Cop and ratings

Under A Cloud

Why police procedurals continue to endure – and influence.

A TV holy trinity of cop, lawyer and doctor series will once again be churned out this year. Studios love them as they deliver solid ratings and because there can be a new crime/case/ patient each week, meaning the viewer can miss a few episodes and fall straight back in to what’s happening. But the ongoing public fascination for police shows doesn’t just have an effect on the studio bottom lines: it influences real police work. It’s been dubbed the CSI effect.

While programmes like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street were lauded by critics for their realistic depiction of how crimes are solved, they were hardly ratings busters. It is the over-simplified mainstream police series that people mostly still watch, and king of them all is CSI — the most watched TV series in the world.

The Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services conducted a survey of 127 forensic and law enforcement professionals. 94 percent of them said shows like CSI had increased the public’s expectations over criminal investigations and justice.

The real-world effect is that jurors believe they know more than they actually do about forensic evidence, resulting in increased expectations for forensic investigations and detective work. Given that real forensic work is far more complicated, unreliable and drawn-out than depicted on TV, the professionals often fail to meet the heightened expectations, and that leads to more acquittals.

The education-by-TV phenomenon has also had an effect on the criminals and victims. Pittsburgh police Sgt. Paul McComb told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “They know, because of all of these television shows, what can be tied to them. Most of them are already very cunning, but CSI and other series show criminals how to be better. It’s frustrating as an investigator.” His belief correlates with FBI statistics that show U.S. police solved 41.3 percent of rape cases in 2005, down from 46.9 percent in 2000 (the year of CSI’s debut), and 51.3 percent a decade before that.

It appears to go both ways though. The UK’s Telegraph newspaper reported that while convicted rapist Jonathan Haynes forced his victims to destroy forensic evidence, he was caught after one of his victims deliberately pulled out her own hair. This was later discovered in his car, tying him to the attacks. She said she’d been inspired by watching CSI.

Figures show that the perception of accuracy is skewed between TV viewers and professionals. An NYC Police Foundation survey found that 48 percent of police think such programming actively hurts their image — despite the fact that on television the police are usually heroic and get their man. The same survey showed that 40 percent of the public believe cop series offer accurate portrayals of police work. Only
14 percent of the police agreed.

This shouldn’t comes as a surprise. Despite the number of shootouts on television, on average, a cop in New York City would have to work sixty years just to shoot once.

The new TV series that have just started in America may help to temper this trend, simply because they are obviously more fantastical. There’s an American remake of gritty drama Prime Suspect, but that aside, series include Unforgettable, Person of Interest, Grimm, and Charlie’s Angels. Unforgettable features a detective with a rare medical condition that gives her the ability to remember everything.

Person of Interest has a scientist who knows crimes before they happen; Grimm has crimes based on fairy tales, while Charlie’s Angels has skinny girls kicking doors clean off their hinges and beating up multiple henchmen.

If viewers start to think this is a realistic representation of police work, then the thin blue line really is in trouble.


Grainy CCTV images or photos are seemingly able to be zoomed in on and enhanced to perfect, clear quality so number plates can be read, faces in the distance identified, and the reflection of the killer in a car wing-mirror revealed in megapixel glory. All at the instant touch of a button. In reality, grainy images will just pixelate further if you zoom in and not turn into clear high-resolution images.

They arrest someone and he demands to have his “one phone call”. This is a myth. According to Los Angeles defence lawyer Jeffery Rubenstien, “You may or may not be permitted to use the phone. Generally, out of courtesy they will allow you to make a call, but often there are phones in the jail, and people can make as many phone calls as they want as long as there is somebody to accept collect charges.”

The cops need to keep someone talking so they can trace where the call is coming from… but he hangs up too soon. In fact they can tell straight away where it’s coming from. After all, if someone calls you, their number comes up straight away on your phone so why would it be any different for the police? Even if the number comes up as “unavailable” the phone company will know. And yes, they can trace mobiles too, thanks to a 2006 order that requires cellphone networks to feature location tracking technology such as GPS chips to assist 911 services.

From Esquire Magazine, November 2011

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