One day when I woke up from a nap in Coach Goodman’s 11th grade Sociology class – he’d cut me from the basketball team that year and I was determined to not learn a thing: hmmph, I’ll show him – he was asking the class if television shows such as “Columbo” actually helped criminals commit crimes better and get away with them.
The classroom consensus remains lost to history, but Coach Goodman would be aghast at the types of crime shows all over the airwaves today. All of those “Datelines,” “Investigation Discoveries,” “48 Hours” and their cinematic siblings are like televised classrooms for aspiring bad guys – do this, don’t do that – and Coach Goodman’s concerns over what Hollywood conjured in the 1970s seem quaint when today’s shows consist of real, grisly crime scene footage with minute details.
The mesmerizing and riveting shows are guilty pleasures, but one wonders: Do they help the guilty stay free?
Wil Glenn, the spokesman for Durham’s cop shop, noted another hazard they present. “The impact of those shows,” Glenn told me Monday, “is that the average citizen expects us to solve crimes at the same rate” as the TV shows – meaning within 30 minutes to an hour with commercial breaks. “They give people unrealistic expectations.”
How could they not, when the promo for one – “Forensic Files” – is “No witnesses. No leads. No problem.”
You know that Shonda Rhimes drama called “How To Get Away With Murder”? There sometimes appear to be shows dedicated to making that a reality. “I (Almost) Got Away With It,” anyone?
Just from one day’s viewing of these fact-based crime shows, you’ll learn that if you’re going to croak someone, be careful not to leave behind a fingerprint, a hair or a fingernail. Man, a fingernail will nail you every time.
Just from one day’s viewing of these fact-based crime shows, you’ll learn that if you’re going to croak someone, be careful not to leave behind a fingerprint, a hair – not even one from your beloved cat Weepy who likes to rub up against your leg – or a fingernail. Man, a fingernail will nail you every time.
You’ll learn also that you shouldn’t wear shoes with distinctive treads – or drive a car whose tires have them – and for heaven’s sake, don’t use your cellphone because the ping can tell police that you were not, in fact, 100 miles away in El Segundo but were two blocks from where the crime took place.
This is the big one, though: Whatever you do, don’t step on that hamburger bun or that rotten ’mater that someone dropped out in the yard.
Fans of “Forensic Files” can attest that at least two murders were solved when the fleeing felon, after meticulously cleaning the crime scene, stepped on a bun or squished a tomato underfoot. The law was able to extrapolate from that the height, weight and favorite Adele song of the culprit.
So, what does that tell us, boys and girls?
DON’T STEP ON THE ’MATER!
There are other tips for avoiding detection that I won’t list, even though the shows’ producers do and some have been known since “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s unlikely, though, that most criminals are reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Jim Sughrue, Raleigh’s police department spokesman, said officers have seen instances where bad guys have tried to cover up their tracks and frustrate forensic investigators.
Jim Sughrue, Raleigh’s police department spokesman, said those shows “are part of my TV-watching pattern” and his department’s officers have seen instances where bad guys have tried to cover up their tracks and frustrate forensic investigators.
I, for one, appreciated it when he said, “We’ve decided not to discuss in details the techniques we use, because it may not be the last time we want to use those techniques. It’s not a matter of withholding ... just for secrecy. We feel it’s not in the best interest of public safety to divulge” everything they know.
Sughrue also sent me a link to studies, including one from the National Institute of Justice, debating the so-called “CSI Effect” and how many people – including, possibly, prospective jurors – expect to see forensic evidence that will blow a case wide open.
Being a good cop, in reality, is like being a good reporter – it takes shoe-leather and persistence, two things that don’t always make good “reality TV.”
It always makes for justice, though.