisa Black

    Exact same experience at my house!

  4. Lisa Black

    I’m sure it’s the same when you watch things set at the White House!

  5. Chris Goff

    You mean Abby Sciuto isn't the smartest person on television, having extraordinary knowledge of ballistics, digital forensics and DNA analysis? She can hack anything, find the origin or composition of anything. She's a forensic genius. I may never be able to watch NCIS again.

  6. Lisa Black

    She's everyone's favorite character (and the actress really does have a degree in forensics!) and maybe, MAYBE NCIS really has all that equipment, but one person running all that single-handedly? Not with all the caffeine in the world.