The CSI Effect Revisted
I don’t get to watch as much television as I would like: I leave the house early in the morning, and get home late. My wife and I are addicted to books, so what free time we have is typically spent reading. It is only when astride an exercise bike that I watch the moving screen, and there are usually lots of movies on our list. But this week we hit the wall, and resorted to television. So I watched my first episode of CSI, this one set in Miami.
It scared the hell out of me.
I am aware of the CSI Effect, and have even written about it. Jurors steeped in dramas solved quickly and without doubt by resort to high-tech gadgetry begin to assume all sorts of things about the criminal justice process that just aren’t true: all crimes can be solved quickly and with certainty thanks to the marvels of modern science. Crime scene technicians are the new heros and heroines of law-enforcement.
Reality is a whole lot messier. It takes a long time for test results to be processed. Evidence gets contaminated and sometimes gets lost. Often the evidence is ambiguous and points in a multitude of directions. But most often, there simply isn’t the forensic evidence necessary to yield meaningful conclusions. The CSI Effect creates unrealistic expectations among jurors: No DNA, no conviction, prosecutors fear. On the defense side, the fear is that any idiot in a lab coat will seduce a jury into believing the results barfed up by junk science.
I knew all that before watching CSI this weekend.
What I did not know is that CSI is a glorification of the police state. In the short episode I watched, I saw police officers search homes without a warrant, engage in custodial interrogation without the alerting their targets to the right to remain silent and use deadly force without justification. These violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments took place within the glittery confines of a fast-paced show in which good and evil were pitted against one another. I knew that by the end of the hour, evil would be vanquished. The artistry of the screen writer was demonstrated by the number of false leads that could be identified and then disproven before the crime was finally, before the final commercial break, solved.
I wonder what a steady diet of this end-justifies-the-means entertainment does to the viewing public. Law men and women are heroes struggling against evil in a universe driven by the frenetic necessity of quick solutions. We learn nothing of the foibles of the officers, but every failing of the suspects that they investigate can be interpreted as proof of a guilty mind. In the episode I watched, a man died when his parachute failed. All those with a motive were targeted as saboteurs. In the end, the man’s wife killed him, after a lifetime of frustration with his self-centered ways.
I suppose I should have felt relieved that a killer was caught.
But what about the man shot in the leg when he fled police? The law does not permit police to shoot anyone who runs from them. To use lethal force, an officer must believe a person is an immanent risk of harm to officers or others, or the person must be a fleeing felon. Not wanting to talk to police ought not to get you shot. But it did in CSI-land, and the shooting was regarded simply as part of the cost of doing police business.
In another instance, police simply burst into a location they wanted to search. They had no warrant. And although there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement, none were apparent. Is a door closed? Then kick it down. It’s police work, you see. Good combating evil.
And then there was the shabby work of interrogation. No watetboarding here, but heavy handed tactics that most departments would find it embarrassing to be caught performing. (There’s a reason police officers don’t want their doings electronically recorded: You can deny what is never seen except by the accused.)
I understand the difference between entertainment and reality, at least I think I do. Courtroom work is difficult, time-consuming and demanding. As much as I enjoy an evidentiary hearing, I find it unbearable to watch another lawyer at work. I liken observing an actual trial conducted by another lawyer to watching ice melt on a cool fall day. But the process matters. Important rights are asserted and protected. Trial places limits on what is and is not admissible evidence; rules of procedure become boundaries law enforcement officers cannot cross.
The episode of CSI I watched erased all limits on the police. We the people were so many lab rats, our droppings tested and sorted to fit us into the tidy categories of good and evil. It felt like watching Big Brother at work. Do viewers watching this stuff day after day, week after week, year after year, become accustomed to unquestioning obedience to whoever appears wearing a badge? That can’t be good for a republic. That’s the CSI Effect I am fretting this week