Police procedurals are the most popular subgenre of story worldwide. We have police procedurals such as The Wire, which has a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase of those who like mimesis in their fiction, but the fact is, cinéma vérité is pretty hard to follow if you’re trying to just relax and enjoy. Of course the audience knows that police procedurals are just stories, but after listening to a podcast interview with a retired Australian homicide detective I couldn’t help but think that writers of police procedurals might make more use of reality to no ill-effect. I’ve also been listening to In The Dark and watching a bunch of Forensic Files on Netflix.
PROCEDURAL REALITIES THAT DON’T WORK IN FICTION
- Detectives work on more than one homicide at once.
- Crime takes a very long time to solve — months, years, decades.
- There are more people walking around guilty than there are innocent people in prison. It’s a very high bar, getting someone to prison.
- Police are short on resources. They’re generally unable to put cars outside houses of witnesses who testify. Likewise, it sometimes happens that the police basically know who committed a crime but are unable to bring the case to court. The public like to think that in these cases the police are ‘keeping watch’ over this person in the community, but in reality the police don’t really have the resources to watch someone’s every move.
- Corruption in the police isn’t the big problem it is in fiction because people who come into the police force for the wrong reasons tend to get weeded out in early career.
- In lots of shows — Broadchurch springs to mind, another is True Detective — we see a big city cop get sent to a rural area for some reason. He’s probably some sort of renegade cop genius with personal issues. He has such an excellent nose for the job that he is able to solve these smalltown crimes no problem. He learnt his skillz in the city, you see, and brought all his knowledge of ‘real’ crime with him. It’s easy for us to assume, therefore, that smalltown cops are not as good at solving crimes as big city cops, or that the solve rate is better in the city. The opposite is true when it comes to the solve rate. There’s no evidence that city cops are better than rural cops or vice versa. The fact is, rural crimes are easier to solve. There are some obvious reasons for this. Namely, any witnesses are quite likely to have seen the criminal before and may even know the full name and where they live. Added to that, the criminals in small towns are pretty well known to police because there are fewer people and therefore fewer criminals. Small town cops therefore don’t need any big city cop coming in and telling them how to do their job better, showing them all up; any newcomer to a smalltown police department would actually be at a huge disadvantage, having to learn the criminal landscape from scratch.
- Killing someone and placing the in their hands afterwards won’t make it look like a suicide, because it’s pretty clear to the forensic team when they find blood spatters on the gun where the hand should’ve been holding it.
REALITIES THAT WE MIGHT SEE MORE OF TO NO ILL-EFFECT
- When a criminal is charged with homicide, the police offer support to the perpetrator’s family as well as to the victim’s family. Sometimes the perpetrator’s family accept support, other times they don’t want a bar of it.
- Police officers are people people. They’re dealing with such a wide variety of people every day that they have to be. The messed up drunken loner is a fictional trope.
- Specialists who do things such as criminal profiling don’t work full-time doing that thing. They are called in on contract, and will have another main job, say as an academic in psychology.
- Different types of suspects need to be interviewed using quite different techniques. For example, a suspected pedophile needs to be treated sympathetically, with kid gloves. If the interviewing officer lets their disgust/temper get the better of them they’re likely to blow a confession.
- When someone kills themselves with a gun they don’t tend to drop the gun. For some strange physiological reason they tend to grip the gun and hold onto it even after they are dead.