Have Cop TV Shows Made Better Criminals?

Forget the idea of “Sex Sells” – these days it’s crime that’s the big draw.

Ever since CSI: Crime Scene Investigation hit our screens in 2000 and familiarised people with forensic science, the public has devoured anything and everything related to crime. Many of the most successful TV series of the past 15 years relate to crime and the investigative process; from Law & Order and Special Victim’s Unit to recent shows like Making A Murderer and podcasts like Serial, it’s clear society is fascinated by both criminals and crimes.

cop TV shows

On the surface there doesn’t seem much wrong with this, but some people believe that the popularity of so-called ‘cop shows’ has had one sinister effect: that programmes like CSI have given criminals an education in forensic science. This new awareness of forensics means criminals can deliberately and diligently destroy evidence linking them to the crime – part of a global phenomenon dubbed the CSI effect.

So, are shows like CSI making better criminals?

The CSI Effect

One example of the CSI effect in play can be seen in the actions of double-murderer Jermaine McKinney. After breaking into a house and killing a mother and daughter, McKinney proceeded to wash blood away with bleach, burn his clothing to destroy evidence, blanket his getaway car to avoid blood transfer, remove his cigarette butts from the scene and attempt to dispose of the murder weapon. McKinney was a big fan of CSI, and this type of calculated behaviour is no isolated incident.

One troubling statistic used to highlight the dangers of the CSI effect is the percentage of resolved rape cases. In 2000 – the year CSI debuted – police resolved 46.9% of rape cases in the US. Five years later this had fallen to 41.3%, a decline many investigators attributed to the fact that some assailants began forcing their victims to shower after the attack in order to wash away evidence.

“[These shows] are actually educating potential killers even more,” says Head of Los Angeles Homicide Division Capt. Ray Peavy. “Sometimes I believe it may even encourage them when they see how simple it is to get away with on television.” Peavy isn’t alone in his thinking. “[Criminals] do clean up, and they tend to clean up much more carefully now,” said Linda Johnson, a crime lab director at Jefferson County, Alabama. “A lot of them know they can use bleach and different detergents to mask our ability to take blood.”

Searching fingerprints

Fortunately it isn’t just perpetrators of crime who can apply this new knowledge of forensics. British serial sex attacker Jonathan Haynes avoided capture by forcing his victims to destroy forensic evidence. He was finally apprehended after the CSI effect was used against him; one teenage victim ensured her DNA could be traced back to Haynes by spitting in his car and pulling out strands of her own hair. Her inspiration for this? CSI.

“I have always been a fan of CSI programmes. I’ve watched so many of them, I know what to do and how things work.”

Not The Norm

Not everyone is convinced that cop TV shows are making better criminals. Complex preparation and concealment of evidence are abnormalities, not the norm, says Larry Pozner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Most people who commit crimes are not very bright and don’t take many precautions. CSI and all the other crime shows will make no difference.”

Pozner is not alone in his scepticism. Most experts on criminality agree that while some offenders may be taking tips from TV shows, the vast majority of crimes are either passionate and reactionary or opportunistic. The idea that most criminals sit studiously in front of the TV taking notes and planning out their crimes just doesn’t wash with many experts.

“It’s not clear to me that people are making decisions based on forensics or what they believe the capacity of the police to be,” says criminal justice professor Ken Novak. “Most break-ins are pretty rudimentary. They aren’t cutting glass or using gloves. They see an opportunity and take it.”

FBI Evidence Response Team

What Can You Do?

One thing to consider is that even if criminals are enhancing their knowledge of forensics and how to avoid detection, they aren’t the only ones making developments. Forensic science is becoming more and more advanced, so no matter how criminals try to conceal their tracks, you can only hide the evidence so much.

While the idea that criminals are becoming forensic masterminds may be an overstatement, it’s sensible to assume that as technology and forensics evolve, so do criminal modes of evading them. We have no control over the actions of others, so, like always, the best way to keep safe is to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

One of the most important things is to make sure your own home is secure. If the majority of crime is opportunistic, ensure that no potential criminal would see an opportunity to break into your own home. No matter how well versed they may be in CSI tactics, if your home is essentially impenetrable, most criminals won’t risk trying to break in. Consider installing our smart home alarm system to put your mind at ease, and read up on top security tips to prevent crime.

Speak to your neighbours and work together to ensure your local area is as safe as it can be, and make sure you’re clued up about the crime rate in your area. What are the most common crimes where you live? Where do they happen most, when, and to whom? If some criminals are educating themselves on ways to avoid being caught, consider it your aim to make it as hard as possible for them to commit a crime in the first place.