Do crime dramas make better criminals?

Some police officers believe that crime shows like "Law & Order: SVU" (seen here) have made criminals more aware of the need to eliminate forensics evidence.
Some police officers believe that crime shows like "Law & Order: SVU" (seen here) have made criminals more aware of the need to eliminate forensics evidence.
NBC Universal, Inc.

Here's a scenario that could conceivably keep a prosecutor or cop up at night: Aided by what they learn on TV shows like "CSI," "Bones" or " Law & Order," criminals have now figured out better ways to pull off their misdeeds without getting caught. Leaving aside the specific inaccuracies of crime dramas, the kernel of truth the TV shows get absolutely correct is how law enforcement has come to rely more and more on DNA evidence to obtain convictions, particularly when compared to a decade or two ago [source: Novak]. "It wasn't long ago when DNA evidence was introduced in a trial, such as the O.J. Simpson case, that the jury and public had a hard time understanding what it meant and were skeptical about it," says Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. "Fast forward almost 20 years, now juries need it."

A number of prosecutors and police officers do believe that crime shows that focus so much on the importance of forensic evidence have also made some criminals keenly aware of the need to erase it [source: Farquhar]. Wayne Farquhar, a police officer with nearly three decades of experience with the San Jose, Calif. Police Department, does believe at least some criminals are learning.

"I see crooks more aware of protecting themselves against leaving DNA, whether it's by using gloves or masks, or the way they wipe things down and clean things," he says. For example, Farquhar remembers an instance when a criminal scrubbed a car down with bleach, assuring that no DNA evidence would be found. Although not a TV show, the movie "The Town," about a group of Boston bank robbers, featured similar techniques that would have given helpful tips to observant criminals. It showed how they avoided detection by using bleach and burning getaway cars to destroy evidence [source: Farquhar]. "You won't get anything out of a torched car," Farquhar says.

Read on to find out why TV might have a bigger impact on juries than criminals.

The "CSI Effect" Impacts Juries, Not Crooks

Not everyone is convinced that TV churns out sophisticated criminals who plan out their crimes and know how to function so they're invisible to their pursuers. Count University of Missouri criminal justice professor Ken Novak among the skeptics. To Novak, most crimes are born either out of passion or opportunity, not planned out meticulously in advance. "It's not clear to me that people are making decisions based on forensics or what they believe the capacity of the police to be," he says. "Most break-ins are pretty rudimentary. The [criminals] aren't cutting glass or using gloves. They see an opportunity and take it."

Where Novak and many others believe shows like "CSI" do have an impact is with juries -- enough people are convinced of this phenomenon that it has been coined the "CSI Effect," and it refers to an expectation amongst jurors that all cases will include forensic evidence [source: Shelton]. "The jury expects all kinds of technology and lab reports and processing to be done," says Joe Dane, who worked as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, a prosecutor and now as a defense attorney. It was important enough of a factor in cases that, as a prosecutor, Dane would ask potential jurors whether they watched TV crime shows and whether or not they expected to see DNA evidence [source: Dane].

Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists about the "CSI Effect," at least one study cast doubt on its impact on convictions. Three faculty members from Eastern Michigan University surveyed 1,000 jury members before their participation in a trial, asking them about their TV watching habits and what they expected in terms of scientific evidence in order to convict. They found little to be concerned about. The study determined that even though CSI viewers did actually expect to see more scientific evidence than those who didn't watch the show, it did not have any impact on their likelihood to convict an accused criminal [source: Shelton].

Related Articles

Sources

  • Associated Press. "Criminals taking tips from TV crime shows." February 1, 2006. (April 1, 2011).http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/11089840
  • Burke, Tod. Professor, Radford University. Personal interview. March 30, 2011.
  • Clutter, Susan. Assistant professor, Youngstown State University. Personal interview. March 31, 2011.
  • Dane, Joe. Former LA County deputy sheriff and current defense attorney. Personal interview. March 30, 2011.
  • Farquhar, Wayne. Lieutenant, San Jose Police Department. Personal interview. April 1, 2011.
  • Love, Jeffrey. Former head of CSI Department. Personal interview. March 30, 2011.
  • Novak, Ken. Professor, University of Missouri - Kansas City. Personal interview. April 1, 2011.
  • Shelton, Donald. "The CSI Effect: Does It Really Exist?" National Institute of Justice, Journal Number 259. March 2008.http://www.nij.gov/journals/259/csi-effect.htm