One of the side effects of my reading so many libertarian and criminal law blogs is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy watching cop dramas on TV. Your typical television tough cop who “breaks all the rules” comes across to me as a bully who I’d like to see fired, if not indicted and imprisoned. And whenever they take somone in for interrogation, I keep thinking “Shut up! Shut up you moron!”
Of course, because this is fiction, they almost always catch the bad guy, usually with a lot of confirming evidence, often with a confession, and sometimes red-handed. They are, after all, the good guys. But when they do the kinds of things that would earn them a spot in one of Radley Balko’s “New Professionalism” posts, it makes it difficult for me to just relax and enjoy the show. I like good police procedural fiction, but it helps when the good guys really act like the good guys.
Which brings me to Criminal Minds. It’s a pretty good show, and it helps a lot that the show is purportedly about the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit, the pack of profilers that goes after serial killers and other kinds of genuine bad guys. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the protagonists behave themselves quite well, at least by television standards. Also, I think Criminal Minds is probably the most accurate depiction of criminal profiling I’ve ever seen on television.
Granted, that’s not saying much, but if most shows get it 5% right, Criminal Minds gets it 15% right. Too many shows that feature criminal profilers portray them as almost mystical figures who get inside the killer’s head and magically predict the killer’s next move. The real profilers I’ve read about, however, all seem to be just like any other cop with a specialization. A burglary detective can visit the site of a burglary and make educated guesses about the tools used, the intent of the burglary, the age and sophistication of the intruders, and any other crimes they may have committed in the area. Profilers do the same thing for serial killers.
The killers in TV shows all seem to be cold and super-smart psychopaths who get off on taunting the police with puzzles and games. A few of them are like that, but I think most real serial killers are a lot less flashy, and they usually make at least a token attempt to hide from the police. A fair number of them, however, are so crazy and so tied in knots by their own little world that it never seems to cross their minds that the police are after them.
I’ve always believed that it’s hard to do an accurate and interesting television drama about criminal profiling because the reason profiling works at all is because serial killers are all working from a handful of scripts. Spree killer, psychotic, psychopath, and so on. Any television show is going to have either find new and interesting ways to approach these stories, or they’re going to have to deviate from the common serial killer profiles.
(Sometimes the FBI deviates from the common profiles. Back when the FBI was accusing Richard Jewell of being the Olympic Park bomber, they said he fit the “hero bomber” profile, which they sort of just made up.)
Criminal Minds has taken both routes over the years, but it seems to get some things right. The team members do try to get inside the killers’ heads, but it’s portrayed as an intellectual and investigative process, not some kind of pseudo-psychic mumbo-jumbo. I’m sure that real profilers think this show is nonsense, but to my amateur ear the profiles offered in Criminal Minds sound real enough. They have the same uncomfortable mix of empathy and contempt that I’ve read in books by Ressler and Douglas.
And while the BAU team encounter more than their share of sadist, taunting, psychopaths, they also run into various types of spree killers, delusional psychotics, and inadequate losers, some of whom are so crazy and tortured that the team members feel, well, not quite sympathy, but perhaps a sense of loss, a sense that they’re in a tragedy, not a battle between good and evil.
As in real life, the team normally only gets involved in cases when the local cops call them in, and they spend a lot of time going over crime scene and autopsy reports. In some of the early shows, the characters would interview captured serial killers in prison, just as real profilers do. (One episode even re-created Robert Ressler’s famous interview with Edmund Kemper, in which the prison guards didn’t show up when he called to be let out of the room, although Ressler handled the situation differently.)
That said, it’s still a television show, and real profilers don’t work anything like this. For one thing, real profilers do a lot of their work by mail. Police departments send them copies of case files, and the profilers send back their analysis, which becomes just one more report for the local homicide detectives to use. Profilers rarely go out to the scene, and they sure don’t have their own private jet. I’m willing to accept the jet, though, on the theory that it’s just the producers’ trick for staging some scenes outside the BAU office while still allowing the crew to shoot on an inexpensive standing set.
Much the same can be said about one of my favorite characters, Penelope Garcia, an analyst/hacker who helps out the team with her impossibly fast database queries, when she’s not busy hacking into the bad guys’ computers and cell phones. What she does is total nonsense, but it’s a lot more entertaining than a more realistic parade of clerks, bureaucrats, and technicians taking ten times as long to discover the same information. Besides, I just like the character.
Finally, it’s always nice to see a show where the characters act like competent grownups, the bosses have leadership skills beyond fear and threats, and the even the god-like super-geniuses understand the value of teamwork.
So, if you like a good crime story, I recommend you check out Criminal Minds. For those us in the Central Timezone, it’s on Wednesdays at 8pm on CBS. Those of you in other timezones can figure it out for yourselves.