FACT or FICTION: Forensics and Crime Scene Investigation Portrayed in Entertainment

The CSI Effect

Skilled investigators work to unravel crime scenes, but it doesn’t always follow the process portrayed in pop culture. For example, in this photo, it’s clear that someone spilled white paint on himself/herself, then tripped while doing a Wile E. Coyote impression. ~Ben (Image by Nate Nolting via sxc.hu)

If you’re not already reading crime writer/criminologist Jennifer Chase’s blog and Emily Stone series of novels, you’re missing out. In addition to those great reads, Chase cranks out posts on her website worthy of a college course in criminal justice. I’m privileged to host another fantastic post from her here. Enjoy!


FACT or FICTION: Forensics and Crime Scene Investigation Portrayed in Entertainment

Jennifer Chase crime novelist

Jennifer Chase writes the Emily Stone series of crime novels. (Image via http://authorjenniferchase.com/)

Who can miss the abundance of crime shows depicted on television these days? Just about every television network has some type of series that is designated to finding a bad guy through careful investigation, forensic applications, exceptionally astute investigators, and criminal profiling. Although entertaining, I will admit, it still leaves me with a bit of a sour note.

Even though most shows are purely fictional or based loosely on actual events, it still gives the viewer an unrealistic view of what can and cannot be done in the forensic world of investigation. If you think that this is no big deal – think again. Everything we watch and cognitively experience from television shows and movies can skew our assessment and understanding of forensic science. These exaggerated events and forensic procedures can be easily taken as fact because they are engaging and realistic to watch.

This phenomenon is called the CSI effect. It can affect our opinions and perceptions about law enforcement, criminal investigations, jury trials, and crime. Some reality roadblocks definitely put a damper on what we see in entertainment portrayals of forensic techniques and crime scene investigations.

Technology & Budget

Technology is changing and evolving at a rapid rate, which contributes to new technology for forensic science. Fact or Fiction?


All police departments in the United States have the budget and state of the art technology to perform all types of forensic tests to investigate and solve crimes. Fact or Fiction?


Criminal Justice TechnologyAlthough there are police departments that have specialized forensic divisions, it is not the standard. Many departments are understaffed and lack the budget to have up to date forensic equipment. All of the cool crime fighting gadgets of high-tech computers, scanning electron microscopes, crime scene vehicles, various chemicals, and many other things to properly stock an efficient crime lab remains the minority.

To make matters more complicated, law enforcement officers often receive inquiries and demands about investigations that stem from unrealistic portrayals from popular television shows.

The need for forensic answers sometimes becomes the forgotten evidence. For example, there are numerous police departments across the U.S. that have thousands of unprocessed rape kits, which nationwide has been estimated to be approximately 400,000. The massive implications of this lack of testing are staggering compared to what we see on fictional TV programs.

Accuracy & Speed

The evolution of DNA testing has accurately exonerated wrongfully accused – many individuals serving life sentences have been released from prison. Fact or Fiction?


DNA testing is a relatively simple testing process that can be performed in a matter of minutes or an hour by a standard forensic technician. Fact or Fiction?


(Image via Jennifer Chase)

(Image via Jennifer Chase)

DNA evidence can be screened, extracted, prepped, amplified, analyzed, interpreted, and reviewed within a day or two in a perfect world, and if there was only one assigned job for the lab. It still is not the speedy hour comparison shown on a few popular TV shows. However, due to backlogs, lack of personnel, and not enough equipment, it can take a forensic lab one to two months to process DNA evidence. There are many cases across the U.S. where DNA testing has taken six months or more. In all fairness, testing for such things as paternity can take a relatively short period for the results.

Think about all of the biological evidence (semen, blood, salvia, skin, sweat, etc.) all combined at every type of crime scene that is collected during the investigation. That is a massive amount of evidence transferred to any crime lab. Crime evidence continues to pile up every single day.

Training & Personnel

Crime scene technicians and crime lab personnel have college degrees in forensic science, chemistry, or biological science, and often times a minor degree in psychology or criminal justice. Fact or Fiction?


Crime scene technicians often perform other duties during the criminal investigation, such as assisting the detectives or district attorneys with interviewing suspects, revisiting the crime scene looking for more evidence, or creating a criminal profile. Fact or Fiction?


(Image via Jennifer Chase)

(Image via Jennifer Chase)

Forensic technicians are hired to perform a specific forensic duty and sometimes there are combinations of work depending upon the size of the department, such as fingerprint comparison, photography, collection, DNA, toxicology, etc. These key forensic technicians do not take on or perform detective or attorney responsibilities – ever. Finding qualified individuals is generally not the problem for most police departments and forensic labs; once again, it is the budget and lack of funding that is the major setback.

This does not mean that you cannot enjoy a television show, movie, or book that is involved in forensics or crime scene investigation, which pushes the realm of forensic reality with artistic license. Quite the contrary, most movies and television shows are fun and entertaining. It just means that some, if not most things, portrayed in entertainment may not what it appears to be, so view it with some deductive skepticism and reasoning.

About the Author

Dark Pursuit Crime Novel Jennifer ChaseJennifer Chase is an international award-winning author, screenwriter, and consulting criminologist.  She has authored six crime fiction novels, including the award-winning Emily Stone thriller series along with a screenwriting workbook. She holds a Bachelor degree in Police Forensics and a Master’s degree in Criminology & Criminal Justice.  These academic pursuits developed out of her curiosity about the criminal mind as well as from her own experience with a violent sociopath, which provided Jennifer with a deep personal investment in every story she tells. In addition, she holds certifications in serial crime and criminal profiling.  She is an affiliate member of the International Association of Forensic Criminologists.

For more information about Jennifer Chase’s books, forensic articles, and upcoming events, please visit: www.authorjenniferchase.com

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