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Real Crime Scene Investigations: Forensic Experts Reveal Their Secrets

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‘It’s not CSI.’ A few years ago, as forensic crime shows started splashing across TV screens like so much blood spatter, I started hearing this from cops I know in my family and their friends. I heard it from homicide detectives I’d interviewed for previous books. The cops always stopped, sort of mysteriously, at this three-word review whenever the shows were mentioned.

At the time, I didn’t know any forensic scientists. I didn’t know anyone who worked collecting and processing evidence at crime scenes. I didn’t know anybody who worked in a crime lab. But I did keep hearing cops, when they talked about cases they worked on, give variants of this one-sentence critique of crime shows: ‘It’s not CSI.’

At first, I thought cops’ distaste for crime shows might be some form of professional jealousy, a way of preserving insider status (I’ve found that cops tend to have contempt for all crime shows, with the exception of re-runs of Barney Miller). I thought it might be, in the case of homicide detectives, a way of down-playing the importance of science at crime scenes, science that can be intimidating and exclusionary to detectives who do old-fashioned, shoe leather police work.

Just as an occasional viewer, I found CSI and its minions sort of unsettling, rather than convincing. The tone of the shows, especially CSI, seemed too smug with the science and too in-your-face with body parts (granted, I hold my hands in front of my eyes, saying, ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’ over and over during horror movies).

But it seemed odd that four people would concentrate on one case at a time, handling all the work from scene processing through analysis at the lab (and why was the lab always so dark?), on through smirking interrogation of suspects. It didn’t ring right. First of all, who would wear designer suits, leather, and suede to places festooned with body parts? Second, what was with all the gloom? The detectives I know are incredibly socially-skilled, fun, and humorous, not at all like the grim, condescending troupe of CSI.
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