Real-life CSIs dish on how their jobs differ from TV dramas

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OGDEN — Popular TV dramas can make dissecting a crime scene look glamorous, seamless and even effortless. But real crime scene investigators tell a different story.

Angie Petersen, Jason Romney and Sarah Gilchrist all work as crime scene investigators — CSIs — for the Weber Metro Crime Scene Investigation Unit. They handle some of the most highly publicized crimes in the state, crimes they call heartbreaking, shocking and sometimes bizarre.

"People are just weird in general," Gilchrist said. "They portray themselves one way out in public, … but behind closed doors they're a whole different person."

If it's 'CSI,' we giggle a little bit, because a lot of the stuff they do on there is nothing close to what we do.

–Angie Petersen, Weber Metro CSI


The unit started in 1992 and has now grown to eight full-time CSIs: three men and five women, including the director. And more women are entering the field all the time.

"It's getting to just be more female dominated all the way around," Gilchrist said.

"It's more ‘geeky,' and I think girls are a little more geeky," Petersen added.

So is the real deal what you see in Hollywood?

"If it's (CBS's) 'CSI,' we giggle a little bit," Petersen said, "because a lot of the stuff they do on there is nothing close to what we do."


"All the crime scenes on the TV shows get done instantly. They go in and take a quick picture, maybe grab a swab of something, and they're done processing the scene. They don't realize that we can hold crime scenes for several weeks."

In the real world, crime scene investigation is tedious work. Getting the perfect fingerprint is nearly impossible; and if you think these ladies head out in the field wearing heels and a cocktail dress, think again.

"They make it look pretty," Petersen said. "I would like to see them hiking up a hill in those heels and go to some of the scenes we go to."

And the timeline? Forget about solving a crime in the hour it takes to watch a TV drama.

"I wish we had the Hollywood budget to do all the things that they do and get things wrapped up in an hour, but that's just not reality," Gilchrist said.

"The shows can affect the way people think, and they think it's commonplace where they don't actually know the whole technical aspects of what actually happens," Romney said.

Did you know?
According to one 2006 weekly Nielsen rating:
  • 30 million people watched "CSI" on one night
  • 70 million watched people at least one of the three "CSI" shows
  • 40 million watched two other forensic dramas, "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case"
Those ratings translated into this fact: five of the top 10 television programs that week were about scientific evidence in criminal cases. Together, they amassed more than 100 million viewers.
(Source: National Institute of Justice)

In fact, there's a name for it: the "CSI" Effect.

According to the National Institute of Justice, many attorneys and judges have claimed that watching television programs like "CSI" has caused jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants when no scientific evidence has been presented. It can also cause a jury to have unrealistic expectations of what evidence investigators can produce.

With crime scene dramas dominating the primetime network slots, the problem continues to grow, and there's more interesting fallout.

"We were out on the scenes, and everybody's like, ‘Oh! We watch the TV shows. We want to do this. What do you need to do?'" Romney said. "And then we'd tell them about having to go to college, and the requirements that are needed, and then they're like, ‘I don't know if I can do that, but we really want to do it. It's really cool!'"

As for real crimes the Weber CSI team has helped solve, one of the most appalling was the murders of two prostitutes in Ogden in July of 2008. Jacob Ethridge eventually admitted to shooting the two women and was sentenced to two life sentences.


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Jennifer Stagg


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