Who Done It? TV’s CSI vs. Real Forensics Labs

31 October 2016

Long before the “Who Are You” theme song announced that an exciting episode of CSI was at hand, I ravenously read everything regarding forensic investigation. If I had another potential career path, and the time to do it, I would be a forensic anthropologist. I love solving puzzles, putting the disparate pieces together and, as is said often in the series, “The evidence doesn’t lie.”

Okay, so I’m not on that career path, but I am still captivated by all that equipment—every piece ever invented seems to be in the crime lab at CSI. I’ve often wondered about the true state-of-the-art electronics equipment in the average large-city crime lab. Could it near the level of the famous TV show?

No, it doesn’t. But let’s see what is true—and what is not—as far as real-life forensics versus the TV programs we’ve come to love.

Labs on Wheels

According to the FBI, modern forensic labs rely on such diverse disciplines as physics, electrical and electronic engineering, analog and digital theory, computer science, acoustics, digital signal analysis, digital imaging, and more. The collection of disciplines requires a wide variety of equipment to enable a forensic examiner to conduct reliable examinations.

It used to be that the evidence had to be taken back to the laboratory, or meticulously identified and saved until it could find its way there. Today there are portable forensics kits, as well as portable hardware and software, to begin to process the crime scene on the spot. Mobile capabilities, however, must be fully compatible with laboratory equipment and software. Given today’s wireless capabilities, enhanced portable electronic devices, and the absolute need to cut expenses where possible, mobile units are becoming even more popular. So, score one for the real CSI units versus the TV shows that always seem to take evidence back to the lab for all processing.

Whether mobile or permanent, however, forensics labs must provide secure storage for obvious reasons. Within the walls of a lab, not only is evidence housed, analyzed and processed, but also forensics professionals will conduct a variety of jobs, as well as create final evidence reports. It is therefore a secure storage facility, operational lab, production facility, and an office. While there is no set requirement for physical floor space, there must be in place measures that stop unauthorized access. There must also be a walk-in lock-up vault that is fire/heat/smoke and water safe, as well as safe from electromagnetic emanations, and not in proximity of radio equipment.

The Digital Realm Meets CSI

Just look at headlines today from political leaks to missing teens, and you'll find it's digital forensics that yields the all-important convicting evidence. Cell phones, computers, iPads and the cloud all yield clues and evidence that will convict a suspect. Each phone, for example, yields on average between 1,000 and 1,500 text messages sent and received. Phones also store GPS data, yielding approximately 200 of the last cell locations in proximity of that phone. Vehicle navigation systems and satellite radios provide data. Photos we take now with our cell phones that are GPS-enabled provide file data that show when and where the photo was taken.

The problem is that local forensics labs do not necessarily have the digital evidence experts; and this evidence, when compared with physical evidence, is easy to destroy. While there are certification programs for digital media examiners, there is no one body that oversees national certification, so the programs involved are different—for better or worse. Most states maintain an Internet, a crimes against children unit, and a terrorism task force. Of course, depending on the crime, the FBI can be tapped for assistance.

Digital evidence is also sent to a forensics lab where data is retrieved and analyzed. The steps involved include preventing contamination; examining wireless devices in an isolation chamber to avoid connection to any networks; installing a write block so that data can be seen but not changed; and once data is removed, the device is moved to evidence where it is examined for physical forensic data, including DNA and fingerprints.

It Isn’t All Shiny, New Equipment

Within the forensic lab setting, there must also be separate internet connections that do not tap into the forensics server, as well as a sufficient number of workstations that enable the forensics professionals to work on individual cases simultaneously, yet share devices and resources when possible.

Forensics labs are likely to serve hundreds of police departments, and sometimes a whole state, rather than the dedicated lab per police department on TV. And, unfortunately, they are not as well equipped. Not all required or needed equipment resides in any of these labs. And there are also serious concerns regarding crime lab and forensic professional credibility given the subjective nature of conclusions and inconsistent certification and training requirements. These labs are also operating on a shoestring budget.

According to a National Academy of Sciences report on crime labs, “Overall, most laboratories lack adequate dedicated and stable funding to fully accomplish their work.” The report also indicated that except for nuclear DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

Mistakes are rampant. A Houston, Texas lab, for example, was shut down twice in eight years because of contaminated DNA samples, fraudulent lab reports and off-the-mark analysis. Fingerprints are delayed in a backlog of 6,000 cases. Other states have shortages of ballistics examiners, causing backlogs of up to a year. Kansas saw DNA analysis requests increase by 25%, while the number of scientists at the state crime lab dropped by 20%. The solution for some states is to have the labs charge police departments and law enforcement agencies for their services.

How TV Gets It Wrong

On the shows we love, it takes less than an hour for a crime to be committed, evidence to be collected and processed, and the guilty party to be behind bars or executed. Forensics professionals should be so lucky. Analysis isn’t done in minutes. On TV, medical examiners rattle off the name of the poison based on toxicology reports, before the body is even cold. Toxicology tests require blood, urine and tissue samples, and the timeframe is between four to six weeks. Estimates reveal that more than 300,000 requests for forensic services in labs across the U.S. are backlogged. While it often takes long periods of time—months and years—the majority of cases are actually solved.

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