"'CSI' Effect" Is Mixed Blessing for Real Crime Labs

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 23, 2004

A few months ago, a crime scene investigator from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was dusting for fingerprints at the scene of a residential burglary. The victim of the crime was not impressed, however. "That's not the way they do it on television," she told the investigator.

Capt. Chris Beattie, who heads the L.A. County's Scientific Services Bureau—or "the crime lab"—calls it the "CSI effect." The popularity of television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Files, he says, has turned millions of viewers into real-life science sleuths.

The phenomenon has reached into both classrooms and courtrooms. Universities have seen a dramatic increase in applications to forensic science programs. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are facing greater pressure from science-savvy juries to present sophisticated forensic evidence in court.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Beattie, a bald man with steel-rimmed glasses who has been with the Sheriff's Department for 32 years. "We have a larger pool of qualified people to do the job. But it's also created unreasonable expectations that we can solve every crime the way they do on CSI."

From O.J. to CSI

The public's fascination with crime on television is hardly new. Classic detective shows like Colombo and Murder, She Wrote often used forensic evidence in story lines. But the new crop of shows has focused attention on the use of science in solving crimes.

On CBS's CSI—and its spin-off series CSI: Miami and CSI: NY—sharp-minded investigators, armed with high-powered forensic gadgetry, descend on crime scenes to study the evidence. Much of the action takes place in a laboratory.

"In the old shows, no one could figure out how to make the analysis of evidence interesting," said Elizabeth Devine, a supervising producer on CSI: Miami, who worked for 15 years as a forensic-scientist at the L.A. sheriff's office.

"What we did was slow things down to say, 'This is cool stuff,'" she said. "We wanted people to look through the microscope to show them what forensic scientists are looking at. This is the heart and soul of a lot of investigations."

Movies like Silence of the Lambs and Kiss the Girls, as well as real-life trials—from the O.J. Simpson case to the current Scott Peterson trial—have also drawn scores of new students to the forensic-science field.

There are now at least 90 forensic-science programs at universities across the United States. Last year 180 people applied for 20 spots in the forensic-science master's program at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

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