Thanks for reading my column. You might wonder what qualifies me to write about this. I’ve been in Emergency Services for 38 years as a police officer, paramedic, tactical paramedic, firefighter and instructor and Academic Chair in a paramedic program. And I write police and medical procedurals. My first novel, Crisis Point was a 2015 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award finalist.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s start. In this column I’ll talk about the things TV and movies gets wrong in Police and Medical Procedurals.
On TV and in movies people survive numerous gunshots, walk away from explosions, have three, four, five doctors trying to save a life, and we accept that. (Well, some of you do!) It seems we are willing to accept anything on TV or a movie without asking if what just happened is possible. Perhaps we watch TV or go a movie for a sixty or ninety minute escape, don’t get overly involved in the characters, enjoy the ride and walk away. A novel by contrast, takes more of a reader’s time, more of their energy and a really good novel hits their emotions—hard. So, does anyone care if you get things wrong? Readers do! They will challenge your errors. Medical and law enforcement personnel will hang with a story that feels real to them. Readers not in a police or medical profession select a medical or police procedural because they want to know what it’s really like.
Don’t ever skimp on your research. You need to be as accurate as possible. The internet is a valuable resource. But that’s not enough. For a medical or crime novel you need to interview professionals in the genre you are writing. Talk to an emergency department physician or registered nurse. Talk to the cops in your area. It is my experience that cops and paramedics LOVE to tell stories about their job. You might be amazed at how much information you get, and a lifelong source of new material.
One thing to keep in mind when writing a crime based story is that you need to talk to cops from the area your novel is set. Interviewing a Calgary Police officer will not help if your novel is set in New Orleans or Billings Montana. Police terminology, weapons and tactics do differ from city to city, province to province and state to state.
Medicine is more universal, especially Canada and the US. You do have to be aware of difference in health care funding between Canada and the US.
So, the final comment is, YES, you need to be accurate.
If you’ve watched shows like CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, and Bones, you feel well-versed in the science of forensics and crime-solving. Wrong! While you’ve probably picked up a few handy tips for the next time you commit a crime (which I hope is never), these TV shows misrepresent the forensics profession in some major ways.
On TV, perpetrators inevitably leave behind plenty of telltale signs of their passing. The team finds DNA evidence, sticks it into a computer program, and minutes later, a suspect appears, along with his complete criminal record and a current address. How are there any unsolved cases out there with magical technology like this?
The system that many shows use to match their DNA is CODIS, a real U.S. DNA profile archive. The number of DNA profiles in CODIS has risen significantly in the past 10 years, but there are still fewer than 9 million offender profiles in the system as of 2010. Considering there are about 313 million people in the U.S., it’s clear that not every DNA sample found matches up with someone on file.
The scene evidence includes fingerprints, hairs, fibers, skin or blood. In real life, many crime scenes yield no forensic evidence whatsoever. It’s often impossible to distinguish what’s criminal evidence from stuff left over from just everyday activity. When forensic evidence is found, it’s often so degraded or contaminated to be usable.
On TV, the CSI unit is the most important team at the murder scene, calling the shots, interviewing the witnesses and then hauling the suspect away in handcuffs. In the real world, forensic analysts work in the lab, occasionally collecting evidence in the field or process a crime scene. The interrogation and arrests are left to the police officers and detectives.
On TV, analysts perform tests and immediately rush to their supervisor with the results. Medical examiners rattle off the toxicology report results before the body’s been fully autopsied. While it makes for fast paced TV shows, but it’s far from reality. A typical toxicology test involves taking samples of blood, urine, and various body tissues, testing them for drugs and other substances. A forensics toxicology test takes four to six weeks in a normal case.
The ‘CSI Effect,’ is affecting real-life trials. Juries expect to be given irrefutable forensic evidence like they’ve seen on TV, and when they don’t get it, they don’t think the case is strong enough. On the other end of the ‘CSI Effect’ is the notion that forensic analysts are infallible. Juries believe these test results, even though it’s been proven that many tests are be flawed.
Another detrimental aspect of the ‘CSI Effect’ is the knowledge it gives criminals about what crime scene units do. Murderers and rapists now know what measures to take to avoid leaving DNA evidence at the scene, such as burning bodies or using bleach, and how to keep blood out of their cars. This doesn’t mean that they don’t screw up in other areas or have friends who turn them in, but it is certainly making it harder on police to get solid evidence linking someone with a crime. Combine this fact with jurors not convicting as often without high-tech evidence, and forensics shows are complicating things for our police and prosecutors.
Crime shows give the impression that every police department has its own forensics lab. Police, medical examiners, and analysts all seem to be housed in the same building, when in reality, forensics labs often serve hundreds of city and town police departments. Not only are these labs few and far between, they’re also not as fancy, roomy, and well-equipped as you see on TV. Generally forensic labs are underfunded and understaffed.
On NCIS, CSI, and Law and Order, murders are solved in an hour—and that’s including the commercials. Let’s put it in perspective: there are more than 300,000 backlogged requests for forensic services in labs across the US, and the longer DNA sits in a lab, the colder a case can get, and the less likely it is the crime will be solved. I’m not saying that the majority of cases go unsolved, but those that are solved will likely take months if not years to figure out.
Forensics analysts, CSI agents and police officers are used to being around dead bodies, but this doesn’t mean they’re insensitive enough to make puns about a person’s death on a regular basis as shown on TV. A real forensics investigator would have to go through sensitivity training if they acted like this any time.
Final thought: Do your research if you are using forensics in your novel.
Til next month…
Things TV and Movies Gets Wrong in Police and Medical Procedurals was originally published in OPAL Publishing, January 2016. To read the original column and other great information go to www.opalpublishing.ca