A little more than a decade ago, the television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” burst on the scene and introduced audiences everywhere to the Las Vegas Police Department’s investigative team. Each week, the elite team of investigators tackled a seemingly unsolvable case, employing techniques ranging from basic fingerprinting to blood spatter analysis and a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack (or human hair in the vehicle backseat, as it were.)
In addition to being the most watched show on television for a time, “CSI” also had another effect: inspiring an entire generation to pursue a career in the relatively enigmatic field of forensics. And while forensics and investigation programs around the country continue to see record enrollments, many students are surprised when they discover that forensics isn’t exactly as it appears on television.
The Time Factor
The most obvious difference between “CSI” and real life is, first of all, the amount of time it takes to solve a crime. Sure, most people realize that most crimes aren’t committed and solved in under 50 minutes, but few realize how long – and potentially tedious – crime scene investigation actually is. Thoroughly examining and documenting a crimes scene can take days, even weeks and then the analysis at the crime lab might take months to complete. A CSI might spend several hours or longer examining a single piece of evidence to determine how it fits; even with the aid of computers, the process is arduous. And most CSIs work on multiple cases at a time, not one like you see on TV. In fact, urban police departments, a CSI might work several dozen cases at once.
Crime Scene Investigators are Specialists
If you use a show like “CSI” as a gauge, you might think that crime scene investigators are a bit like superheroes, handing everything from photographing the scene to arresting suspects. In reality, though, the CSIs are just one pivotal piece of the law enforcement puzzle. They don’t generally interrogate suspects, and don’t pursue or arrest them either. In some cases, particularly in larger police departments, the field work and laboratory work are separate functions. One investigator might collect evidence at the scene, and then hand it off to another investigator at the lab for analysis. However, both roles have similar training: an investigator needs to know what to look for at the scene in order to properly process the evidence.
Other People Play Roles, Too
While “CSI” is somewhat accurate in its portrayal of the high-level of intelligence most investigators have, it does create the perception that CSI’s are experts in nearly everything. That’s not generally the case. A CSI might have advanced training in one or more areas, but they often need to call in other experts on particular cases.
For example, since CSIs are often called to the scene after the crime, they don’t usually interact with victims of crime. That’s where forensic nurses come in. Forensic nurses often work in emergency rooms and are on the front lines of treating those who have been involved in crimes. They serve as a liaison between the medical community and law enforcement, providing information and evidence that is often instrumental in solving crimes. CSIs also work with detectives, medical examiners and other professionals to help build cases.
Crime Scene Investigation is More Science than Law
Because so many people see the characters on shows like “CSI” serving in law enforcement as well as investigative roles, they often think that earning a criminal justice degree and joining the police force is the fastest way to a career in the field. And while a background in criminal investigation and law is certainly vital to success in the field, it’s important to study forensics in addition to biology, chemistry and anatomy. Crime scene investigators are often called to testify in court and to explain and defend their findings, so an understanding of the legal process is a key to a successful career.
Like most careers that are portrayed on television, crime scene investigation is vastly different in real life. Sure, many CSIs have the technology and gadgets, and often find the one piece of evidence that makes all the difference in tricky cases. But before you decide to pursue a career in this field, do some research on the reality – you might even find that it’s better than what you see on the small screen.
This article was written by Lindsey Stinson who after getting her Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice took an MSN bridge program this has allowed her to work towards a Master’s of Science in Nursing. She expects to graduate next fall and plans on pursuing a career in Forensic Nursing.