Law and Order's Impact
NBC crime drama Law and Order SVU, for example, follows detectives Stabler and Benson as they solve major crimes in New York City. But just how much of it is real?
"We don't want to make things up. Because the truth is pretty scary anyway," said Dr. Neal Baer, Executive Producer for NBC's Law and Order.
Baer says his staff does extensive research to make the show as accurate as possible. But real-life detectives say the television dramas are just that: dramatizations.
"Fiction,' said Kenneth Hammond of the Columbia Police Department. "Very little that they are showing on TV is real in police work and collection of evidence."
Instead of detectives being assigned to one case, detectives normally have dozens of cases open at a time. Plus, a whole team of specialists gathers evidence, not just one or two detectives.
"It's a very meticulous procedure" Hammond said. "An evidence collector can be out at the crime scene for hours, if not days, collecting evidence."
After the police collect evidence, they send it to the crime lab in Jefferson City, where they are able to perform tests on narcotics, firearms, DNA, and fingerprints.
Brian Hoey, a criminalist with the Missouri State Highway Patrol's crime lab, says TV detectives get evidence fast, sometimes too fast.
"They may find one piece of evidence, or they may find the smoking gun, almost within the first 15 minutes or before the first commercial break," he said. "We often have to trudge through hundreds of pieces of evidence before we find something probative."
Not only that, crime labs aren't all flashing lights and fancy computers.
"It's not all whiz-bang technology with lights flashing 'it's a match'," said Hoey.
The popularity of crime dramas affects the real justice system in a trend known as the "CSI Effect".
"The CSI Effect is when people believe that the forensic evidence is going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did the crime," said Hammond.
In many cases, there may be no forensic evidence available. Now, crime labs are feeling the pressure of providing concrete evidence.
"Years ago, we would do our tests and they would support what's going on in the criminal justice system," Hoey said. "Now it seems it's kind of the pin that holds everything together because jurors expect a lot from us. They're unrealistic expectations, but they're expectations none the less."
Invesitagtion doesn't happen fast and sometimes police have a hard time finding evidence, but TV is not completely make believe.
"As painful as it was for me to watch them, they do get it right more than they do wrong," Hoey said. "They just do it in the confines of a 40-minute program."
Law and Order SVU producers hope viewers walk away with a better understanding of the criminal justice system and not a skewed perspective.
"I think that we show a very positive side of detectives," Bayer said. "But also, yes, it is dramatic and fortunately the world is much safer than the television world."
The state is planning a new fully-functional crime lab in Springfield to handle the backlog of evidence.
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