Tales of Justice

NOT as seen on TV: Debunking criminal justice myths

  • Alvernia Criminal Justice

Many students become interested in criminal justice programs because of the exciting way crime and investigations are depicted on television. Unfortunately, the crimes Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay solve on TV don’t always wrap up in a tidy, cinematic manner.

“When we see an occupation on TV, there is a small but limited relationship to how that occupation really is,” says Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Learning about an occupation from watching a TV show is like learning how to parent kids by watching sitcoms.”

When Tales of Justice spoke with Chief Robert Schurr of the North Coventry Police Department in Pennsylvania, he mentioned that he can’t watch police dramas with his family because he always ends up ruining them for everyone when he points out all the aspects of TV policing that don’t jibe with actual policing.

Schurr emphasizes that it is important potential criminal justice students have an accurate idea of the work they will be performing.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that debunks how TV represents crime fighting, one of the biggest misrepresentations we see on police dramas is that one or two people do work that is typically assigned to a much larger group of professionals.

“TV crimefighting and crimesolving dramas might show all of these occupations. But they might be all rolled into one worker so that ‘everybody’s doing everything,’ says Richard Townsend of the Department of Public Safety’s crime lab ion Salt Lake City, Utah. In reality, says Rick Alba, the lieutenant of the Crime Scene Investigations Section of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, each crimesolving worker has a specific task.

The report goes on to dispel the myths of how a police officer’s time is actually spent. “When police are on duty, 30 to 50 percent of their time is spent writing reports … every TV cop show you see has a lot of shootouts and car chases. Police work is interesting and challenging, but it’s not a thrill a minute.”

For more information on myths propagated by TV crime dramas, read this article.

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