What Crime Shows Get Wrong About Real Life Investigations

true-detectiveCrime shows have been a staple of television for decades. Modern crime shows include Law and Order and its countless spin-offs, to shows like NCIS (and its countless spin-offs); CSI (and its countless spin-offs); as well as several stand-alone shows like Criminal Minds and True Detective. While the specifics of each show are unique, the general premise is the same: a group of people get together and try to solve crimes. Although crime shows are popular, and many people become interested in them because they are actually interested in real life crimes, the fact of the matter is that crime shows get a whole lot wrong about real life investigations. Let’s take a look at some of the most significant things that almost every crime show gets wrong about actual criminal investigations.

Evidence isn’t everywhere

Most crime shows operate on a very shaky premise: that there is plenty of evidence at crime scenes, and that evidence can be swiftly used to solve a crime. On TV shows, crime scenes are veritable buffets of evidence; fingerprints, hairs, skin, and blood are frequently found intact and untrained, making them ideal for testing DNA, matching against people with records, and so on.
In real life, however, crime scene evidence is considerably rare. In fact, many crime scenes yield no direct evidence, because hair, skin, fingerprints and sometimes even blood at the crime scene can’t usually be proven to be from the victim or their attacker. In TV shows, the evidence is often depicted as being singular—such a single hair on the carpet next to the victim, which later turns out to be hair from their murderer. But in reality, there may be dozens of hairs on the carpet; potentially from the victim, their attacker, and anyone else who was in the home at any point.

Fingerprints are rarely found intact

If crime shows were to be believed, whole fingerprints can be found on everything from the murder weapon to glasses to windows to door frames and more. In reality, however, clear, distinct, whole fingerprints are extremely rare. Actual criminal investigators have called them the “four leaf clover” of forensic evidence, due to the fact that most fingerprints found at any scene are smudged and usually partial.

NCISDNA testing isn’t a One Hour Photo type service

TV shows like CSI and Criminal Mind need to solve their cases in less than an hour of running time for people watching at home; this is probably why both of these shows (as well as almost all crime shows) depict DNA testing as being similar to a simple hospital lab: just drop off the evidence you want tested and they’ll get back to you in a few hours. The DNA results always come back fast enough in these shows for the police or investigators to catch the bad guys, usually as they’re preparing to hurt someone else, thus upping the dramatic factor. The reality of DNA testing is completely different, however. In real life, DNA testing and reports can take weeks to be completed, even if the case is very high profile. This is because DNA testing is a long, laborious process that requires a lot of careful investigating and man hours.

Crime labs usually aren’t high tech

The crime labs featured in crime shows are usually state of the art rooms filled with the latest technology. There are always plenty of computer screens, printers, gadgets and usually multiple staff members working hard to help the investigators solve their crime. The reality is unfortunate not so glamorous or up to date. Most crime labs are woefully understaffed and, due to most budgets for criminal investigation being lowed or slashed, they are usually working with computers and other technology that is years behind. If real crime labs were as sophisticated and well-staffed as the ones on TV, perhaps certain aspects of the criminal investigation system could be expedited for the better.

There are no magical databases

garciaOne of the most ridiculous myths promoted by modern crime shows is the idea of a giant, Big Brother style database where everything you could possibly want to know about a suspect can be found. Whether it’s every address they’ve ever lived at, the model and year of every car they’ve ever owned, or even track records such as hospital visits or psychiatric medications, these magical databases have it all—and they usually end up helping the criminal investigation team solve the case. And in some of these shows, the people in question don’t even have criminal records, and would have no reason to have an elaborate ‘profile’ on any government database.

In reality, there is no magical database that a criminal investigator can pull up about a suspect. While some databases may have specialty information, these databases are usually cut off from one another due to local and federal restrictions. At best, a database profile on a criminal might have a list of any criminal convictions or offenses, as well as a last known address and basic information about their birthdate and hair/eye color. In fact, some criminal investigators in the past few years have found that social media can give them a lot more information about suspects in criminal cases than any official database profiles—which is why some training programs are now teaching investigators how to utilize social media for their cases.

Dental records can confirm an identity—not determine it

Dental records are like the black box of airplanes in almost every crime show: no matter how disfigured or brutally killed someone is, their dental records can always be used to find out who they are. The records created from the jaw found at the scene are usually put into yet another magical crime show database, which matches it with the general “dental records” files to identify the unknown person. In reality, however, dental records do not work this way. Dental records can only be used to identify someone if the police think they know who that person is, and have access to that person’s dentist. They cannot be used to find an identity at random.

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