CSI: Siouxland style
Local police say TV investigators present good, but sped up, 'whodunit'
By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender, 11/07/02)
The show is smart, sharp and fast moving. From the opening credits to their web site, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations," screams "cutting edge."
Yet mystery stories based on detections at the crime scene are as old as Sherlock Holmes, even if the techniques used in "CSI" are far more modern. What makes "CSI" so popular? "It's a fun show," says Charlie Summers, of L.O.F. Communications in York, Penn., head of the Old TV and Old Time Radio Internet mail server. "It isn't 'West Wing' or '24,' but it is a good show, and a fun show," says Summers.
Fun? Odd as it seems, millions of viewers agree. "CSI," now in it's third season, appears to be the newest crime drama franchise, spinning off "CSI Miami" this season. The series is following in the footsteps of "Law and Order" and the myriad crime dramas that gritty series spawned.
But lift the yellow "Do Not Cross" crime tape, and see what's beyond the ratings. Does "CSI" present a real look at what crime scene investigations are like? To find the answer, I interviewed police in Sioux City and South Sioux City to take readers "inside" crime scene investigations.
Chief of Police Scot Ford, of the South Sioux City Police Department, agrees. "It takes the TV far less time," says Ford. "Though our perspective is that of a small agency, identification and evidence matching is still a time-consuming process for larger agencies as well."
So what is the "normal" work of a crime scene investigator in Siouxland? In most cases, say Ford and Clay, the process is similar. "Our job is to collect and analyze," says Clay, who was the last sworn officer to occupy the position with the Sioux City Crime Lab. Today, his technicians are all civilians. "We don't carry guns, and we don't interview suspects. Our job is to collect the evidence, and preserve the scene."
Teamwork is a key aspect of crime scene investigations. "The first officers on the scene are likely to be the line officers, the ones that write speeding tickets, that drive a beat," says Ford. "Their primary job is to care for the victim, if there is one, and secure the scene." Part of securing the scene includes locating any witnesses to the event, and gathering as much information as possible in an attempt to answer the basic question: what happened?
"That's the goal of the crime scene investigation," says Clay. "We are seeking the pieces of evidence so the crime scene can tell us the story of the event."
As the line officers report the crime, the department assigns investigators. In South Sioux, the investigators take over, and after hearing the information the line officers have gathered, they direct the process of examination of the scene. In Sioux City, the Crime Lab identification technicians are the people responsible for working with the investigators to find and record the evidence, but in both cities, the key is to take photographs. Lots of photographs. "Photographs show where items were found, and what it looked like when it was found," says Clay.
The next step is to "bag and tag" these items, meaning to identify, log and protect the evidence from contamination, damage, or change. All of this is to create a "chain of custody" for the item. This is crucial to the value of any evidence.
"If the chain of custody is not meticulously documented showing the item was protected and always in the control of the responsible authority, then that evidence will fall into question, and may not be usable at all," says Ford. "That's the rules of the game," says Clay, referring to the courts. "They want evidence that can be accepted without question. Our job is to find the evidence that tells us what happened, not what we 'think' happened."
"Police departments and crime labs used to use microscopes for everything," says Ford, and the work was painstaking. Prior to computer matching, everything was done by a person making the comparison of the items. It is much quicker now, though it still takes some time. "Consider a fingerprint: It used to take months to get a comparison with known databases of fingerprints. Even if we had a suspect, and he was in our jail, it could still take weeks to make the detailed examination that would result in a credible match." That time has been cut significantly, which is good news for everyone: less time in jail if a suspect is innocent, and less time to amass evidence against the guilty.
Still, there is a downside to technology. "It seems the more we discover in processing evidence, the more they require in court," says Clay. It isn't only the prosecution. Defense attorneys now ask if the investigators checked for DNA samples, or other items, as if not checking might indicate a weakness or potential 'hole' in a case. "The demand on physical evidence is getting greater. Once they know we can produce certain results, they want the same analysis in other cases, even if those cases never required it before."
Is this bad? "The philosophy of our criminal justice system is 'better to let a guilty man go free than to kill an innocent person'," says Clay. "Is that bad? I guess if I were falsely accused of murder, I'd want every opportunity in my favor. We have to play by the rules, and that's fine. I don't think there is anything wrong with that."
But is this a good thing? Sioux City Police Chief Joe Frisbie sums it up this way: "People know crimes aren't solved in an hour, and they know they aren't seeing the whole story of what happens on a TV show."
"TV shows aren't reality, and even where they are accurate, reality doesn't change nearly as quickly as a TV show," Ford says. "Law enforcement agencies are funded by tax dollars, and the equipment on these shows cost money. If the voters want these types of cutting edge technologies for crime investigations at a local level, they'll have to vote to pay for them."
And as Clay points out, "How many hours and how much time do you want to spend to solve a $1,000 burglary? We are fortunate to live in an area where major crimes are few." Ford agrees. "I think we know what the results of such a [vote] would be."
Ford and Clay appear to agree with Summers of L.O.F. Communications, however: As a mystery, "CSI" does a great job of presenting a "whodunit." Neither Clay nor Ford watches much of these types of shows, but the major points of the series do seem to square with the process the crime scene investigators take. Says Clay, "They may shortcut the process, but they have a story to tell, and need to tell it in an hour. I've seen many worse examples in television and movies."
"It isn't real," says Summers, "but it works as a mystery. And the people die in such interesting ways."
Perhaps more than anything else, maybe that's why "CSI" is the No. 1 slot on Thursday nights this season.
Want to be
Rod Clay, supervisor of the Sioux City Police Department Crime Lab, has a few suggestions: "There are so many aspects to criminal investigations, you have many options." Clay suggests defining what you think is inspiring, and seeing which you'd like to pursue. "There are specialties. Chemical analysis is a big part of investigations now, so if you like chemistry, go to college and get a chemistry degree and see what opens up for you."
He says the same could be true in photography, or courses on fingerprints, and many other areas as well. Though he added, "Today, the biggest growth is in computers. Computers are part of every segment of the field, and there will always be a need there." He also suggests that you don't overlook the obvious clues, and realize on-the-job training may be an excellent choice.
"This is part of police investigations. Check out the police science or criminology departments at colleges. Western Iowa Tech Community College has a police science program, and the counselors at WIT are certainly a good place to ask questions."
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