- Some crime shows depict law enforcement and the legal process in an unrealistic way.
- Although a lot of people can wander onto crime scenes in TV shows, access to them is much more strictly controlled in real life.
- Popular in TV-show courtrooms, the insanity defence is rarely used in real-life criminal court cases.
Considering multiple shows about law enforcement have been on the air for years and new ones are always being released, it’s no secret that this type of show is so popular. And it’s easy to see why – from renegade cops who single-handedly take down suspects to crime labs filled with futuristic tech, some of these shows make the business of being a police officer and working on criminal court cases look dramatic and thrilling.
But some parts of these TV shows aren’t always accurate. INSIDER consulted with experts to figure out what cop shows and crime dramas always get wrong about working in law enforcement fields.
Criminal profiling isn’t used as often in real life as it is in TV shows.
Criminal profiling is a forensic technique whereby a specialist tries to predict or understand the characteristics and future behaviour of an offender based on their past behaviour or elements of the crime.
Profilers are regular characters in many crime shows and they’re often portrayed as having a key part in solving murder investigations. But criminal profiling plays a very different role in actual criminal cases.
“In reality, criminal profiling is only used in a limited number of high-profile murder cases and even when it is, forensic psychologists are rarely the ones who crack the case,” Dr. Darrel Turner, a forensic psychologist and FBI consultant, told INSIDER.
Turner further explained that profiling is unlikely to be used in a typical murder case. He also said it’s actually more common for forensic psychologists to be used after an arrest so they can evaluate the suspect for things like their competency to stand trial or their likelihood to re-offend.
Although popular in TV courtrooms, the insanity defence is rarely used in real-life criminal cases.
The insanity plea or insanity defence is a common plot device used in crime shows, but it’s actually a defence you’ll rarely see pleaded in courtrooms.
“In reality, it’s exceptionally difficult for a defendant to successfully plead the insanity defence. This plea defence only works in an extremely small number of cases,” explained Turner.
According to Cornell Law School, in this defence, “the defendant admits the action, but asserts a lack of culpability based on a mental illness.”
A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that the insanity defence is only employed in less than 1% of felony cases. When it is used, the defence is only successful about 25% of the time.
Furthermore, Turner told INSIDER that criminal defendants who may be struggling with mental health issues often undergo an extensive evaluation by a court-appointed forensic psychologist to determine their competency to stand trial well before a plea is ever entered into court. Simply suffering from a mental illness at the time of the crime is not grounds for entering an insanity plea.
“The question is whether they were so incapacitated by their illness that they could not understand the wrongfulness of their actions. Just because a person has a mental illness doesn’t mean they can’t make a determination between right and wrong,” he added.
Not all serial killers consistently and constantly commit crimes until they are caught.
A common theme in many crime shows is that serial killers don’t take any breaks and they won’t stop killing until they’re caught. But according to Dr. Turner, this is not always the case.
“We have seen serial killers time and again who’ve paused for months, years, even decades between killings,” he told INSIDER. “There can be any number of reasons for why they stop, ranging from a fear of getting caught to having a religious experience, or even just the simple reason that they got a new job or met someone new and their life has gotten better.”
Access to crime scenes is much more limited in real life.
In TV shows, detectives and police officers will often easily walk through crime scenes, rummage through evidence, and hunt for clues. In real life, access to crime scenes is strictly controlled in order to avoid compromising sensitive physical evidence, such as DNA or fibres, that may be present.
“The number of law enforcement officers at a crime scene is actually quite limited. It is the crime scene technicians that process the scene. The idea that any officer can walk in and pick up a murder weapon is absolutely inconsistent with real life,” criminal defence attorney and former prosecutor Sasha Shulman told INSIDER.
In fact, many police departments keep a log of individuals who have visited a crime scene in order to make sure evidence at the scene is kept as intact and undisturbed as possible.
Most real-life police departments aren’t actually working with the cutting-edge technology you see on TV.
Many fictional police departments in TV shows often have a lot of high-tech equipment and genius computer experts at their disposal. But in real life, US police departments are funded by taxpayer money, which means there is rarely a large budget that can be used to purchase cutting-edge computers and incredibly advanced technology.
“Unlike Hollywood depictions, police departments do not have access to things like 3D visual augmentation and fully integrated or interoperable systems. The majority of agencies are operating on 20-year-old technology that has no integration capability and is often older than the recruits using it,” Richard LeCates, a former police lieutenant with Clayton County, Georgia, told INSIDER.
Although you usually won’t see it in TV shows, firing your gun in the line of duty actually involves a lot of follow-up paperwork.
Though police officers and detectives on television seem to be able to use their firearms and then simply head back into the field the next day, that’s not what happens in real life.
In reality, firing even one bullet triggers an extensive investigation into the police officer’s actions and the circumstances surrounding the incident – it doesn’t matter if an officer was apprehending a suspect or shooting through a locked door.
“Once a firearm is discharged, the officer or detective will get a few days [worth] of administrative work while the department conducts an internal investigation to determine whether or not any policies or procedures were violated,” attorney Arion Hunt told INSIDER.
Unlike stoic cops you see in TV shows, many real-life police officers can be impacted by what they see on the job.
In TV shows, cops are oftentimes depicted facing traumatic, violent situations without showing any emotion or being impacted by them whatsoever. In reality, police officers are as human as everyone else and they can be intensely affected by what they see on the job.
“Hollywood stereotypes of police officers as unemotional machines is wholly inaccurate. The idea that an officer who has just completed a call to a fatal vehicle accident and is then expected to respond to the next call unaffected is both unreasonable and unrealistic,” said LeCates.
In fact, research conducted by Mind, a UK-based mental health organisation, found that emergency services personnel were more likely to experience mental health problems than the general workforce but less likely to take time off for treatment.
In addition, many individuals who work in law enforcement can also suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. which occurs when a person has difficulty recovering from experiencing or witnessing a scary, shocking, or dangerous event.