Saturday, August 5, 2017

CSI: The Reality that TV Doesn't Show You with Patti Phillips

A big welcome back to ThrillWriting friend, Patti Phillips

Patti Phillips is a transplanted metropolitan New Yorker/north Texan, now living in the piney state of North Carolina.

Her best investigative days are spent writing, attending The Writers’ Police Academy, cooking, traveling for research, and playing golf. Her time on the golf course has been murderously valuable while creating the perfect alibi for the chief villain in her novel, One Sweet Motion. Did you know that there are spots on a golf course that can’t be accessed by listening devices?

Warning: parts of this article describe the work of a CSI at a murder scene.

A Crime Scene Investigator (also known as an Evidence Recovery Technician) is a forensic specialist. A well-trained, experienced CSI tech has an organized plan of action when processing a crime scene. Most go through extensive training, if not in the classroom, then in the field while working with seasoned law enforcement officers, before being allowed to work solo. They study how to recognize evidence, how to document the process and the proper way to prioritize, recover, handle, and package that evidence for possible use in court.

TV makes the job of a CSI tech look easy and like a lot of fun.

Get a call from dispatch, arrive at a crime scene, pop on the gloves, shine a flashlight around, take a few photos, collect the evidence along with your team of 4-5 colleagues and go back to the lab an hour or so later, ready to process all of it.

Have the real CSI techs and law enforcement professionals stopped laughing yet? ;-)

Here’s the reality:

Most small towns have no special CSI techs or labs. None. The local police collect fingerprints, but send them to State Labs to be processed. Many towns, even with populations of 100,000 people, don’t have a ballistics lab to check the caliber of any bullets/casings left behind at the scene or found in the victim’s body. In general, big cities have more homicides and other crimes, so employ full-time CSIs. In small towns, the Police Chief or Police Officer might do the investigating, collection, and analysis of the evidence, alone.

New York State (as of 2016) had a population of 19.88 million, and has four State crime labs – one full service and three specializing in varied areas.

Those crime labs process evidence from all kinds of crimes (burglary, rape, arson, assault, etc.) not just murders. It takes a few hours to get the prints, preserve the evidence, bag and tag it for transport, but it takes as long as 18 months to get it processed. That is not a typo, folks. Even in high profile cases, moving to the head of the line only shortens the wait to 2-3 months, because of other high profile cases in line or cases already in court, waiting for clarification of the evidence.

Get the picture? The State Bureaus of Investigation are short-staffed and the cases more numerous, as attorneys seek to prove or disprove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the evidence gathered at the scene linked their clients to the crime.

Cases are won and lost on how the evidence is handled – both the chain of custody and the collecting of the correct evidence can be factors in how a suspect is perceived. The detectives and attorneys decide what is important to the case.

I had a chance to chat with a CSI who has been in the field for about 10 years. Her day is soooo different from the image of the CSI jobs projected on TV.

She enters a crime scene after a Patrol Officer has made sure that no unauthorized person is in it. A Deputy, and if needed, the owner of the house, might walk her through, pointing out areas of interest. She takes notes so that she can come up with a Plan of Action – how to process the scene.

In general, she will take photos first, and then collect the evidence. If a homicide is suspected, she might take video as well. She might see patterns of wreckage, or even similarities with other cases, but it is not her job to focus on the M.O. (modus operandi) or narrow her collection efforts based on a hunch. She is there to collect all the evidence.

She might be looking for:

  • Fingerprints and blood spatters 
  • Fibers 
  • Footwear, tire, and tool impressions 
  • DNA samples (hair, nails, blood, saliva, etc) 
  • Murder weapon 
  • Point of entry 

The trunk of a CSI’s car is filled with the tools of the trade. They have kits for each type of evidence collection. They might also carry a tarp to cover the ground (creating a collection place for the evidence) if the scene is outdoors – such as a train wreck.

The CSI I interviewed works in Major Crimes for the Sheriff’s Department, and when she is called to a scene, she works 12-hour shifts, alone. She collects all the evidence, bags and tags it, and hands it all to the detective in charge. If she has to work an additional shift, a Patrol Officer guards the scene until she returns to finish collection. Limited people have keys to the building - in order to maintain that ever important chain of possession.

There are evidence cards showing who collected it, and anyone entering or leaving the scene will have to sign in and out with the Patrol Officer on duty.


Occasionally, the collection of the evidence requires a strong stomach. If the CSI works a homicide or accidental death scene, they will be dealing with strong odors. Although air/water temperature may affect the rate of decomposition, a dead body begins to stink fairly quickly. In order to deal with rotting meat odors, some apply Vicks under their noses, but some just get used to it. The Tyvek suits used at British TV crime scenes do not block the odors at all.

Sometimes, bodies are dumped in the water, and that affects the rate of decay. Unless recovered within the first day or so, the skin and muscle begin to change at such a rate as to become almost unrecognizable for what they are. Special bags are needed to contain the remains. The bags have holes in the sides to allow the water to escape, without losing the body parts.


The condition of a body recovered in the heat can also be a challenge. The body swells up and can pop if not handled correctly. In ‘cold cases,’ where the body has been sitting outside for months, perhaps only the skeleton will remain, requiring identification through dental records or bits of clothing still attached to the bones.

Homicide and some accident scenes can be bloody. Most law enforcement personnel are deeply affected by the surprising amount of blood found at a murder scene or a horrific accident scene. But, it’s important to stay detached while collecting the evidence, taking the blood spatter photographs, and detailing the information, so that the victims can be represented properly in court.

Stress and grief can be factors that affect CSIs. Some larger departments offer/require counseling after emotionally tough cases, but the smaller departments don’t have the resources for that. Imagine waking up night after night, reliving a crime scene in nightmares. In cases involving multiple deaths or children, the stress level can be especially high.

One realistic test to see if possible candidates are suited to the job of CSI at a murder or accident scene is to have them visit a morgue or an ER. If they get through a busy, bloody night at an ER, they might be able to work in Homicide.

If not, I’m told that there is lots of work in Forensic Accounting and CyberCrimes for CSIs, that does not involve blood or body parts.


Patti Phillips (writing as Detective Charlie Kerrian) can be found at Her book reviews can be read at

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