Hi-tech forensics helps criminals outwit police
TV shows such as CSI give felons better tips than they would get in prison
Crash, the Oscar-winning film about racial tension in Los Angeles, captures the dilemma perfectly.
In one scene, a carjacker called Anthony (played by Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) offers a vehicle to a dodgy shopkeeper called Lucien (Dato Bakhtadze). Responding to the offer, Lucien asks Anthony if he watches Discovery Channel. Anthony says he does on rare occasions. Their dialogue deepens:
Lucien Every night there is a show with somebody shining a blue light and finding tiny specks of blood splattered on carpets, walls and ceiling fans, bathroom fixtures and special-edition plastic Burger King tray cups. The next thing they show is some stupid redneck in handcuffs, who looks absolutely stunned that this is happening to him. Sometimes the redneck is actually watching the Discovery Channel when they break in to arrest him.
Lucien Do I look like I wanna be on the Discovery Channel?
Lucien Then get the f**k outta my shop.
The lecture from Lucien plays on the increasing awareness of modern criminals, or at least the wily ones, to closely study television shows such as CSI. In case you have been living in a car boot, CSI hinges on hi-tech forensics and grisly close-ups of victims in the lab.
There is a growing fear that shows such as CSI provide criminals with better tips than they would get in prison. CSI footage may even give criminals ideas on how to commit the perfect crime - a classic example of 'the revenge effect' in which an apparently helpful technology turns out to have dire side-effects.
Inspired by TV, today's wizened criminal wears gloves and, if planning a rape, a condom, to avoid leaving telltale DNA traces. Likewise, the smart carjacker may scatter random cigarette butts collected from the street inside the cars to baffle the boffins who subject them to analysis.
You could argue that the 16 litterbug smokers consequently implicated deserve to be sent to prison anyway. But the red herrings mean that the detectives must work that much harder.
No wonder CSI syndrome has become such an issue that police investigators are now apparently reluctant to talk to the press in case they unwittingly contribute yet more information to offenders' rapidly expanding database. Who can blame them?
The idea of increasingly shrewd offenders listening in and taking notes is disturbing - almost enough to make you want to install one of those 'flashcam' devices that shouts at prowlers.
The art of detection has been a staple of popular culture for a long time. More than a century ago, British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Trained as a chemist, the fictional seer could fathom the mysterious origin of the most inoffensive-looking stain simply by peering through a magnifying glass. Doyle owed a debt to Joseph Bell, his professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University. Through scrutinising outwardly banal signs, Dr Bell established a good understanding of his patient's condition before beginning the formal diagnosis.
So, long before CSI arrived, criminals had a wealth of accumulated knowledge to draw on in the form of the detective fiction genre Doyle helped spawn.
Still, CSI habitually tops TV ratings and has generated a profusion of copycat drama and true-to-life shows. Criminals who really want to raise their game and become truly professional felons can always watch the 'Crime & Investigation Network'.
On the upside, the innocent viewer can also pick up handy anti-crime hints. Studying the kind of programmes that provoke the controversy may teach you, say, to dig your fingernails deep into an attacker.
As a result, when you're dead, you can rest easy knowing that a forensic investigator will have a chance to obtain a juicy DNA sample and secure the attacker's conviction.