It Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

I admit it. I’m a scaredy cat. Even shows like Law & Order give me nightmares. But I can not stop watching them. Something about those television detectives is so engaging – so exciting – that I almost always let myself get sucked into another show. At least I know I’m not alone. Law & Order and other TV detective shows are increasingly popular and every major network has at least one.

But you know one thing all these shows have in common? They’re television shows! This means they value entertainment over authenticity. In fact, I’d venture to say that the things that make the shows exciting are the same things that make them misleading.

So let’s set the record straight and look at just some of the lies TV Detectives have told us.


If being a detective is anything like Vic Mackey’s portrayal on The Shield, then the number 1 job requirement must be an ability to kick major butt.

This man is here to chew bubblegum and kick butt. And he’s all out of bubblegum.

Don’t get me wrong, physical strength, agility, and endurance are all a part of being a good detective. But, according to Chicago, Illinois Detective John Folino Jr., “It’s not all about kicking doors in and guns and [bleep] like that.” In truth, being a detective requires a lot of mental dexterity as well.

As will be discussed later, detectives must all pass written aptitude tests, personality inventories, and a personal interview. The tests serve to examine how well a detective candidate:

  • Understands Police procedures
  • Knows Laws related to police work
  • Writes and completes reports, records, and other necessary paperwork

The personality inventory is a way for test-administrators to determine the best law enforcement position for a candidate. Many police departments use the Inwald Personality Inventory.


Hopefully you got to see Jarek Wysocki on Chicago Code before the show was canceled because this detective ran things. Not only did he get to pick all of the cases he worked on – even if it meant taking them from other detectives – but he was also best friends with the Police Superintendent and, therefore, never got in trouble for any of his many questionable decisions.

This is Jarek Wysocki. He answers to NO ONE.

Being a detective would probably be much easier if it was a solo venture but, in truth, detectives not only work in teams but are accountable to a lot of higher-ranking officers. In the Philadelphia Police Department, for example, the chain of command looks like this:

  • Police Officer
  • Detective
  • Corporal
  • Sergeant
  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Staff Inspector
  • Inspector
  • Chief Inspector
  • Deputy Commissioner
  • Commissioner

Detectives play a very important role in the department but they usually don’t have the department-wide influence that many shows will have you believe.

Detective Wysocki might want us to think that he answers to no one and works whenever and wherever he wants but the truth is that police detectives work long hours and usually in partnership with another detective. Brian Bogdanoff , a retired detective from Omaha, Nebraska, was quoted as saying he’d return to the job, “’if I could find a way to still do it without having to put in the long hours’ knowing it is precisely those long hours that close cases.”

Detectives are also expected to travel when necessary for a case, so it’s important for someone in this position to stay flexible; this is not a 9-5 job!


  • Interviews suspects
  • Gathers evidence from suspects
  • Examines records
  • Apprehends suspects
  • Maintains accurate records
  • Secures crime scenes

Oh, if only real life were like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. If it were, then the detective would be responsible for gathering evidence, analyzing the evidence and everything in between.

What do you mean? You can’t solve a case in an hour?

But in reality, a detective plays a very specific role in solving crimes.


Television detectives are almost always male, Caucasian and old enough to command respect but young enough to kick some major butt. Think Chris Meloni from Law & Order: SVU or Bones’ David Boreanaz.

Apparently, all detectives are also incredibly good-looking.

But, of course, we know that’s not totally true. Detectives can range in age, gender, and ethnicity. In my fair city, Chicago, Illinois, the police department looks like this:

  • Male 76%
  • Female 24%
  • White 54%
  • Black 26%
  • Hispanic 18%
  • Other 2%

And in New York City, they look like this:

  • Male 80%
  • Female 20%
  • White 47.5%
  • Black 17.9%
  • Hispanic 28.9%
  • Asian 5.5%

So maybe the TV got this one right; most detectives are white males, but it’s certainly not a requirement. In fact, the numbers of detectives who are female and/or people of color has been increasing in departments across the nation. More important than race or gender, a detective must have integrity, knowledge and courage. Police detectives must also, at some point, be able to pass these types of tests:

  • Criminal record check
  • Polygraph exam
  • Credit history check
  • Written aptitude test
  • Physical agility test
  • Drug test
  • Psychological evaluation
  • Personal interview
  • Medical exam
  • Driving record check
  • Background investigation
  • Personality Inventory

After all that, I will admit there are some things police shows get right. Namely, the passion for justice shown by the television detective. Even when the cards are stacked against him, his personal life is in shambles and just about everything that can go wrong, does. But the detective keeps going.

If you think you have what it takes to be a real-life police detective, learn about criminal justice degrees and get started today!

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