What Cop Shows Get Wrong

CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Bones, Law and Order—crime dramas and cop shows are cropping up all over TV these days, and many people enjoy the thrill of watching investigators navigate a mysterious crime and ultimately catch the culprit. One question that people often ask when watching these shows, however, is, “How accurately does this show mirror real life?” It’s natural, of course, that cop shows eliminate several aspects of reality simply for the sake of good storytelling; but here is an interesting look at some of the key things that cop shows get wrong.

Police siren

Lab results take weeks (or months) to get, not hours.

One common occurrence in crime drama involves a medical examiner rattling off the results of a toxicology report to their supervisor, hours after the request is made, and long before a full autopsy is completed. In the world of forensics, however, a toxicology test involves taking samples from blood, urine, and various body tissues, testing them for drugs and other substances, and passing the samples between many different people. Ultimately, getting lab results could take anywhere from four to six weeks—or even longer.

Of course, DNA testing techniques are constantly evolving, so maybe there will be a time in the near future when this aspect of crime dramas is a reality.

Most of the databases they access don’t really exist.

Many investigators in crime drama make use of these God-like databases, which are rich in data about people’s DNA, criminal history, and contact information. Hair samples, fingerprints, and other DNA samples are cross-referenced with this robust database, and a match is conveniently made in seconds. The reality is that cops and detectives are usually lacking the information they need and must seek it by other means, with search warrants, interviews, public databases, etc.

There is one DNA database you should be aware of: CODIS. This is a real database containing millions of offender profiles, but that number is still only about 12 million. With well over 300 million people in the United States, it would be a miracle to have a DNA sample match up with a profile every single time.

DNA doesn’t solve every case.

DNA technology tends to be over-glorified in cop shows. It is seen as this fool-proof method for cracking cases wide open. In reality, DNA can be a great tool for police and lawyers when investigating suspects, but it is by no means offers a guarantee that the crime will be solved. In fact, you might consider it a miracle whenever a fingerprint is collected. Reliable fingerprints are difficult to find on just about any surface, as surface textures, humidity, and hand movement all have the potential to make a fingerprint unreadable. Many crime scenes lack any forensic evidence at all.

People are rarely home.

Think about how often you’re in your home during the workday. People work, people go out during the day, and people move homes on a regular basis. In cop shows, it’s almost always as if the witness is at home waiting to be interviewed.

Detectives working

There are seldom convenient parking spaces.

This, of course, is for the sake of maintaining a fast-paced storyline in a 30-minute TV show episode, but really—when was the last time you found available parking downtown in the middle of the workweek?

An entire office does not revolve around a single case.

If you were to create a 100 percent accurate portrayal of a police station in a TV show, it would likely have a bunch of officers sitting in an office, drinking coffee, and filling out paperwork. Those officers would also likely be working on multiple cases, with only one or two people assigned to a particular case. In addition, cases do not move nearly as quickly in real life as they do in cop shows.

Fleeing, combative suspects are extremely difficult to catch.

TV cops make catching fleeing, combative suspects look easy, but in reality, they are extremely difficult to catch and subdue. It would be wonderful to say that any suspect could be tracked down and caught no matter the circumstances, but that simply isn’t the case.

Miranda rights are not always recited from memory.

In cop shows, the police officer making an arrest for an interrogation almost invariably recites Miranda rights to the detainee from memory. In reality, however, a police officer often reads those rights from an issued card in order to avoid making mistakes that could result in information being thrown out in court. (You can, however, recite them from memory if you have them memorized.) In fact, as this article explains, Miranda rights must even be translated and communicated effectively to a detainee if necessary; if a detainee does not understand English and therefore does not understand Miranda rights as read in English, it’s as if they were never read at all.

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