The Hollywood effect: Police chief reflects on real live vs. the movies

Lewiston Police Chief Budd Hurd has seen a lot in his 31½ years in law enforcement, as he prepares to retire later this month.

But there’s a lot he hasn’t seen that Hollywood would make you believe every officer deals with on a daily basis.

Law enforcement, of course, frequently is depicted in TV and movies, but in Hurd’s experience what is shown on the screen rarely matches what happens in real life.

“To me, if they really portrayed how a police department works, they probably wouldn’t sell very many movies, because there’s a lot of mundane things that go on in a police department in solving cases and doing the work,” he said.

Hollywood both glorifies the job and embellishes it, something Hurd was told by then-police chief John “Jack” Baldwin when he entered the profession. The shootouts and car chases at the center of many TV shows and movies don’t happen as often as Hollywood suggests, even in bigger cities.

“We very seldom run people down in the streets and shoot people,” Hurd said. “There’s not a police movie that I’ve seen where there’s not at least one or two shootouts.”

You might think, based on certain movie and TV scenes, that after a few days of investigation on a case Hurd would call his detectives into his office and give a spiel about how people are scared and need answers, the mayor is putting pressure on him to solve the case and the detectives now have 48 hours to solve the case — or else.

That scenario, perhaps not surprisingly, is entirely unrealistic. Investigations can continue for as long as the statute of limitations applies, which could be one year, five years or no limit, depending on the crime. That includes cold cases, like the disappearances in 1982 of Jacqueline “Brandy” Miller, Kristina Nelson and Steven Pearsall from the Lewiston Civic Theatre, which are still being investigated. Even after an arrest is made, a crime may continue to be investigated, and follow-up work is done before the trial.

“Hollywood solves everything in 60 minutes,” Hurd said. “But in real life that’s not the case, unless you happen to be there, and all the pieces fall in place and you’re able to charge somebody right then.”

By focusing so much on the crime-solving parts of law enforcement, Hurd said, Hollywood doesn’t show other sides of investigations, like how officers deal with the fallout of a crime with victims, victims’ families and even suspects.

“Hollywood will never, I don’t think ever, be able to know exactly how that occurs,” Hurd said. “Because you’re just not there. You can’t reenact some of the sorrow and grief that we deal with.”

There are also police officer personality traits Hollywood doesn’t often depict, although Hurd said he’s seen improvements. Movies and TV shows rarely show the community relationship police officers build in the places they serve, instead focusing on the action. “(It’s) more about the shoot ’em up and hook ’em and take ’em to jail, ‘Hawaii 5-0’ mentality,” he said. “That’s just not it. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t know about or don’t see.”

Some of that behind-the-scenes work is the investigation, which Hollywood shows happening at a much faster rate than usually is possible in real life. Those depictions affect real-world courtrooms when juries are presented with cases.

TV shows like “NCIS” and “CSI” and its spinoffs can mislead juries about how real investigations and evidence works, known as the “CSI effect,” Hurd said, with jurors influenced by what they see on TV when determining cases. Attorneys have to walk juries through the investigation process so jurors understand how technology forensic scientists use actually works, for example, sometimes dispelling notions about methods shown on TV that don't even exist in the real world.

Even when the technology they depict for analyzing evidence really exists, TV and movies often misrepresent how that technology is used or how accurate it is. Hollywood makes people believe there is only one method of forensic analysis, Hurd said, then exaggerates the uses of evidence like DNA, bullet trajectories and fingerprints, presenting an ideal that rarely pans out in the real world.

“It isn’t that some of that technology isn’t out there, but it isn’t perfect,” he said.

Fingerprint analysis in TV shows and movies, for example, might leave viewers believing a fingerprint is left every time someone touches something, which is inaccurate. Even if a fingerprint is left, it may be a partial print forensic scientists can’t read, or they might find multiple people’s fingerprints and have to sort through them.

Hollywood exaggerates the frequency of sensational cases, but that’s not to say police officers don’t deal with plenty of memorable ones.

While Chief Hurd hasn’t gone fishing for a shark like police Chief Martin Brody in “Jaws,” he has had his share of wild animal calls.

“I’ve gone to calls where they said they had a large cat. It turned out to be a mountain lion,” he said.

Living in a rural area, it wasn't unusual to get calls for bears or elk ending up in town.

“Nothing ever surprises me anymore,” he said. “You never know what might show up.”

Sadly, that hasn’t included Bigfoot.

“As far as I know, we’ve never seen a Sasquatch in town,” he said.

The strange things Hurd encountered in his time as a police officer don’t compare to the sagas endured by Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” But when Lewiston officers get the few “odd” calls, they always investigate, and Hurd knows, based on his years in law enforcement, that a full moon on Friday the 13th means “things are going to be a little weird.”

As far as the most widely known police stereotype, an affinity for doughnuts, Hurd isn’t sure where it started.

“I could never really put my finger on why we got pinned for the doughnut thing,” he said. “They didn’t cover that chapter when I went to college on why cops are associated with the doughnut.”

However, he has a theory: Police officers do a lot of shift work, including graveyard shift, working early morning hours when coffee and doughnuts are being made, and often those are the only places open. Hurd remembers a local doughnut store, Daylight Doughnuts, he would go to because, other than a couple of gas stations, it was the only place open at 3 a.m.

Even though police officers as doughnut lovers is a stereotype, “We own it,” Hurd said. If someone brings a box of doughnuts to the police department as a sign of appreciation, not many will decline.

“I always say I wouldn’t turn down a good cinnamon roll either,” he said. “I do like myself a good maple bar though.”

Brewster (she/her) may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2297.

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