The CSI Effect, In Light of Ferguson, Baltimore, North Charleston ...

by Neil H. Buchanan

For no particular reason, I started binge-watching the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation earlier this year.  The king of all crime procedural shows, CSI has been on the air since October 6, 2000, and the binge now requires watching 336 episodes (with a series-ending two-hour movie set to air in September).  At this point, I am in the middle of the ninth season, now watching shows that first aired in early 2009.

A show as influential as CSI (three spinoffs, countless copycats) has already been analyzed many times, from academic and public policy perspectives.  For example, there is a Wikipedia page devoted to a so-called "CSI Effect," defined as follows: "The CSI effect, also known as the CSI syndrome and the CSI infection, is any of several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception" (footnotes and links omitted).  To watch the show also makes sense of findings that people who watch a lot of TV think that home-invasion crime is rampant.  And, of course, CSI also traffics in the usual "He lawyered up" eye-rolling.

Concern about the CSI Effect merely proves that some issues are timeless.  I have read that prosecutors in the 1960's were worried that the old Perry Mason show left real-world juries with the impression that they would never have to find a defendant guilty, because someone else would always break down and confess in open court.  TV is powerful, and its dramatic distortions can affect people's expectations.  (For a very recent example of the effect that popular culture might have on real-world behavior, look at the "cop barrel roll" video from the recent crazy incident in McKinney, Texas.)

My concern here, however, is not with the "Science can solve all crimes beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise" effect of crime procedurals, but with CSI's portrayal of what might best be called "the police point of view."  Having only watched the 2000-2009 seasons, long before cop-on-black violence became the focus of today's national debate, CSI is an interesting window into how crime shows -- which use real-world police (usually retired) as consultants -- present the insular world of policing.  How, according to these shows, do the police think that people think about the police?

There have always been, of course, cop shows that are rah-rah law and order propaganda pieces (although, interestingly, Law & Order was not such a show).  The original Hawaii Five-O was often an extended brief for the then-incipient drug war, a shameful legacy that is only slightly offset by one of the coolest theme songs in TV history.  A few months ago, I decided to watch a random episode of Five-O, and I was struck by the extreme us-versus-them attitude that the show portrayed.  At one point, McGarrett (the big stud) talked about how terrible things are when a cop fires a gun.  I did not write down the lines verbatim, but he said something very much like this: "When a civilian does something wrong, all kinds of things are forgiven, but not for a cop!  When a cop steps even an inch out of line, he's in trouble.  No one will believe him.  It's not right, but the rules are different for us."

Even (or especially) in 1968, of course, that was laughable.  Yes, the rules were different for cops, but in the other direction.  The idea that civilians got away with murder, while cops were being railroaded on the flimsiest of evidence, simply boggles the mind.  Again, however, Five-O was very much a "cops are the besieged good guys," Nixon-era "voice of the silent majority" kind of show.  What is surprising is that CSI so frequently follows the same basic script.  There have been multiple episodes in which cops at all levels talk to each other about how they are held to unreasonable standards.  The politicians are portrayed as the craven enablers of anti-police bias.  Any time an Internal Affairs officer appears on screen, he is a sneering force for evil, manipulating the accused officer's words to try to fabricate guilt.

What inspired the title of this blog post, however, was the episodes in which cop-on-minority violence resulted in Ferguson-like protests, with the police department (including the crime lab and its telegenic employees) very much on the wrong side of a power imbalance.  In each case, the cop/CSI is completely innocent, but that is not enough.  Racial politics are going to intrude, and woe unto him or her who is caught in that maelstrom.

Interestingly, however, in one story arc, the actual CSI Effect saves the day, even when the public has turned against the cops.  After an absurdly violent gun battle in "the hood," a bad guy on the run shoots a teenaged Latino boy, to steal his bicycle.  The boy's father is an ambitious local politician, who whips up mobs of people to protest.  But at a public town hall meeting in a local church, the head CSI shows the angry crowd slides of ballistics results -- "They're like fingerprints" -- proving that it was the fleeing thug, not the cops, who killed the boy.  Chastened, the angry mob realizes that the cops were right.  Not one person even suggests that all of the evidence could have been faked.  Once they see the forensic evidence, everyone almost literally joins hands and walks away with a lot to think about.

A similar issue arises when the CSI technicians themselves pursue evidence that the police have done something wrong.  There, the cops are portrayed as paranoid, vindictive types who expect everyone to cover their back.  In one episode, a police officer (who is later vindicated by -- you guessed it -- incontrovertible forensic evidence) threatens a CSI tech by saying that he will tell every cop on the force to "get stuck in traffic" the next time the CSI needs backup at a crime scene.  Here, although it is not at all presented as a good thing, the sense of us-versus-them is presented as a central part of the thinking of police officers.

I do not at all think that what we see on TV and in the movies is a documentary.  What one does see, however, is persistent themes.  If those themes are self-serving, then we can suspect that the themes are at least exaggerated, if not completely contrived.  But the theme here is that the police imagine themselves to be under an unfair spotlight, with every move scrutinized, and every situation that involves race turning the officer into a guilty-until-proven-innocent bigot.

Study after study has shown that, in the real world, judges and juries believe police officers.  In the current atmosphere, with a new racial incident seemingly happening every week, the public that is processing all of this new information is the same public that has been told for decades -- even by the most even-handed and nuanced crime shows -- that the deck is stacked against the police, especially where race is involved.  The video evidence is starting to convince them otherwise.

Yet, if there is any truth at all to the suggestion that the common belief among police officers was already that the world was against them, then perhaps we should not be surprised by the concerns (which arose especially after the Staten Island choking video several months ago) that the police will now decide that they should not even try to do their jobs.  This is not to approve of or excuse such decisions.  Far from it.  But if a person can perceive a world in which his word was taken as gospel as a world in which he is under siege, one can only imagine what such a person is thinking now.