What Bladerunner taught me about Detective Work

As a huge sci-fi fan, Bladerunner is one of my top five favorite movies of all time. But the iconic 1982 Ridley Scott film was ahead of its time in more ways than one, especially when it came to Rick Deckard’s investigative techniques. First of all, he shows us that there is no ‘one size fits all’ technology for catching bad guys.

In the movie the LAPD uses the Voight Kampff test, a type of futuristic lie detector machine that measures biological responses to questions – but instead of focusing on breathing, heart rate and sweat the VK test focuses on changes in a suspect’s eyes.

Supposedly, a blade runner can figure out if the robot is a real person by how it responds to questions intended to provoke an emotional response. This technology is already becoming a reality, as researchers study the effects of cognitive load on pupil dilation.

But the test is not foolproof. In the Philip K. Dick book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ that the movie was based on, Deckart goes into much more detail blade-runner-008-voight-kampff about how the test becomes outdated as the robots get smarter, and every few years has to be replaced with new technology.

As Rachel points out, some humans probably would not pass the test. It takes him more than a hundred questions to figure out that Rachel is a robot after finally nailing her on a question about eating boiled dog.

It’s easy to imagine a sociopath, serial killer or cutthroat businessman answering the same way. This is something that investigators should keep in mind when evaluating cases: Each individual is unique.

Even the most advanced technology is only as good as the human operating it. 

Shows like CSI show cutting-edge technology used to solve cases, but leave out the part where low-tech mistakes like incorrectly bagging and/or breaking the chain of command in evidence can totally screw up a case.

In life as in the movie,  lie detector tests are heavily dependent on the skill of the adminstrator – which can vary hugely.

In California, there is no licensing requirement to administer lie detector tests – so the person quizzing you could have come from the FBI, or quizzing baby daddies on Maury.

With or without a machine, reading body language is notoriously difficult. Untrained people only get it right about half the time. Paul Ekman, perhaps the most famous human lie detector in the world, explains on his site that interpreting micro expressions can only determine if someone is hiding an emotion – they can’t tell you whether the person is lying to you, or just repressed and lying to themselves.

Technology is an important tool, but it’s only as good as the investigator who knows how to use it.

Sometimes old-school detective techniques work best. 

Deckard has flying cars, guns and fancy gadgets, but in the end he catches his suspects through routine detective work: He examines evidence (the snake scale), pounds the pavement to find the source, and looks at photos over and over from different angles.

Later, he interviews people at the bar, gets a bit fed up and has a drink. But his tenacity pays off with a break in the case: He’s able to snag the stripper/snake dancer when she shows up.

Emotional intelligence is a valuable skill. 

Deckard starts his journey as a selfish cop who blocks out or ignores his mixed feelings about killing replicants.

By the end of the movie he has been forced to re-examine everything he believed about life and existence.He has started a love affair with one android, and has his life saved by another robot whose mood swings and lust for revenge make him seem totally human: He breaks Deckard’s fingers minutes before spouting poetry and pulling him off the ledge.

Obviously his journey is extreme, but it’s a reminder that part of being a great investigator is an ability to understand what drives people, and to connect with them on their level. g

Obviously his journey is extt a

THE ATLANTIC: Learning to fight Sherlock Holmes style

It’s sundown at a small park in Burbank and I’m dressed in head-to-toe black, carrying a big stick and ready to street fight, Sherlock Holmes style. I’m not exactly a ninja—the closest I’ve been to hand-to-hand combat was fighting over the last cupcake at Thanksgiving. But even so, I have signed up to learn bartitsu, the esoteric and gentlemanly Victorian art of self defense. Before I chicken out I spot my instructor, Matt Franta, a dapper gentleman in a three-piece suit.

Franta’s bio describes him as an actor, fight choreographer, and stunt performer with black belts in tae kwon do and hapkido as well as experience in karate, judo, fencing, and kickboxing. He’s also a member of the International Knife Throwers Association.

Bartitsu was developed by Edward Barton-Wright, a British engineer who moved to Japan in 1895. After returning to London, just before the turn of the century, he created a mixed martial art hybrid, combining elements of judo, jujitsu, British boxing, and fighting with a walking stick.



How a PI could give horror movies happy endings

Like many horror fans, I often find myself scratching my head over a character’s idiotic decision to go down to a dark basement. But since becoming a private investigator, I’ve found myself screaming at the TV even more than usual – because I can see so many situations that are totally preventable. So in the spirit of Halloween, here are some very practical ways that a detective could give classic horror movies much happier endings.  Read more

Sleeping with the enemy: A PI’s take on ‘The Stepfather’

Now that I’m gearing up for Halloween, I have horror movies on almost every night. Last night was ‘The Stepfather’, the 1987 classic starring Terry O’ Quinn as the ‘too good to be true’ man with old-fashioned values who marries lonely divorcees in search of the ‘perfect family’, then inevitably kills them when things go wrong. The scariest part? There are several true-to-life scenes in every one of these movies that I see constantly as a private investigator.  Read more

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