TV vs reality: The investigative work crime shows fail to reflect


Michaela Franková
Business Consultant – Forensics, Innovatrics

Plenty of evidence, super high-tech gadgets and do-it-all investigators: that’s the purported reality from almost every criminal TV series out there. After all, who would want to watch the slow, meticulous work of dozens of technicians rather than several attractive criminalists keeping a city crime-free? However, if you want to become a criminal investigator or wonder what a real crime scene looks like, let this article be your reality check.

They’re running. He is more handsome than ever. Her hair and make-up are just as flawless as her sharp detective mind. They arrive at the crime scene. Careful! Do not touch anything. A horrible murder has happened. Fortunately, he immediately sees a hidden fingerprint on the door. First evidence. One look at the victim’s body, and she already knows the weapon. The room is full of people searching for more evidence. 

Within minutes they are back at the police station. The fingerprint is already being identified and the lab technician runs to the detective duo with a shocking discovery about an exotic grain of sand, plant seed, thread from clothing or bodily fluid. Every piece of CCTV-camera footage from the city is on one computer at the police station, and wait – there is the suspect’s car. 

Quick! Enhance, focus… enhance a little more…it’s blurred, but surely – a good investigator can read it. The detectives now have all the evidence. Still looking good, they run directly to catch the culprit, exchanging witty comments on the way (maybe even flirting a bit) and boom! They catch the bad guy, justice has been served, and the episode is over. What a dream to be an investigator, right? Well…

…not really. Real criminal investigation work is usually slow, difficult, precise and not at all adrenaline-packed. To illustrate the differences, we compared some of the most popular situations in TV crime dramas with the everyday reality of criminal investigations.

Getting a DNA sample
from a fingerprint

Investigators frequently collect latent fingerprints as a common type of evidence at crime scenes. They typically lift these fingerprints using transparent adhesive tape and place them on a paper card.

When the latent fingerprint is high quality – meaning enough oil and sweat were left on the surface – it is possible to analyse the sample for DNA. Even old fingerprints can retain forensically useful amounts of DNA to successfully solve older cases.

To be fair, not everything on TV is too far from reality. Here are some of the most interesting things that the shows often get right:

  • Crime scenes can look very unpleasant, especially in the case of murder. The state of the victim and blood is often very difficult to look at, so not everybody can do this type of work. Even in TV shows, as a way to amplify the horror of the crime, some staff on the crime scene may vomit or at least hyperventilate. 
  • Enhancing blurred images and removing noise from pictures is possible. There are companies like Amped Software that develop technologies that can even remove sandstorms from a video and show a clear image of what is going on.
  • CCTV cameras are popular technology in TV shows, and rightly so. Face recognition technology is making city cameras a useful tool for criminal identification in real life. Software platforms like SmartFace enable police to search faces on photos and videos in search of a suspect’s whereabouts.
  • Have you ever seen a TV show solving a cold case from decades ago? You may have been surprised to see investigators finding a new latent fingerprint on a long-lost document that suddenly sheds new light on the case. Surprisingly enough, it is possible to retrieve even decades-old fingerprints from a variety of surfaces, even paper. Of course, it depends on the quality of the fingerprint at the time of the crime, the surface and also on environmental conditions. 
  • Digital criminology has also made its way into TV shows. It’s possible to solve a case by identifying a latent fingerprint from a glass posted on social media. Also, many cases have been solved thanks to GPS coordinates and other metadata from photos. The constantly changing digital landscape that people and criminals navigate has caused digital criminology to grow rapidly as a field.

AUTHOR: Jana Nováková