Here's another installment from that marvelous SkillBuild that I attended on Saturday 1 May at the High Point Public Library in High Point, NC.
Former police detective Lee Lofland updates his blog "The Graveyard Shift" regularly to expose errors in police procedure. He's especially fond of skewering those errors he spots on TV shows such as "CSI" and "Castle." For two hours last Saturday morning, he kept the audience entertained over glaring TV goofs, with the occasional cop escapade from his own experience thrown in.
Writers tell Lofland, "But I saw it happen that way on TV!" This is one of his strongest motivations for educating people otherwise on his blog. Here are some of the blunders he cites as regularly showing up on cop TV:
- Positively identifying from the size of the bullet wound what caliber bullet was used
- Reading 'em their rights while they're being handcuffed
- Unauthorized arrests by CSI techsI don't watch police procedure TV.
Seems that every time one of those shows is turned on in the house, I spot an outrageous scenario like the following:
- The CSI woman arrives at an outdoor murder scene in makeup, heels, and a silk blouse displaying generous cleavage. Her coiffure is perfect despite a brisk breeze and an air temperature near 95 degrees. She's sunk half of her latest paycheck on a manicure. And the dead body she must examine is ripe.
- The CSI lab, equipment, and computer software interfaces look like they were lifted from the set of "Star Wars." Test results are available within minutes. Someone, somewhere in the world has an exact match for the fingerprints or DNA on their database. And they're eager to share.
I have an undergraduate degree in Microbiology, and I spent seven years in science laboratories, indoors and outdoors. I'm also a graduate of the Gwinnett County Citizens Police Academy, and I've spent plenty of time interviewing cops. Here are some of the realities that I learned from those environments:
- CSI techs are trained as scientists. It's ludicrous for scientists to dress up pretty for hands-on, everyday tasks. Whether you're culturing bacteria or collecting evidence, it can be messy work that entails the use of more protective gear than gloves. And why wear nail polish? Acetone, the active ingredient of polish remover, gets used in the lab often.
- Test results take lots of time: time for enzymes to
work, time for bacteria to grow, etc. My guess is that the screenwriters who
award speedy test results to TV police procedural heroes derive their
inspiration from those quickie hematocrit and urine tests their doctors perform
at annual physical exams.
- The final folks to receive funding for shiny, new equipment are usually those who work in government-run laboratories (ex. CSI techs). Need a centrifuge or an incubator? Negotiate sharing one with another department. Better still, since those folks have often adopted a scarcity mentality from having their funding cut each year, unearth a centrifuge or incubator from storage. It'll likely be broken, so you'll have to fix it.
Of course, none of the above realities form the basis for glamorous cop TV.
And isn't it exciting when the TV investigator makes an arrest based on the meticulous collection of cool forensic evidence? But that isn't a reality, either. As Lofland pointed out during his presentation, most crimes are solved when investigators talk with people, witnesses. Not by analyzing collected evidence.
I found this last point interesting, reassuring. In the late 18th century, when my current series is set, there was almost no forensic evidence to evaluate. No DNA, no fingerprints or ballistics analyses. I'm often asked how I can write convincing crime fiction without the tools of modern forensics.
I do so because some things never change. Then, as now, most crimes were solved when an investigator talked with witnesses. Also, people of the 18th century were better at observation than we are now, better at supplying an investigator with details he needed to resolve a case. Centuries ago, folks had no text messaging to distract them. No automobile or railroad to speed a journey. No television or electricity to keep them occupied at night.
The challenge of creating crimes that can be solved without modern forensics liberates me to focus on human nature in my fiction. I enjoy that. I've read too many contemporary crime novels that substitute forensics techno-babble for good plotting and characterizations.
But if you're writing contemporary crime fiction, and you must have the ins and outs of forensics, I suggest that you start with your local police department. If they offer a citizens police academy program, sign up! Citizens police academies usually run for a number of weeks. (Mine lasted nine weeks.) There's a lot of material to cover. Among other things, you'll learn how many hats a uniformed police officer has to wear every day in the line of duty.
If you're unable to attend a citizens police academy, don't despair. Lee Lofland has organized the first annual Writers Police Academy, scheduled for 24-26 September 2010 at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, NC. It's a crash-course citizens police academy and promises to be an action-packed, fun weekend. Find out the realities of CSI, accident reconstruction, arson investigation, fingerprinting, and a whole lot more. Experts like a medical examiner and an ATF special agent will make presentations. And so will thriller author Jeffrey Deaver. Register online.
What's your favorite TV police procedural goof?