Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Calling All CSIs!

Each post, I try to demystify some aspect of forensics or crime scene investigations as it relates to crime writers. Recently I was reminded that some writers are interested in things that I would otherwise regard as too mundane. It's a failure on my part to assume that writers understand those things I and others in law enforcement take for granted due to their ubiquity. So in that light I decided to explain one of the most common occurrences in a criminal investigation; the call out. Let me begin by saying that every agency can have it's own call out procedure and that procedure can change from one administration to the next. However, in my experience most call out procedures will relate to one of two CSI schedules. Both of these schedules, in and of themselves, are important for crime writers to recognize because they affect how your characters respond to scenes.

All CSIs work in shifts and the number of shifts is largely dependent on the size of the organization. Large organizations like the New York City or Denver Police Departments have 24 hour (or near) shift coverage. Typically these consist of three shifts; days (banker hours), mids (late afternoon to late evening), and graves (late evening to early morning). The specific hours vary from agency to agency but the key aspect of this type schedule is that CSIs generally work scenes only in their shift hours. So if your character is on days they won't be responding to a call at 10 PM. The popular CSI television series regularly stretches this reality as the main characters work the graves shift but always seem to be out working during the day too! That's a lot of overtime. CSIs can work over-shift if they have a major crime scnee but everyone has to sleep at some point so keep that in mind.

The second type of shift is a day shift with after hours on-call rotation. This is the type of schedule I worked throughout my career. So I would work during the day and then if I was needed at night I would get called out. There are limits to this system as well so there is generally another criminalist called the back-up who handles the next call out should one come in or if I needed extra help. With this type of schedule your character can be realistically working at any hour of the day across any shift. This gives you a bit more flexibility when writing scenes because you're not limited by the ending of a shift.

Now that we have that spelled out we need to look at the mechanism of a call out. CSIs are a finite resource. As such, their time and efforts are (should be) carefully regulated. In the real world an agency doesn't want to call out a CSI after hours unless their skills are really needed. You don't want them burning the midnight oil on a recovered stolen vehicle when there might be a homicide call out a few hours later.  In truth, I have been called out for some ridiculous tasks like putting a pair of underwear in a bag or making a photocopy (I kid you not) but most of the time the calls were legitimate. To prevent unwarranted call outs most CSIs can only be called out by their supervisors or detectives on scene. Patrol officers must request a CSI though their supervisor and that supervisor has to call the CSI supervisor. Here is where is gets interesting for you as a writer. Many times, the CSI is called out by someone who is not at the crime scene. This may seem counter-intuitive and it is but it is a function of reality. If the person calling out the CSI (Dispatcher, Sergeant, Bureau Chief, etc) is not on scene then the information your CSI gets will be second or third hand.

When a CSI gets a call we take notes of the pertinent information. What time did we get the call, who called, the crime scene location, what is known of the crime, etc. The dispatcher calling your CSI may not be handling the actual call so the CSI may get less than accurate information.  This is a really important fact because CSIs don't usually carry every piece of equipment they may need at a crime scene. It can be really frustrating to ask simple questions like "was the victim shot or stabbed?" and receive "you'll find out when you get there" type answers. If I got a call of say a gunshot homicide I would spend the commute time thinking about the various evidence I may encounter and what tasks I may need to perform. I built a picture in my mind based on previous scenes I've worked. So if I show up and it's a suicide by overdose I have to shift gears dramatically. Not the end of the world but, certainly a source of tension. Your character may wonder what else have they failed to tell me? 

Inaccurate information is more a result of fluid changes occurring during the interviewing of witnesses and cursory search of the crime scene, than incompetence. But as an author you can use that uncertainty and misinformation to your advantage. I wrote about a staged death scene in The Scent of Fear in which a homicide was made to look like an accident and the investigator saw what they wanted to see. Just as an author frames a scene or storyline, the initial call out frames the response from the CSI. That is why we like to ask a lot of questions before we ever turn the ignition and begin our response. A patrol officer may think a death is very suspicious (alternatively not suspicious) whereas a seasoned detective or CSI asking the right questions may realize they need more help or specialized equipment.

This may seem like a lot of inside baseball type stuff. I guess it is but, you may be able to use this insight to create conflict and tension between your characters while throwing a few curves to your reader. As a reader I like being kept a little off balance. I love being surprised and unsure of where the story will lead and I'm sure most of you do too. Just like real CSIs, we like to predict expectations based on the available information and when that information changes we have to quickly reshuffle our thoughts. That can be very frustrating to a real life CSI but it makes for great reading in my opinion.  

By Tom Adair
Author of The Scent of Fear and  Planning Your Career in Forensics a guide for prospective students and teachers. Tom also blogs at forensics4fiction.


  1. Thanks, Tom. It's the kind of mundane details like this that can give our characters and plots authenticity.

    A photocopy? Really?

  2. Excellent inside information! I've never written from the POV of the CSI, but I think it would be interesting to do in one of my next stories.

    Our medical examiner, employed by the county, works a day shift prepping corpses for autopsies, but is on call all the time to attend suspicious deaths. Every department is set up differently depending on the size and needs of a community. Some small towns may not have trained MEs or CSIs at all.

  3. I think many authors sometimes forget that all people in all walks of life do make mistakes, and law enforcement types are no different. So often, they're portrayed as being nearly perfect, but they're human, and like you've mentioned, Tom, it's a great plot device we shouldn't be afraid to use. An inaccuracy in work can be a great opportunity to move the story in a different direction.


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