Friday, November 21, 2008

CSI: Fact vs Fiction

So which is it? CSI? CSI Miami? CSI NY? Everyone has a favorite, and these days more than 50 million people are tuning in each week to watch at least one of the three CSI series (“The Real CSI,” 2005). They have increased the popularity of forensic science across the globe, but exactly how accurate is the CSI world compared to real life?

It seems that even the writers and producers, paired with their forensic science advisors, have failed to catch a few key mistakes in many episodes of CSI. Testimony from real crime scene investigators (CSIs) about their experiences on the job can help dissolve the myths and expose the reality of forensic science for CSIs in real-world crime labs. It’s not as beautiful as it looks on TV.

The following is a few forensic myths that CSI episodes contain:

Myth #1: DNA tests are quick and always pinpoint the right criminal
- DNA tests can sometimes take weeks or months to get results, and depending on the quantity and quality of the sample, an exact match may not be possible.

Myth #2: CSIs carry guns, interrogate suspects at the crime scene, and sometimes make arrests
- CSIs that work as civilian workers (and are not actual police officers) are usually not allowed to carry guns
- CSIs only question suspects once the detectives have already interrogated them
- CSIs cannot arrest people because they are not actual police officers; however, under certain circumstances, CSIs can make “civilian arrests,” but these occur much less often than portrayed on TV

Myth #3: CSIs have extensive, sweeping knowledge about everything in forensic science
- No! The majority of CSIs specialize in a specific sub-discipline and rarely know extensive knowledge about all other types of forensic science within the field
- Most often, CSIs will work in groups to take advantage of different specializations, since one CSI usually does not possess all of the knowledge necessary to solve a single investigation

Myth #4: All crime labs have state-of-the-art equipment
- In reality, crime labs are often limited by their funding and maintain only a limited collection of equipment and machinery

Myth #5: Fingerprints can be identified quickly and accurately using a computer program
- Fingerprint matches require nine points of identification for a positive match and can fail if no distinguishing marks on the print can be found
- Analyses often require human fingerprint examiners to make the final comparison and identification of suspects, not just a computer match
- The national fingerprint database, AFIS, takes longer to search its files than depicted on the TV show (more than just a few minutes!), and AFIS only contains fingerprints of existing criminals, often decreasing the chance of finding a positive match

Myth #6: CSIs dress in expensive designer outfits to investigate the crime scene
- Although CSI’s often wear street clothes instead of an actual uniform, they are unlikely to wear high heels and designer clothes to a crime scene!

After recognizing the misconceptions portrayed by the TV shows from the CSI series, it is important that people recognize the limitations of forensic science in the real world. Despite its growing popularity for students (there are record levels of enrollment at the National Forensic Academy) and the glamorous CSI lifestyles portrayed on TV, we must remember that “real CSI investigations still involve a great deal of time, luck, and guesswork” (“The Real CSI,” 2005). But there aren’t nine seasons for nothing! People love CSI, no matter how unrealistic it can be. After all, it is only a TV show.

Cratty, Carol, & Arena, Kelli. “FBI gives glimpse inside real ‘CSI,’”, 2008.
“CSI Factual ‘Inaccuracies,’” 2002,
“Investigators: The Real CSI,” CBSNews, July 25, 2003.
“The Real CSI,”, May 16, 2005.
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1 comment:

Empoprises said...

The myth within myth #5 is that there is only one AFIS, and it's at the Federal level. In reality, there are AFIS systems at the state and local level, including systems for Miami Dade County and New York. The local systems often offer faster response time than the Federal system because of their smaller database sizes.