Understanding the CSI Mindset

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May 8, 2013 by msashtonwriter

Guest Post by  Tom Adair Tom Adair 2

Understanding some of the traits shared by good CSIs will help you write characters that stay “in character”. CSIs are a weird bunch. We’re not like everyone else. We’re fascinated by things that would give most folks nightmares. Not in a macabre way, more clinical, but fascinated nonetheless. CSIs are naturally curious, driven (stubborn), and highly skeptical but, surprisingly low key. We care that a crime has been committed but, we don’t care if it was Joe or Sam who committed it. We are advocates for the analysis, not the outcome. Traits like that make us good at our jobs.

When CSIs arrive at a crime scene we are briefed by the first responder(s). Most of the time that’s the first officer on scene but may also include detectives, coroner’s investigators, paramedics, and civilian witnesses. There is always a story. “So and so committed suicide” or “the suspect kicked in the door here and ransacked the house”, etc. There are degrees of accuracy to all of our briefings but they are based largely on first impressions or eye-witness accounts. CSIs want to go beyond first impressions. We never accept any statement as fact until we gather the evidence to support it.

Neutrality is a cornerstone of a thorough analysis. Take deaths for example. I’ve investigated all kinds and every time I would write my initial reports and notes I would classify the case as a “death investigation”. It’s common during press conferences to hear a PIO say something like “we’re treating this like a homicide until the evidence proves otherwise.” I’ve never operated that way. I didn’t want to be predisposed, even subconsciously, to any particular position; especially the manner of death. My thought was “there’s a dead guy…what happened?” To me, it’s a much better starting point.

Crime scene reconstruction is no easy task (despite what you see on television). It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with one-tenth of the pieces and no box cover. That’s frustrating because we like things to make sense but we never have a “complete” picture. So we learn to approach things cautiously and conservatively until we’re convinced by a preponderance of the facts. This takes time and that drives our bosses crazy. We can’t even answer simple questions like “how much longer will you be?” How should I know? I’ll be done when I’m done.

The most important thing to remember is that, as far as character traits are concerned, we’re always on the clock. It’s amazing to me that some folks are surprised at this. If my wife drags me to the mall, I don’t sit around playing a game on my smart phone. I’m busy checking out shoe patterns, spotting potential shoplifters, or just watching people’s behavior. I remember one time a bunch of us were eating lunch and one guy arrived late. He said he had to change a flat tire. I nodded like everyone else but all through lunch I was thinking why aren’t your hands dirty? Why aren’t your knees or pants the least bit dirty? Why are you lying to us? What are you hiding?

I’m not saying he had done anything illegal or immoral. Maybe he was embarrassed about the thing that made him late. Maybe he got into a fender bender and didn’t want anyone to know. The point is…we can’t turn the curiosity switch off.  In some ways we’re like two-year-olds always asking “why…why…why?” Things have to “make sense” and we notice when they don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s at work, in our personal lives, or at our kid’s soccer game. Developing the ability to spot inconsistencies is vital to our success.

So when you’re writing a CSI character (or detective for that matter) keep in mind that they are professional observers. Our job is to spot the professional liar and we get better and better with every crime scene we work. We’re not easily fooled and we’ll likely over-analyze any situation. That’s not to say we’re never fooled, just not easily. We can be blinded by things like friendship, passion, fear, and all the other emotions out there. We’re just more insulated from emotions than most. If we weren’t, we’d be led around by the nose instead of following our own.

BloodlinesTom Adair is a former CSI and author of the 2013 crime thriller Bloodlines.  He also writes on forensic topics for fiction writers at www.forensics4fiction.com

One thought on “Understanding the CSI Mindset

  1. Understanding the CSI Mindset | forensics4fiction says:

    […] I was invited to guest blog at Criminal Lines about keeping the CSI character “in character”. Stop by and check out her BLOG and […]

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