Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dividing it up: Jurisdiction

Usually on television an entire crime scene unit arrives and sweeps through the scene collecting all the evidence including photographs, fingerprints and trace. Then they are shown in the lab manipulating what they have just collected and within a short period of time, they are calling detectives with a match to the prints found at the scene or some other leading discovery.

In reality, a patrol officer is dispatched to a crime scene and maybe, if the jurisdiction has manpower, a backup officer will follow. After securing the area if it’s a small scene, they will take photographs and maybe dust for prints. If it is something more than a patrol officer can handle, a detective is put on call. One will usually arrive and for larger scenes again, maybe two will be called. Generally about the only time an entire criminal investigation division will be sent is for a major case like murder, aggravated robbery, kidnapping or something heinous.

Jurisdiction is probably one of the biggest factors to determine who does what, when, and how. For example, a small town with the population of 900, is going to operate the best they know how with limited men and resources. It’s the police officer then who will do many different jobs such as collecting evidence, logging it in and sending it off to be processed at a lab in a larger city. In a slightly larger city with a more serious crime, the detective may be working alone, collecting evidence, logging it in, making initial contact with victims, typing reports, interviewing witnesses, showing photo lineups, locating potential suspects, and collecting enough probable cause for a judge to issue a complaint. Detectives try to help each other out if it is overly large.

Let’s face it. Communities everywhere make do with what they have. If they need their officers to multi-task, they do it. If law enforcement need more help, the officers will call and ask but you can’t create what isn’t there. And I’d venture to say that all law enforcement everywhere could use more capable men and resources.

One thing that always struck me as funny was when the folks on TV cross over into other jurisdictions, or if they fight with another department to get a case so they can see justice done. Who would have time for that? Who asks for more work when they're overworked already? Plus, officers probably have to wait weeks, if not months for evidence results and the cases just keep coming. Juggling, juggling, trying to make things move in sync—it’s got to be super stressful and tires me just thinking about it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Television Depictions Worry Others

Ha! In USA TODAY today (February 13, 2007), there was a small article on the op-ed page about how the hit TV show 24 has showed a lot of torture scenes and, oh my, the military is upset.

Now you can hear me talking?! Yes, if you’ve been watching Jack Bauer this year you’ll note that the writers have ramped up the scenes in this new season with some good things and some very stupid things. Okay, the stupid thing first: bad government. Yeah, there is always some political figure who is either in cahoots with someone, has no ethics or brain, or is planning their own plot intrigue. I’d say, if you were from a visiting country and watched 24, you’d probably get the idea our government is badly run. (Need we say more about our political image around the world?)

But the problem the military officials are moaning about is the frequency with which the pretend CTU unit uses torture to get key information; (so far this year, Jack Bauer’s not doing real well in the "getting good information" scenario). Anyway, the editorial committee at USA TODAY wants us to know that in real life: [Quote] “. . .ticking bomb scenarios like this almost never occur, and torture rarely works. Suspects will make up anything to stop the pain or humiliation.” [That’s an end-quote, not my words]

Of course, I don’t know anything about the military and their sneaky tactics. I also don’t know anything about torture of any kind (thank heaven), but I do know that the military doesn’t like pop culture making claims in the name of fiction that damage their policy or image, especially when it comes to the terrorism fight that is on-going. (I just wrote about the Patriot Act for the 2nd edition of my book Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure, and, if you have not read the Patriot Act, you will be mightily surprised at the liberties that are taken away from us—but I digress.)

So the military is upset about television depictions! Hel-oo-o. That’s what I’ve been saying on behalf of forensic science! How do you think the criminal justice system feels about all the stupid things that are “created” on television that one can only call bad infotainment? It’s hard enough to make real life work, when people believe that forensic science and law enforcement can do all these made-up things that are almost all but impossible in a lot of criminal cases. Reality folks, can be the pits. And here I am having a hard time selling a book that will teach people who love the TV crime drama shows what is real and what is totally absurd—and I can’t get a publisher to take it on. What? the American public doesn’t want their bubble burst? They want to believe that things operate like they do on Bones, or CSI—Las Vegas? They want to get on a real life jury and make decisions about someone's future or very life when they don't know what's real? Pu-leese. Think on that.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Breaking the Law

I just finished doing the Subject Index for the 2nd edition of a criminal law book of mine, Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure. Indexing is weird. Not only is my brain a little skewed from thinking about legal terms in a backwards fashion, but the format fuses your left brain and right together somehow so I feel fried—glad it’s finished and in the mails on its last route before publication.

We are trying to covert Legal Ease into a textbook because I often get mail from law teachers asking for that format. So I added a section for definitions, questions and the like (even an essay part, poor students). But it reminded me how narrow the law really is, how exact the wording, and what constraints that puts on the players: the defense team, the prosecution, and even the judge and jury.

Away, this got me to thinking about the TV crime dramas and forensics and the principals who play them. Most of them should be in jail themselves. The characters have a tendency to break the law. And just last night, I watched the main anthropologist on Bones, Temperance Brennan, pull a very big gun out of her purse. Okay, so she works in this government facility, right? Well, it’s very unlikely that security are not out in front screening everyone who comes through the building. And did she have a "concealed gun" permit for said weapon? They never said in the story and she didn’t either. But surely alarms would have gone off on her arrival.

Of course, I went back to watch some old Perry Mason mysteries on television too. They showed them late at night on a channel that shows oldies—and I was very surprised to find out that Perry broke the law every week! He either set up the perpetrator by doing something shady, led police in a wild goose chase, secreted someone away, or withheld information. Of course, the audiences were not as savvy then, and I’m sure the script writers weren’t the best fact checkers either, but old Perry would have lost his license to practice many times. The American Bar Association would have had his number for sure!