In wildly popular TV dramas such as "CSI," forensics experts are often shown in black leather jackets and sunglasses, speeding to a crime scene in Hummers. Collected evidence is rushed to the lab, the findings processed in minutes with state-of-the-art equipment. The reality is far different, according to forensics professionals associated with the College of Lake County.
The real-world contributions of forensic science and the professionals who work in the field is the focus of National Forensic Science Week Aug. 11-17, an observance sponsored by the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and other forensic science organizations.
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What happens at rapid-fire pace in an hour crime show in reality often involves slow, methodical work and little glamour, according to Sarah Owen of Lake Villa, a CLC graduate and forensic scientist at the Vernon Hills-based Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Laboratory, and CLC adjunct professor and police commander John Briscoe.
Obtaining a DNA sample, for example, often means examining clothing and bedding for fluids like blood, semen and saliva, and specimens can be unpleasant, Owen said. But it's part of the job, like painstakingly piecing evidence together.
"They (television characters) do blood work or some fingerprinting, and the suspect's face pops up on a screen in a matter of seconds, showing who it matches to. However, there aren't computer systems out there to do that," she said. Owen holds a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, with a concentration in criminalistics. In the real world, it can take weeks to analyze a piece of evidence, have it peer reviewed and produce a final report, Owen said.
TV compresses time on digital tasks, too, according to John Briscoe. A sworn officer for 24 years, he has worked in computer forensics since 1999 and has taught the subject at CLC for the past seven years. "With large-capacity hard drives, it's not uncommon to need as much as 40 hours to do a preliminary search," he explained. "TV dramas make it seem as if records can be searched and the case wrapped up in 30 minutes."
Much of the work in forensics involves other less-glamorous tasks that are downplayed by Hollywood. These include report writing, testifying in court and conferring with peers.
'The CSI effect'
The popularity of shows like "CSI" has created what Owen calls the "CSI effect" in the courtroom.
"When you go to court, the jurors expect you to always have fingerprint evidence and DNA evidence on everything--even though that might not be an essential part of the investigation," said Owen, who avoids watching "CSI"-type shows herself. "And if you weren't able to get DNA results on something, that doesn't necessarily mean that that individual is innocent. It just means that DNA wasn't present. But it (DNA evidence) may not even be necessary, because there's other corroborating evidence through the investigations."
A forensic science career requires, minimally, a bachelor's degree in either chemistry or biology, Owen said. For digital forensics, at least a two-year degree in computer technology, with hands-on courses in digital forensics, is recommended. A criminal justice degree is a foundation for police or detective work, but not forensic science, noted Frank Zera, chair of CLC's criminal justice department.
Hollywood aside, Owen finds her career a rewarding one. "It feels good to know that you help get criminals off the street, provide closure for victims and exonerate those who have been wrongfully accused," she said.
For more information on CLC's criminal justice A.A. and A.A.S. degree and certificate programs, visit www.clcillinois.edu/programs/crj/index.asp. Information on science courses in biology and chemistry can be viewed at www.clcillinois.edu/divns/biodv.asp. Fall semester courses begin Aug. 26. For information on how to enroll, call (847) 543-2090.