I love mysteries. What’s not to love? As a nosy person, I’m a sucker for “other people’s secrets” as a plot hook. And just as horror tells a fundamental truth about human existence (terrible things can happen at any time and for no reason), so do mysteries: people sometimes do horrible things, and we want to know why.
So far so good! Shoutout to Edgar Allen Poe for inventing the detective story! Good job, Ed! I haven’t done extensive research, but I do know that both Poe’s detective and Sherlock Holmes were private (or, if you prefer, as Holmes did, “consulting”) detectives, as were Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, and many others.
But at some point, the detective story and the mystery genre in general started being dominated by cops. As much as I love the show (which is very, very much), I think I may have to blame Columbo here. (More on him later.) Now if you’re looking for a mystery on TV or on the bookshelf, it’s increasingly hard to find one that doesn’t have a cop as the protagonist.
And I still love mysteries. But after a summer of watching the police in the United States riot and violently attack the citizens they nominally serve without conscience or consequence, I started thinking more and more about how the tropes of cop mysteries, both in print and on TV, shape our opinions about the police and thereby help prevent any meaningful changes in what is clearly a sick and broken institution.
After all, for many middle-class Americans, fictional cops are the ones we encounter the most. I’ve been pulled over for traffic infractions a handful of times and called the cops to report a burglary a couple of times, but those might add up to an hour or two total. Whereas I’ve spent untold hours in the company of fictional cops, both on TV and in books.
So I think it’s important to take a look at the way cop fiction affects us and how it creates a dangerously inaccurate picture of police and police work.
The Infallible Gut
I think Columbo may have started this, but it’s now a staple of cop shows and cop fiction: cops just know. Columbo knows immediately who the murderer is without seeing any of the evidence. And we know he’s right because we saw the murderer do it!
Columbo just hassles people with “one more thing,” but other fictional cops follow their guts to much worse places. So if Eliot Stabler roughs up a suspect, well, who cares? He knows who the pervs are! They had it coming! On Mr. Mercedes, Brendan Gleeson’s character scoffs at the necessity of getting a warrant before going into the serial killer’s house. Because he knows! Sure, he doesn’t have any hard evidence, but dammit, he’s got a cop’s gut, and his cop’s gut tells him that this is the guy. (And, because we’ve been following the killer, we know Gleeson’s gut is right!). Curse those civil liberties that do nothing but stand in the way of cops following their guts to catch the bad guys! Waiting for a warrant wastes precious time and allows the bad guys to kill again! Or hide evidence!
Of course, cops’ guts are no more infallible than anybody else’s, and as I think anyone who looks at their behavior honestly can see, their gut feelings about who needs to be beaten and who needs to be coddled are very much informed by their experiences and prejudices. In other words, real cops have very fallible guts. You could ask Breonna Taylor about this if they hadn’t shot her dead in her bed.
Being a cop is a dangerous job. Everybody knows these brave heroes put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. After all, cops on TV get shot at all the time! Because it makes good drama to have violent conflict, and it’s good writing to have the protagonist of your story face some dangerous obstacles.
So we come to believe that cops deserve special consideration, and even special exemptions from the laws that govern the rest of us, because their job is so dangerous. (Indeed, having read some of the newsletters from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, it’s clear that cops believe this too. Or at least pretend to.)
But here’s a list from radical left-wing outlet CNBC of the ten most dangerous jobs in the USA. Police officer doesn’t crack the list. In fact, it’s more dangerous to be a roofer, a garbage collector, or a landscaper than it is to be a cop.
So cop fiction greatly exaggerates the danger of being a police officer. It also, of course, greatly exaggerates the danger that non-cops face from the world at large as well. Because, again, conflict makes good fiction. So cop fiction would have you believe both that murderers lurk around every corner and that police doggedly pursue them to justice.
But neither is really true. There were 16,214 murders in the US in 2018. This is not nothing, certainly, and it’s higher than anyone would like to see, but just to give some perspective, there were 36,560 motor vehicle fatalities in the same year. People do die in car crashes in fiction, but they’re far more likely to get murdered, whereas in real life, the facts are reversed.
Oh, and about that dogged pursuit of justice? Nationwide, 40% of murders go unsolved, and for rapes, robberies, and burglaries, the unsolved rate is over 50%. So while your fictional cops might not rest until they get justice, in real life, we’re in far more danger from bad driving than from homicide, and if you are the victim of a violent crime, there’s a decent chance that the perpetrator will never be caught.
So cop fiction overstates the danger of being a cop, the danger of not being a cop, and the likelihood of a crime being solved. Other than that…it’s still pretty inauthentic.
Know Your Rights
As I mentioned above, cop fiction does a great job of making many of our civil liberties seem like an unreasonable obstacle to cops trying to do their job. It also does a great job of selling the surveillance state. I notice this on British cop shows a lot: they’re always checking the CCTV. Good thing it’s nearly impossible to be in public in the UK without the government recording your movements because it helps Jimmy Perez catch the bad guys!
But the one right that you almost never see anyone invoke on TV is their right to remain silent. You hear the Miranda warnings, of course, but then people just go and blab to the cops, and sit for hours in interview rooms being psychologically manipulated until they confess. And they never invoke their right to an attorney unless they’re guilty. Then the cops walk into the hall in disgust, saying, “he lawyered up.” The Closer was built on the premise that nobody ever exercises this right, but, it’s endemic: you hardly ever see anyone invoke their right not to talk to the cops in cop fiction unless they’re guilty. Indeed, insisting on this right is a clear sign to the cop’s infallible gut that you’re guilty!
But you don’t have to talk to the cops. Ever. Even if you’re not under arrest. “Can I ask you a few questions?” they say, and you are perfectly within your rights to say, “nope!” and keep walking.
You never ever see this in cop fiction, again unless it’s a stalling tactic used by someone who’s guilty. So most people don’t even know this. You really never have to talk to the cops! Nor should you, according to this law professor, who makes a really convincing argument.
The Bad Apples
A familiar trope of cop fiction is the badass Internal Affairs officers, who come and give our protagonists a tough grilling. Ooh, it makes me so mad when they try to jam up a good cop just because he cut a few corners on procedure! What do those pencil pushers know about real police work?
This trope serves two propagandistic purposes: it makes us distrust checks on police behavior, and it reassures us that the police are vigilantly policing themselves. We can be confident, then, that the police we do encounter are professionals because we know they’ve got the Internal Affairs guys breathing down their necks if they make one mistake.
In real life, of course, this is simply not a thing. Oh, there are internal affairs departments, to be certain, but the idea that they aggressively pursue officer misconduct is, frankly, risible. Here in Boston, and I’m sure in your town as well, police departments bend over backwards to protect their own and shield them from consequences for any kind of wrongdoing. You may have seen the video where the Boston Police officer brags of hitting protestors with his car (also known as attempted murder!) and then pretends he was joking. This guy served a year suspension for an alleged sexual assault he committed in 2005 while on duty but is now back on the Boston streets, drawing a paycheck from Boston’s taxpayers. I wonder how many other jobs you could continue to do after doing sexual assault while at work?
The former head of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association was recently arrested on charges of raping five different children while employed as a police officer. I suppose it’s possible none of his co-workers knew of his behavior. But if you’ve got some time, browse through this database of Boston Police officers. You’ll find plenty of officers with four or five sustained Internal Affairs complaints against them who are still employed by the city and making six-figure salaries.
So — there are bad apples on the police force. The police know who they are, and they continue to be employed. Sometimes the bad apples come up in the plot of cop fiction. And then our protagonist — who lives by a code, dammit! — will risk everything in order to make sure they know that no one is above the law.
It’s a good, interesting conflict, and I understand why people write it. It’s also one of the most pernicious propaganda points of cop fiction because it reassures us that the system is not broken. It’s a good, just system, and good cops will fight like hell to keep it that way.
Again, look through the database. The system of policing in this country is fundamentally corrupt and rotten to the core.
Hide the White Women
Let’s take a little trip to the worst part of town, shall we? I’m talking, of course, about the intersection of misogyny and white supremacy. Hey, look! Right over there is where the USA was born!
Well, anyway, while we’re here, let’s talk about the role of women in cop fiction. Sometimes they are cops! But mostly they’re wives, daughters, and girlfriends, who have two purposes, neither of which, of course, is to be actual characters in their own right. The first is to humanize the male cop. Sure, he likes to perform extralegal assaults when the mood strikes him, but his daughter still calls him Daddy! The second is to provide a source of conflict: because when the bad guys really want to get under his skin, they go after his women!
This is a tiresome trope that’s not limited to cop fiction: there was big reaction to this trope in comics. It was called “Women in Refrigerators.” Look it up!
But more importantly and dangerously, this reinforces ideas about cops and justice and white supremacy that have been around since the first white guy brought Black people to this continent and claimed to own them.
Why do we need cops, anyway? As noted above, they don’t solve a big percentage of crimes. And we know instinctively that they don’t really prevent crimes: you call the cops after something bad has happened. So why do we insist on throwing so much of our money away on arming what amounts to a violent gang that roams the streets, secure in the knowledge that they are above the law?
To protect the white women. The hypothetical danger to white women posed by people of color has been used to justify the torture and murder of men of color for centuries. The cops in cop fiction are mostly white and male, and it’s mostly their white daughters, wives, and girlfriends who are endangered. (Never their moms, though. Ever notice that?) The trope corners white people into thinking that cops are essential: without them, who will protect the women? What will become of them? They are in constant danger!
Again, I get trying to turn the screws on your protagonist if you’re a writer, though at this point it’s a lazy, stupid cliché with real world consequences: it hits the reptile brain of white men in particular, stoking their fear of the other and their misogyinistic belief that only armed men can ensure the safety of women. (If you look at the domestic violence stats for cops, you’ll see that this is very far from the case.)
What’s to be done?
Well, I’d like to see more mysteries without cops at their heart. I’d like a return to the private eye days of detective fiction, where the cops are ineffectual bumblers at best and corrupt criminals at worst. Maybe if you write about cops, you could take a break and write about other kinds of people who solve mysteries.
Or if you want to keep writing about cops, I think you have a responsibility to think more critically about what kinds of messages your art sends out into the world about policing and criminal justice. Maybe show us some stories about how the cop’s gut led him to beat the shit out of an innocent person whose life was never the same, or how they live for the BLM protests because it allows them to act out their violent impulses on people other than their families.
And what about us readers and viewers? Well, I have been making an effort to watch and read fewer cop stories. I think we all should. The market will follow us, and if they see that we’re supporting mysteries that don’t center on cops, they’ll make more. And maybe we’ll get different and better stories.
But, of course, if you like mysteries, it’s nearly impossible to avoid cops altogether. So I recommend going into cop fiction with open eyes and remembering that, fundamentally, cop fiction is like pornography: it’s entertaining, sure, but it’s definitely not the way things work in the real world. And we definitely shouldn’t let it cloud our thinking about actual public policy.