For some, binge watching all 11 seasons of Criminal Minds in a matter of a few weeks can be considered a remarkable feat. For others, watching an FBI team analyze and investigate intense crimes, episode after episode, ignites a different kind of passion: a new career goal—Crime Scene Investigation. But what does “real CSI” involve? Is there a discrepancy between the portrayals of CSI in the media and in real life?
Wade Knaap, a part-time faculty member in the forensic science department at UTM, explains that the new 100-level forensic science course, FSC100H, aims to show students the realities behind the crime scene investigation process.
Knaap says that this introductory course provides an avenue for students that are interested in the forensic sciences, but not planning to pursue it as a program of study, to learn about the field and earn a general science credit.
“It’s kind of an overview of the whole science itself, how it interacts, and the impact that the television shows have on jurors,” Knaap explains.
“There are distinct differences between what is portrayed on television versus reality. Even on a general interest level, it is nice for people to have a true understanding instead of a misconception as to what that whole career is based on.”
The course will explore crime scene investigation, latest scientific developments, and how the media portrayals impact the whole judicial system.
Unfortunately, the media, especially television shows, do not always mirror reality. Knaap notes that timing plays a huge role in differentiating real crime scene investigations from the ones seen in popular media portrayals.
“Obviously, television shows have a limited amount of time to show the crime, the investigative process, the arrest procedure, the lab component, and then the interpretation of the evidence down the road. So they’ll generate biology DNA profiles within a commercial break,” Knaap says. “Everything is kind of accelerated to accommodate that.”
Investigative techniques that are used for one specific application will often undergo a transformation in order to accommodate the needs of the show’s fictional story line. One example of this is the use of a crime scene light to examine for physical and trace evidence at a crime scene. In reality, this light source has limitations.
“You see this regularly on television, where they show the forensic light source at a 450 nanometer wavelength, identifying fluorescent blood. It actually works the opposite. Blood will show dark or black in colour, it doesn’t fluoresce,” he says.
The media also modifies techniques and applications to enhance the wow-factor of the television show. Knaap explains that many other biological fluids may fluoresce with great intensity under alternate light sources, but it doesn’t work that way with blood.
The goal of FSC100 is to dispel these common misconceptions and instead provide students with a more accurate representation of how the process is conducted. When Knaap developed the course, he tried to incorporate discussion on the resources and tools that are available to assist crime scene investigators and forensic identification officers.
“It’s not just how it’s portrayed on television, where their investigators are doing everything from entomology to DNA analysis. Their experts in automotive mechanics and underwater recovery and all these different components are comprised into one person,” he says. “The reality is, it’s not that way. It’s a team effort, it’s a collaborative thing. The best forensic investigator is the person that knows what resources are available to them and knowing when to call those resources in for a successful investigation.”
During the investigative process, Knaap explains that investigators have only one opportunity to do it right, and if they make mistakes in the onset, it will have significant impact later. This is why it’s important to understand that there are many experts with knowledge and skills in different subject matters who would be an asset at a crime scene.
“For instance, Dr. Rogers, the program director, is a forensic anthropologist, so if we have skeletonized remains that need to be identified, whether it be from gender, trauma to the body, or personal identification, [Dr. Rogers] is one avenue we can use to assist with that,” Knaap says.
Gabriella Arjun, a first-year student planning to major in criminology, says her interest in the popular television shows influenced her to take the course.
“I took this course just to gain some more information about my major, and also because I’ve always been interested in watching those shows like CSI, and Criminal Minds. I have a lot of background knowledge on it, so I thought it’d be a great idea to take the course,” she says.
Last Wednesday, I sat in on Knaap’s two-hour lecture. Located in IB110, the class is currently at maximum enrollment capacity.
The lecture focused on the topic of crime scene management, including the role of first responders, the Criminal Code of Canada, and differentiating between various types of evidence. Knaap encouraged class participation by posing questions and scenarios to analyze. He defined critical terms like “crime,” “crime scene,” and “evidence”.
I learned that forensic investigators get called to analyze scenes that are not always crime-related, such as scenes of sudden death and house fires. I now know the difference between testimonials and physical evidence, and that evidence can establish credibility within a case. I also understand the importance in managing crime scenes.
Knaap hopes that students will leave the course with a deeper understanding of the CSI processes, and realize that there are many different components to it.
“It’s collaborative—it’s a team approach. As a student, they may have an interest in a particular science, maybe biology, chemistry, or anthropology, and even though they may pursue that and not necessarily have the intent to be a crime scene investigator, their knowledge and skillset may still be utilized and included in that investigative process,” Knaap says.