RACINE COUNTY — Real-world detectives wish their jobs were as-seen-on-TV.
In crime shows, evidence gets sent for tests and comes back rapidly, often with the suspect’s name attached. Life-or-death decisions are made in fractions of a second, and investigators have top-of-the-line technology at their fingertips.
In real life, it doesn’t quite work that way.
“There’s an impression that we take a bunch of evidence and throw it into a magic machine and then it gets spit out and we solve the crime within an hour, if not next week,” said Capt. Tom Lamke with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office. “The whole process just takes so much more time than people have been conditioned to by TV.”
Local law enforcement said the disconnect between what people see on crime TV shows and movies and the way it actually works is one of the biggest misconceptions the public has about their profession.
In general, crime shows are loosely based on reality, said Caledonia Lt. Gary Larsen. However, “the speed with which they get information back is nowhere near reality.”
It can be a matter of months in real life, he said.
Beyond the speed factor is simply the amount of evidence law enforcement has to gather and process. And the sheer volume means not all evidence can be submitted for DNA testing, law enforcement personnel said. A theft from a car is going to be a lower priority than a homicide, for example.
Technology can help crack a case, Lamke said — he himself has had cases come down to a cigarette butt or the DNA on a vehicle’s shift knob. But more often, he said it’s still old-fashioned police work that solves the case.
“It’s going to take time simply because justice isn’t always swift,” Racine Sgt. Marty Pavilonis said. “We’re talking about taking away someone’s freedom as well as someone who got injured.
“I think at times things should move a little slower than in television land or movie land.”
Law enforcement also had a grab bag of some other misconceptions the public may have.
• Just because someone who’s been pulled over for speeding asks to see the readout on the laser doesn’t mean officers have to show it to them, said Mount Pleasant Police Chief Tim Zarzecki. There’s no state law that requires officers to do so, and there may sometimes be safety or other reasons not to show the speed reading, he said.
• In another bit of road knowledge, Zarzecki said people walking along a highway in an area without sidewalks are required to walk facing the traffic, not with it — again, for safety reasons.
• The public may believe there are more officers available than there are, said Caledonia Lt. Gary Larsen. In Caledonia, for example, they have a minimum of four officers working per shift.
“Sometimes when people wonder why it took you so long to get somewhere, we have 48 square miles with four people,” he said.
• And in one last bit of real-world difference from the TV crime dramas, Larsen said those entering the field have no idea how much paperwork is involved.