CSI – Raising The Bar?

Mar 052006
Authors: Nick Armstrong

Terrorists. Murderers. Carbs. Add to this list of horrors the modern crime drama.

Did you cringe at the mere mention of this silent, yet pervasive tool of terror? Of course not – because the idea of "CSI" or "Law and Order" bombing your workplace, sending you anthrax or killing you in your sleep is ludicrous.

Yet, that's exactly what some experts would liken it to. No longer are criminals two-bit hackjobs leaving their sleazy, crime-tainted DNA in the form of blood drops, hair follicles and skin scrapings under the fingernails of their freshly murdered victims. We have no one else to blame but our own fascination with the modern crime drama.

We have no reason to fear that our untimely demise will go unpunished, because we know the real-life equivalent of Jack McCoy, Gil Grissom and Lenny Briscoe are out there somewhere, doing what we see on TV. Jack, Gil and Lenny go out, gather a mountain of evidence against our attacker, all irrefutable and unquestionable, and mercilessly prosecute until a jury sends the bad guy to rot.

This ideology, called "The CSI Factor" by some experts, raises the bar for law enforcement agencies to generate evidence with the quality of what we see on television and simultaneously teaches criminals to forensically "clean up" after themselves. It is because of this "CSI Factor" that Captain Ray Peavy of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Homicide Bureau wants you to believe that what we see on the modern crime drama is almost purely "magic."

Peter Alexander's recent report on MSNBC has experts complaining, "the burden of proof is becoming too high to overcome." Alexander's "experts" say our expectations of them to do their jobs with reliable, repeatable and highly accurate scientific evidence and experiments utilizing the best of today's technology is expecting too much.

Suspension of disbelief is something we must do on a daily basis – I enjoy Star Trek. I know the Warp Drive is something that is practically impossible – and yet, I know that some day, humanity may traverse great distances. Similarly, I choose to believe the women I ogle at on campus are natural blondes, although neither I, nor they, really know their true hair color.

My point is this: "CSI," "Law and Order," and all the rest of those wonderful prime-time hits feature some things that are impossible. For example, most of us should surmise that you cannot "enlarge and enhance" a millimeter-wide shot of a license plate from blurry liquor store security camera footage and return a full license plate number with the click of a mouse. The general public knows this is highly unlikely since we do not have crystal-clear 3D images of every liquor store robber from the last 30 years.

However, if the criminals, the jury, the judge and the general public believe that the police, the prosecution and the crime scene investigators should all be held to the higher standard which we bear witness to during our favorite crime dramas, then it is time for a change.

"A lot of it is doable, but it is not done because of the cost or because it takes too long. Also they would have one person collect the evidence, then one person who does analysis, another who does interpretation, and the police would question and interrogate," said Ryan Coryell, a criminal justice major with minors in psychology and computer security at the University of Northern Colorado. "But as far as finding a single hair on the ground with your naked eye, that's pretty unlikely."

Deserae Frisk, a CSU criminal justice major, states that "sometimes it comes down to laziness and sometimes it comes down to cost." She added, "'Cold Case Files' on A&E is a much more realistic version of investigative tools and techniques."

So, who bears the ultimate responsibility for a prosecution's failure to meet the burden of proof?

I think I know the answer… and I have a solution. Since our real-life police, crime scene investigators and district attorneys are complaining about the burden of proof and the real problem is vested in commitment and cost, we need to turn to our heroes in Hollywood who seem to have no such qualms.

That's right, instead of presenting fake stories of theft, rape or murder on a weekly basis, why not have our television idols actually investigate the real deal?

Detective Lenny Briscoe never let a guilty man escape him. Investigator Gil Grissom never missed a shred of evidence. District Attorney Jack McCoy always got his man in court. Why don't we try putting them out in the field to work for us now? Sure, not one of them is really a street-savvy cop, a brilliant crime-scene investigator or a ruthless prosecutor. But they do play them on TV.

Nick Armstrong is the talk show host of 90.5 FM's KCSU: Live! With Two Chicks and Nick.

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