For years, police detectives have mocked the miraculous way investigators on TV shows like CSI: Miami ply their trade: Computers instantly identify matching fingerprints, labs return DNA samples in an hour and the crime unit supervisor draws his gun as often as he flashes his badge. The reality is more tedious, says the Dallas Morning News: Investigators crawl around on their knees putting scraps of evidence in plastic bags, and technicians spend hours using magnifying glasses to detect the slightest differences between ridges on prints. Weeks pass as DNA tests are carried out at off-site facilities.
Now the very shows that have inflated juries’ expectations for swift justice have helped attract the resources needed to modernize crime scene units. They’re getting more high-tech equipment and anchoring their staffs with career-oriented specialists. Dallas is about to hire a civilian scientist to head up its crime scene response section for the first time. “The best evidence is scientific evidence,” said Ron Waldrop, Dallas assistant police chief. “Hiring someone with that education specifically is a good thing. It doesn’t cost as much to train them. They’re more or less there for a career.” Since the emergence of computerized databases in the 1980s, the process of matching fingerprints has become far easier, though not so slick as seen on TV. Police scan prints – even just one ridge – into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which creates a unique digital ID and compares it to hundreds of thousands of others collected by law enforcement agencies.