By Barry Sherman
If you want to know the influence television has on young people, just talk to new college students during their initial academic advising session. The show C.S.I. has created a whole generation of undergraduates who want to be crime scene investigators. They think they can major in criminal justice or forensic science and walk immediately into a glamorous career as portrayed by Hollywood. Many are turned off to forensic science when you explain that the major is very intensive and consists mainly of biology and chemistry courses. Those who think they can leave with their degree and get an entry level job as a homicide investigator are disappointed when they learn they have to pay their dues on the road before they can be considered for a bureau assignment. Many students thought that such a career could be achieved without going to a police academy.
Realizing how widespread this distortion was, Dr. Cecilia Donohue, Chair of the English & Communication Arts Department at Madonna and I developed and team-taught a course titled “Crime & Punishment –Fact & Fiction.” This course, which was offered in the fall semester of 2008, was an option for students who needed to fulfill their humanities requirement for general education. We were skeptical as to whether we would get enough students to enroll for the class to proceed. To our amazement, we had to raise the maximum enrollment from 25 to 35 to accommodate all the students who wanted to take it.
The course was not a “blow off” by any means. Two challenging novels were read in their entirety by the students: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. A course pack was also developed, which contained articles from assorted recognized law enforcement publications. The topics in this pack ranged from DNA to serial killers. It also contained classic and contemporary crime fiction, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and excerpts from the collection of “Queens [NY] Noir” stories. Class discussion focused on the literary characterizations of CJ professionals, the plausibility of the plot lines, and the accuracy of the depictions of criminal investigation.
We viewed and immediately afterwards dissected an assortment of television shows such as Dragnet, Adam 12, Hill Street Blues, Barney Miller, Night Court, C.S.I., and Law & Order. This was a fun part of the course for all of us. The dynamic movie The Shawshank Redemption was viewed and discussed as it related to the “punishment” aspects of criminal justice. The stone-faced, cigarette-smoking Jack Webb and his partner in Dragnet were assigned everything from “bunko” investigations to homicides. It was pointed out to the class that Jack Webb actually participated in ride-alongs with the LAPD and attended select academy classes to bring realism into his episodes. It is said that Dragnet aided in boosting the police image during its time period.
Adam 12 was nostalgic for me as it was this late 1960’s show that sparked my interest in becoming a police officer. This Jack Webb- produced series followed partners Reed and Malloy during their routine patrol duties in Los Angeles. Comparing this to the present action-packed cop shows soon made me realize how boring the program actually was. In the episode we watched , the veteran and rookie responded to an armed robbery at a gas station where they and their back-up officers pulled up directly in front of the large glass window of the station and the rushed in through the front door. But even more amazing than that was a dispatch that involved a burglary run to a warehouse. Malloy ends up killing one of the burglars and after they file their paperwork they go back on patrol. We see no internal investigation, no Garrity rights, no union rep, and no administrative removal from street duty.
Contrasting the paramilitary environment of Adam 12 was Hill Street Blues. Personally, I felt Hill Street was one of the more realistic cop shows as it actually showed its viewers that police departments have issues and officers have both on-the-job and personal problems. It brought to the screen those inherent issues that plague officers and their departments. Alcoholism, family dysfunction, divorce, partner problems, and dealing with the administrative bureaucracy of a large metropolitan police department were addressed in many of the 146 episodes that aired from 1981 to 1987. I saved CSI to discuss last as this is the show that has given its viewers a somewhat distorted perception of forensic science. It was explained to the students in the class that getting DNA results is not as instantaneous as depicted and toxicology results may take weeks, never seconds. The reality of investigating homicides and evidence collection is not as glitzy as portrayed.
Feedback from the students indicates that they enjoyed the class and benefited from its content. Both instructors felt comfortable that the objectives of the course had been met.
(Dr. Cecilia Donohue, Chairperson, Department of English & Communication Arts at Madonna University contributed to this article.)