Crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, medical examiners, and police officers

We know that fiction alters many of the aspects relating to the analysis of physical evidence during an investigation. First of all it enhances the importance of this analysis, when in reality most of the times the physical evidence points to very few conclusive results for the identification of the culprit.

Second, timings do not match the real ones. Downtime is not fun, so in fiction everything happens very quickly, just a few minutes or seconds to find a match, so the culprit is identified in a day (in TV series), or in a few days (in films and novels).

Even the technology is far from the real one. Apart from the representation of science fiction equipment, that is to say that they don’t exist (yet), forensic science laboratories are always described as extremely modern and that they can rely on the latest technologies on the market, moreover they have a large staff and much time to devote to cases, without any backlog.
In reality funding for these labs are never so abundant, the staff is not enough to keep up with the crimes and then the backlog is the norm, becoming one of the main reasons why the resolution of cases can take months or years, if they are ever solved.
In addition, some laboratories may even be absent in the territory where the crime took place, therefore the exhibits may be sent elsewhere, making the process even slower. For example, in May 2016 I had the opportunity to visit one of the headquarters of Polizia di Stato (Italian police) in my city, Cagliari (the capital of Sardinia), where I was also briefly explained the role of the Polizia Scientifica (police forensics department; not to be confused with RIS, the Department of Forensics Investigations, which is part of Carabinieri and does a similar job). And I discovered that there is no biological laboratory in Cagliari, so any DNA analysis is made in Rome. Finding a source of DNA in the physical evidence is quite rare and, fortunately, violent crimes are anything but common here, so if you think about it all that has a certain logic, but considering the geographical problem (I live in an island) and the amount of work that certainly already exists in the laboratories in Rome, this isn’t an ideal situation.
This in itself would represent enough a motivation to keep me from set one of my books in my city (besides the fact that there had never been serial killers here, in the modern sense of the term).

Finally you must consider the evaluation that this work will get in court. We know that the CSI effect may give the impression that the cases are solved and the culprits are convicted if there is sufficient physical evidence, but in fact in most situations other types of evidence determine the outcome of a trial.

But there is another aspect that is represented in a distorted way in fiction and that deals with forensic science: the various roles of the people involved in investigations.
In fiction we see the same people collecting evidence on a crime scene, analysing it in the laboratory, identifying suspects, interrogating them, the witnesses and victims (if the latter aren’t dead!), and even carrying out the arrests.

The reality is often different. There are the so-called crime scene investigators, who collect evidence at the scene. Then there are the forensic scientists who analyse them and possibly a medical examiner, in the case of a murder. Instead, the identification of the suspects, interrogations, and arrests are carried out by police officers and detectives. Forensic experts and medical examiners, then, may come into play in the courtroom to explain the results of their analysis on physical evidence.

This compartmentalisation, as well as having an organisational purpose (each one specialises in one aspect, thus providing better performance), is important to keep a certain objectivity during an investigation. In certain geographical areas the separation between the various roles is less clear, but is total in others. Sometimes, as it often happens in the UK, crime scene investigators and/or forensic experts may not be police officers.
At the same time, however, all these people interact with each other; they shall consult, because if this didn’t happen there would be a reduction in efficiency. In short, they try to find the right balance that yields the best result. Then this, contrary to what is observed in fiction, may come, or worse, be wrong, because these are always people who can make mistakes.

Therefore there is a specific terminology that in fiction isn’t used or is simplified, because the real one tends to change with the country or simply is too long or abstruse to be used in fiction.

A classic example is offered by the terms anatomopathologist, medical examiner, and coroner. They are three different things that often coincide in fiction and can even do it in reality, but it isn’t always so. The anatomopathologist is a specialist that identifies and analyses tissue and organ alterations due to illness. Typically they work on the living, not the dead. However, they may be involved in an investigation or become a coroner, for their specialisation is particularly suitable for determining the cause of death or other injuries in the body of a victim.
The medical examiner is, in short, the person in charge of the autopsies. They should not necessarily be specialized in anatomical pathology. It is a kind of career where doctors who have specialised in something else can converge. This reminds me an example in fiction: “Body of Proof”, where the protagonist is a neurosurgeon who because of an accident can no longer exercise and then she starts working as a medical examiner.
Finally, the coroner is a typically Anglo-Saxon role, although our background of American and British fiction may lead us to think that it exists everywhere. It is a legal officer who in the event of suspicious deaths has the task of establishing the circumstances of death and the identity of the victim. The coroner may be a lawyer or a doctor, so sometimes he/she is a medical examiner, but often he/she is not. This also depends on the laws of each country or even, in the case of federal countries (like the United States of America), each state/region.

And then there’s the distinction between criminologist and criminalist. The two terms have different meanings in different countries.
In English, the criminologist is often defined as an expert in forensic science, so it can be a crime scene investigator and/or a forensic technician. The term “criminalist” can be understood either as expert in forensic science and as a synonym for criminal defence lawyer and criminal psychologist or psychiatrist. The choice of either term varies according to the different language variant (American, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, etc ...) and common usage. Between the two, the term “criminologist” often prevails, because it is the one used in fiction. The British often avoid the term “criminologist”, which is more American, and use the specific ones, i.e. “crime scene investigator” and “forensic technician” or “forensic scientist”.

What about Italy? Here the use is different. The person who analyses the physical evidence is always defined criminalist (criminalista in Italian).
The criminologist (criminologo in Italian), instead, is an expert in criminology, i.e. the science that studies crimes, perpetrators, victims, types of criminal behaviour, prevention of crimes and reintegration of offenders into society, after serving their sentences. In short, it is an interdisciplinary field that combines expertise in criminal law, psychology, biology, sociology, and many other disciplines, and that focuses on the “who”, not on “where” or “how”, so the criminologist doesn’t participate in the investigation or trials.

Who, like me, writes novels that deal with forensic science has to consider the target readers, of which I myself belong, both concerning the terminological knowledge and from a geographical point of view. To avoid confusion in the reader, in the books of the Detective Eric Shaw Trilogy I tried to use simple terms, which are understandable and commonly used. For this reason I mention a “medical examiner” and not any specialisation of Dr. Dawson or his assistant, Dr.  Collins (who appears in “Syndrome” for the first time). I use the term “coroner” only once in a scene from “The Mentor” to indicate the presence of this figure or its representative at a crime scene including a corpse. Actually I mention the coroner’s van, without specifying who the coroner is.

Moreover, since I had to indicate the role of the characters who work for Scotland Yard forensic department (Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Service) with a single term and widely used in fiction, I chose the generic “criminologist” (if the story were set in Italy, it would be wrong ) instead of “crime scene investigator” or “forensic scientist”, which sound too technical or just bulky in a novel to indicate the person who is speaking, although they are the more correct in a British context.

Finally, to do honour to the habit of TV series, movies, and other novels by using the characters at all stages of the investigation, my criminologists go to the crime scene, do the analysis in the laboratory, but they all are also police officers (which is not always true in the UK), not only the detective chief inspector who heads the team (Eric Shaw), therefore they interrogate people, participate in the chases and arrest the criminals, and unlike the majority of real British police officers they usually have a gun.