Courtesy of Ramon Rivera Ramon Rivera handles forensic investigations for the Elk Grove Police Department.

Q&A: How do real CSI technicians compare with their TV counterparts?

Published: Monday, May. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, May. 6, 2013 - 5:12 am

We've all seen the TV shows. But how much do we really know about forensic investigation?

The Bee recently sat down with Ramon Rivera, a forensic investigator with the Elk Grove Police Department, to talk about the work of a real-life "CSI" – crime scene investigator. Rivera is president of the California State Division of the International Association for Identification. About 200 of the division's members met for their annual conference in Sacramento last week.

>What is forensic investigation?

We assist our detectives with the investigation of a crime scene. The evidence that is collected there, any diagrams, any photos for documentation – that is all the responsibility of the forensic investigator. We are basically the collectors, and sometimes we're even the person who, say for latent prints or fingerprint identification, does the comparisons. We're the ones who do the searches. We are doing the processing in the lab.

Hairs and fibers, the firearms evidence, blood evidence – stuff like that we don't handle. It goes to a criminalist at the Sacramento County District Attorney's Crime Lab. >

There are so many TV shows about forensic investigation. What do the shows get right, and how do you think they have helped the industry?

Prior to those shows coming out, we were a small office someplace in the corner and nobody knew who we were. We came out to scenes, we did our work, it was almost a thankless job. But after the shows, everybody wants to know about forensics now. A lot of universities, junior colleges, tech schools have now put together a curriculum that is not just criminal justice.

Now you have a variety of different classroom studies and certifications and bachelor's degrees and associate of arts degrees people are able to obtain.

>What do the shows get wrong, and what is the negative impact?

There is something called the "CSI effect," where you have, for instance, the housewife or the working man or the working woman who loves the shows and they get picked for a jury. And they're sitting in the jury and in their mind, they're seeing what's on the show and they're wondering why the forensic technician or forensic investigator or the CSI on the stand didn't incorporate those techniques into this case.

The shows do a lot of the stuff we do. It's just accelerated.

>Jurors with the 'CSI effect,' are they anticipating technology they've seen on the shows that doesn't exist, or is it that the technology doesn't always apply to all cases?

There are things that our agency might not have. If our agency wasn't able to afford a 3-dimensional scanner to recreate scenes but on CSI they're already showing you can do 3-D, a juror might think, 'How come we're only seeing a diagram that's 2-D? 'How come we're not seeing a 3-D reconstruction?' Well, because at $150,000, a lot of agencies can't afford that.

>So the worry is that the 'CSI effect' introduces doubt when there shouldn't necessarily be?

Sometimes.

>On some CSI shows, they seem to combine the jobs of a crime scene investigator and a detective. Talk about the difference between the two jobs.

Together, we work as a team. When there's a crime scene, we go out, I'll have the detective with me and we'll bounce ideas or information off each other. The detective is going to do his job, which is the investigation portion – the contacts or interviews with neighbors or any witnesses. I take my portion, which is the documentation, the photographs, the diagrams, the evidence, and I work on that.

>But even in an agency where the CSIs are sworn, they're not going to be going out and interviewing suspects or taking them into custody, correct?

Correct. Or going in guns-first like in the shows.

>During your career, what has been the biggest advancement in forensic investigation?

These 3-D scanners have been a huge development. The process of measuring and documenting or diagramming a scene is painstakingly long. We could be out there for hours depending on how big the scene is, trying to get measurements. >

Is there a show that you enjoy?

I occasionally will watch some of the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" ones. I like "Cold Case," and I do like "Crime 360."

When I speak to public groups and schools, I use something I took from one of the CSI shows, when Gus Grissom reminds his investigators: 'We meet people on the worst day of their lives.' That stuck with me. He is right. We meet people on their worst day of their lives, whether it's a vandalism or a homicide. It takes a special person to do it. We do see a lot. I've seen quite a bit in my career, and I won't stop.

Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.

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