Kate Burkholder is an authoritarian bitch. Kate Burkholder is also a fictional character. This is a problem for me.
I enjoy police procedural mysteries — the crime scene, the forensics, the autopsy, interrogations, politics, history, secrets — but all these years of blogging about libertarian issues and the criminal justice system have made it hard to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy fiction.
Most procedurals are set in major urban police departments, but the Kate Burkholder series by Linda Castillo is set in the supposedly quiet town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio, in the middle of Amish country. In Gone Missing, Burkholder is asked to assist the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation with a search for some missing Amish teenagers, one of whom has turned up dead.
That part is a pretty good story, but I kept getting distracted by one of the subplots. Over the course of the book, Burkholder has a series of fruitless arguments with the town mayor, who’s upset because her department has arrested his son for drug possession. Sheriff Burkholder may be a fictional character, but like most law enforcement officers, she’s part of the War on Drugs, and that makes it hard to think of her as one of the good guys. I mean, what’s next? Rousting homosexuals from bathhouses? Chasing blacks out of town before the sun goes down?
I have similar problems with the way other fictional portrayals of criminal justice clash with my beliefs and values. On a recent episode of Major Crimes they were trying to find a missing child, and when they interviewed a suspect they told him that because there were exigent circumstances he had no right to remain silent and no right to a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think that’s how it works. There might be some special rules about the admissibility of statements made to the police when questioned about certain things, but I’m pretty sure you can always shut up and lawyer up. They were lying to him about his rights.
They lie a lot on that show, often tricking suspects into doing or saying things that give them away. That seems legitimate enough, but the Major Crimes detectives also lie about how much evidence they have against suspects in order to trick them into confessing. That’s pretty cool on television, where the rules of series drama pretty much guarantee they’ve got the real bad guy. But in real life, unfortunately, sometimes when the cops convince a suspect that they’re sending him to jail, he ends up telling them whatever they want to hear in the hope of getting some leniency, even if it means admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. This is how false confessions are made.
Even worse, Major Crimes‘s Captain Sharon Raydor doesn’t just want suspects to leave the interrogation room under arrest, she wants them to leave having accepted a plea deal, so there’s no change they’ll escape justice by winning at trial.
It doesn’t help that police brutality has become increasingly acceptable in police fiction. When Harry Callahan tortured the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry to get him to reveal the location of a kidnapped child, at least we could understand why he felt he had to do it. Since then, however, the cop who “plays by his own rules” has become a staple of police dramas, from Jethro Gibbs on NCSI to Julio Sanchez on Major Crimes to Sheriff Walt Longmire. These fictional cops get tough on criminals because they care so much about the victims and will do whatever it takes to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice. (Except Steve McGarrett on the new Hawaii 5-0 who seems to torture suspects just to annoy Danno.)
But in the real world, brutal cops don’t get started by torturing serial killers into revealing the locations of their kidnap victims or by executing crime kingpins who are too smooth to get caught. In the real world they start by beating down street kids who mouth off. They start by tasering belligerent motorists and shooting people’s dogs. In real life, we get guys like Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who was involved in torturing 200 criminal suspects, some of whom appear to have been innocent.
I’m currently reading a murder mystery in which the victim is a prostitute who the investigating officer had busted and then turned into an informant. The story is full of talk about the dangers facing police informants without once considering that the victim became an informant only because the officer coerced her into it by threatening to jail her for a victimless crime. In the real world, I don’t have much respect for cops who arrest someone for a victimless crime and threaten them into doing dangerous work as an informant.
I didn’t have much respect for Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad either. He wasn’t a murderer like Walter, Gus, and all the rest, but he was a DEA agent who had presumably ruined a lot of lives. He didn’t deserve to go out like that, but live by the sword, die by the sword.
Even in nonsense like Terra Nova — about a family that travels back in time to the Cretaceous period as part of an expedition to save humanity from ecological disaster — it bothered me that the father was a former narcotics officer. I kept expecting him to import his poisonous ideology into the colony.
In Gone Missing, Sheriff Kate Burkholder eventually figures out what has been happening to the children. (Spoiler alert, although I won’t give away the killer’s identity.) The Amish are expected to live their lives according to the ordnung, an informal but rather strict moral code, and much of the story involves Amish children struggling with its requirements. It eventually turns out that all of the abducted Amish children had broken the rules — by having sex, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, or wearing makeup — and the villain is a crazed Amish man who’s trying to save the children from their sinful ways by kidnapping them and keeping them locked up in dismal cells for months or years. The villain was willing to subject the teenagers to great suffering because, to paraphrase Shaw, he has mistaken the customs of his tribe for the laws of the universe.
This is, of course, the exact same thing that Sheriff Burkholder is doing to the mayor’s son: She’s willing to lock him in a dismal cell for months or years in order to “straighten him out” for breaking rules that are just as arbitrary and essentially religious in nature as the ordnung. And even when the mayor pleads for his son’s freedom, Burkholder is a merciless enforcer of her society’s moral customs.
For a while, I held out hope that author Linda Castillo saw the same parallels I did, and I half expected to see a scene at the end where Burkholder saw the horrors brought by overzealous enforcement of conformity to authority and decided to cut the mayor’s kid some slack. But it didn’t happen. Either Linda Castillo or the character she created just doesn’t see the world my way.
Which is a shame, because the Kate Burkholder stories are actually a pretty decent mystery series. I still enjoy them, but I feel funny about it.
I have similar problems with fictional police stories. I have pretty much given up on the ‘cops versus the drug dealers’ movies, though I still enjoy a good action flick. Someone is pushing the War-On-Drugs agenda. I would dearly love to know who.
I thought the torture business was just to provide relief for the citizens who felt they were getting screwed by the system (which is basically everybody), but then I heard that it was affecting the attitudes of our soldiers in the Mideast, so maybe it’s not so harmless after all.
Mark Draughn says
The funny thing is, even the cops vs. drug dealers movies are usually about some drug lord who is killing people — his competition, cops, innocent bystanders. Even the makers of those movies seem to realize that just dealing drugs isn’t bad enough.