Unlike Most TV Shows, Real Police Work Takes More Than An Hour

OSWEGO, NY – When people watch police themed TV shows or movies, they must remember – it’s reel. Area law enforcement members tell Oswego County Today that real police work is quite a lot different than what you see on the TV or movie screen.

“I actually don’t watch many police shows, unless it’s a documentary style show like ‘Forensic Files’ or ‘Cold Case Files.’ I enjoy that type of programming over a police drama, because you get a true sense of a real case and many times they are cases that I am already familiar with,” Oswego Police Chief Tory DeCaire said.

Collecting evidence takes time
Collecting evidence takes time

The benefit of watching those types of programs is that you get a flavor for the type of crime, what was involved in the specific investigation, problems associated with the investigation or prosecution as well as a resolution, all within an hour or so, he added.

He doesn’t have a specific “cop movie” that comes to mind.

“But, if I were to pick a genre of police movie that I would enjoy, it would probably be a comedy,” he said. “I think taking some time to laugh is an important stress reliever and what better way than to laugh at situations that you are familiar with.”

University Police Chief John Rossi at SUNY Oswego said ‘The First 48’ on the A and E network is a cop show that he watches.

“It shows actual homicide cases that sometimes are solved quickly and other times the leads run out and they become unsolved cold cases,” he explained. “It also shows that these incidents are truly senseless.”

Oswego County Undersheriff Gene Sullivan doesn’t usually watch police shows on TV.

“Right now, I’m not watching any cop shows on TV. Frankly, it’s too much like being at work; and I use what limited TV I watch to escape,” he explained.

Some past favorites for him would be NYPD Blue and The Shield.

“I liked those because if you’re going to watch a fantasy show about police work, you might as well watch one that is totally fictional and far apart from the real world of police work,” he said.

“You have to root for Bruce Willis in the first ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Bad Boys 2’ is a great partner movie,” the Undersheriff said of his movie choices. “Same as the TV shows, I look for my entertainment to be as far away from real life as possible. Those two movies are about as far away from real life police work as you can get.”

“Well, my favorite true crime dramas would be ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Departed,’” Chief Rossi said.

How accurately do TV cop shows portray police work?

Dusting for fingerprints
Dusting for fingerprints

It very much depends on the type of show and what specific show, the Oswego chief said.

“The documentary programs are great at giving a fairly accurate representation of ‘real’ police work. But, but as you move into the docu-drama or police drama categories, the facts get blurred by what people think makes for good TV,” he said.

“I think television and the movies do an abhorrent job of portraying police work. I think they perpetuate myths and inaccuracies about police work. Don’t ever watch a cop show and think that you’re learning about what it’s like to do police work,” Undersheriff Sullivan said. “There’s a reason that there is no reality TV show called ‘COPS: Paperwork’ because no one would watch it! And yet, that is a large part of what our day consists of. Even the ‘COPS’ TV show has to film weeks and months of footage to get 30 minutes of exciting TV.”

“Some shows are fairly realistic such as ‘Law and Order’ and ‘NYPD Blue.’ Most others are written for entertainment value only, such as suspects in vast conspiracies are brought to justice within an hour,” Chief Rossi said.

The worst offender?

“Take your pick. There are many to choose from; any show that depicts police as abusive or corrupt or in any way idolizes a ‘bad cop’ character goes on the thumbs down list for me,” Chief DeCaire explained. “One specifically bad show (cop or otherwise) ‘Cop Rock,’ a short-lived 90s police-drama-musical series – just no!”

“I don’t watch many shows, but CSI Miami comes to mind,” Chief Rossi said.

Today, most crime drama shows depict a variety of hi-tech gizmos and gadgets.

Some of them don’t exist yet. Some would be too expensive for most departments to buy and maintain.

And then, there is the equipment that is one many departments’ wish lists.

Most TV shows depict “high-tech” equipment for use in crime scene investigations, Chief DeCaire said.

“In most cases, that equipment actually exists and with the exception of laboratory testing equipment, most agencies have access to those items either in their own inventory or through an assisting agency,” he said. “Of course, if money was of no object, having an in-house crime lab would be ideal. However, the costs would be astronomical which is why law enforcement agencies typically use the centralized service of the NYSP or a private lab to conduct their testing.”

“The equipment does exist, for full-time forensic units in large departments in our larger cities as well as our State Police,” Chief Rossi said. “I guess a crime scope would be the tool to have.”

A lot of forensic work is sent out to the NYSP lab.
A lot of forensic work is sent out to the NYSP lab.

“I think the worst offender is the CSI series. It has had a national impact on the way police work is viewed, how evidence is obtained and how cases are presented in court. Juries have begun to expect CSI-like results from police investigations and that is just not reality,” the Undersheriff said. “Many of the instruments alluded to in the shows either does not exist or the instruments don’t produce what the show says they do. But Hollywood does a good job of making it believable (and entertaining), so people have begun to expect it in real life.”

“I don’t watch CSI, but we have been impacted by its fallout,” he continued. “I don’t know specifically what gadgets they have or what they purport to do, but we would love to have their budget and manpower. And their caseload – only one case to work on at a time and all the time in the world to devote to it.”

Time is another thing TV cop shows take great liberties with.

On TV, no matter how many other investigations are pending, it usually only takes one or two commercial breaks for the star to get the DNA report, tox screen, autopsy results or other report.

In real life it’s not that fast.

“That’s one of the biggest fallacies in TV crime shows – time. Finding someone who doesn’t want to be found can take weeks and that might just be a witness. TV would have us believe that everyone we need to talk to is at home or work and that they’re happy to cooperate with us when we show up,” Undersheriff Sullivan said.

“DNA testing is something that most people think is the cure-all of police work. A couple of swabs, a few minutes in the lab and magically, you have your suspect,” Chief DeCaire said. “Unfortunately, it’s not always (actually, hardly ever) that simple or quick.”

DNA analysis, for example, takes time, the testing takes time, the processing of evidence takes time and it takes time to get through the thousands of submissions that the crime lab has on their plate, he explained.

If/when a DNA sample is successfully identified; it has to be compared with a known source (a suspect for example).

Similar to fingerprints or even photographic images of suspects, you have to have something to compare it to, Chief DeCaire said.

“All of that takes time and resources. Thanks to the New York State Police lab personnel, results get back relatively quickly (and by relatively we’re talking about a few months in most cases and not minutes as seen on some TV shows),” DeCaire said.

“On occasion, we send drugs or DNA specimens to the Wally Howard Jr. Center for Forensic Science lab in Syracuse. But, we typically use the State Police lab in Port Crane,” Chief Rossi said. “The return time depends on the case load of either lab. It is never within an hour!”

In reality, lab results take months to come back, the Undersheriff agreed.

“Sometimes, samples sent for testing come back inconclusive, meaning they hold no evidentiary value. Most of our lab submissions go to the State Police lab in Albany. There is no cost associated with their testing and their lab techs will come here to testify,” he said. “We have used the Wally Howard Center in Syracuse, but there is a cost associated with those tests.”

Much like any police agency, the labs also have to prioritize their work, Sullivan pointed out.

Sending an item for a latent fingerprint examination in a burglary is going to be lower on the priority list to a gun or knife used in a multiple homicide, he said, adding that since the Albany lab is receiving submissions from all over the State of New York, they have quite a backlog of submissions to get through.

“Our department does keep up with technology. We have solved some cases with DNA matches. We just received a grant allowing us to purchase hardware to retrieve digital data from cellular devices. We have three certified Crime Scene Technicians, a Livescan booking station as well as having Automated License Plate Readers on three of our patrol cars,” Chief Rossi said. “Technology changes very quickly and we have to keep up with those changes.  Our officers work extremely hard to keep our campus community one of the safest in the state.”

Having a show that interests you, or even if the show entices you to want to get into the law enforcement field, is great, Chief DeCaire said.

But, he issues a word of caution.

“There is a reason that police dramas are action-packed and time-condensed. Nobody wants to watch a police officer on TV sit at a desk and write reports for an hour,” he said reinforcing the Undersheriff’s views.

People should watch police themed television and movies for entertainment, not as documentaries,” Sullivan said. “Rarely, if ever in real life, do investigations reveal themselves the way they do on television. Rarely in real life is there some interesting, compelling twist at the conclusion of a case.”

“Unfortunately, but rarely, is there some life changing, epiphany revelation that impacts someone close to the investigation,” he added. “Police work and a career in law enforcement is a fascinating, challenging, interesting and honorable profession, But, not for the reasons that Hollywood would have us believe.”

Chief DeCaire said that if anyone is interested, “we offer a citizen ride-along program where, after a brief application process, citizens can spend a shift with one of our officers and see for themselves what it’s all about.”

Applications for city of Oswego residents over the age of 18 can be obtained at the Oswego City Police Department’s front desk or by calling the department at 315-343-1212.