True Confessions of Law Enforcement Regarding Fiction

During Boucheron in Dallas this fall, one of my favorite panel discussions covered the portrayal of law enforcement in fiction, whether it be books, movies, or television. This panel contained a writer of forensic science for mystery and crime authors, a writer whose father served as a Chicago police officer, another whose father was the medical examiner in their small community, and a former investigator with the LAPD who was also an expert in “deception detection”. They provided a wealth of information on what’s accurate and what isn’t.

What’s true to life and what’s not:

  • Success or failure of an interrogation is determined before the first question is asked.
  • Intruding on the personal boundaries of suspects.
  • The former LAPD officer noted only 10% of his interrogations took place at the police station, he preferred taking them to Starbucks where they were more likely to let their guard down simply by talking too much.
  • Police are legally allowed to lie, but juries don’t like it.
  • Police cannot break the intimate relationship they have with suspects.
  • What can police legally do to intimate a suspect? Nothing, except for raising a person’s anxiety level.
  • Officers control the interrogation environment.

The law enforcement community also has numerous pet peeves about how they’re portrayed:

  • Good cop/bad cop in reality is completely illegal as such tactics are a violation of a person’s rights.
  • Perfect hair, makeup, and clothes.
  • Female cops giving chase in heels.
  • That DNA comes back quickly (in TV usually between commercials).
  • CSI professionals being armed and questioning suspects.
  • CSIs are experts in one area, not like Abby Sciuto (on NCIS) whose an expert in everything.
  • Failure of logic/lazy writing.

Addressing authors panel members added some miscellaneous but important points:

  • The CSI Effect is real – jurors will often ask about DNA evidence.
  • Writer’s have the time to get the forensic details correct.
  • Police investigative reports.
  • There is a LOTS of police paperwork.
  • Much more suspense in circumstantial evidence than hard evidence.

They also noted how technology has changed police work including:

  • Body cams
  • Cellphones
  • Computers
  • Information from black boxes in cars, cellphones (as well as burner phones) can be easily downloaded
  • It is extremely difficult not to leave an electronic footprint

I knew a lot of this information already, but what continues to amaze me is how often movies, TV, and books incorrectly portray law enforcement, and continue to perpetuate myths and misinformation.


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