‘The CSI effect’ distances viewers from reality
by Charlie Sewell
June 30, 2013 12:00 AM | 2258 views | 1 1 comments | 76 76 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Retired Powder Springs Police Chief Charlie Sewell
Retired Powder Springs Police Chief Charlie Sewell
Can superhero police officers shoot a car with a handgun to make the car explode and hurtle into the air? Just watch a television cop show, and you may personally peep at this breathtaking product of a screenwriter’s vivid imagination. Shooting a car with a handgun would cause a boring thud, no explosion, and likely not even a wiggle.

How realistic is it to watch a television cop leap from a building onto the top of a speeding freight train, then jump to a grassy embankment and later leap over moving cars while chasing a felon? We might as well believe that police officers are “faster than a speeding bullet,” and “more powerful than a locomotive.”

“The CSI effect” is a reference to an unfortunate by-product of popular television shows such as CSI, Bones and NCIS that erroneously portray law enforcement’s ability to use forensic science in solving crime. Scientists certainly can use the DNA from human tissue or fluids to identify a suspect, but a very unrealistic vision of forensic science can be perceived by watching television. Some jurors have voted to acquit a criminal defendant solely on their belief that the police did not do the job as well as television depicted.

How does a juror sift through all the information provided by the prosecutor and defense attorney in order to render a fair and impartial decision? Some people believe from watching television that a detective can look at a single hair particle and instantly deduce the suspect’s name, his motive, his brand of cigarette, the cologne he wears, and the name of his best buddy from first grade. A juror must start with a dose of reality, and an open mind, and process the facts as directed by the judge.

Screenwriters create fantasy in order to entertain the viewer, and the biggest bang is often the biggest entertainment. A court of law, however, is about “just the facts ma’am” and not about the entertaining value of Joe Friday on Dragnet. Judges must have thick skins to tolerate prejudicial, narrow-minded, and uninformed opinions, and they must also possess the ability to review a case they preside over without inserting their own prejudice.

Cop shows are often based on actual cases, but screenwriters often take great liberties in stretching the ability of the forensic scientist, just like they do when they portray police officers with superhuman abilities. It is exasperating to me when a police actor does something that is dissimilar to accepted police procedures or even contrary to law. My wife says a television drama isn’t necessarily meant to be real, just fun to watch. Fun, perhaps, but it can also misshape people’s concept of the entire criminal justice system.

It is a marvel to me how some viewers believe everything they see on television. Some have watched actors mimic Southern accents to the point they get riled about the “phony Southern accent” of a real Southern actor. If you allow the fabrications of television to guide your way of thinking, you become an actor playing just another unrealistic role in the real life game of good guys, bad guys and the facts of life.

Charlie Sewell is the Powder Springs chief of police. His column runs occasionally in the Marietta Daily Journal
Comments-icon Post a Comment
June 30, 2013
Boy did you hit the nail on the head with your article.

I have been in law enforcement for 20 years now. I cannot recall how many times I had to answer questions on the stand from defense attorneys about why we did not use the 3d laser image holographic to help us with our investigation (exaggeration, but pretty close to reality). Or, why we did not run a specific piece of evidence through all 1500 possible tests shown on CSI at an exorbitant cost to the tax payers and our limited budget (if the supposed test exists at all).

But, I would proffer that this mindset has its usefulness to law enforcement also. I can't recall how many times I obtained a confession from suspects when I told them that were going to conduct test so and so like on CSI and then we would know the truth. Worked many times.

So, CSI worked both ways for me anyway.
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