Criminal Minds: Entertainment or Reality?
Retrieved from Rotten Tomatoes
The crime and drama television series Criminal Minds was a hit on CBS, and now is a fan favorite on Netflix with 984 million minutes streamed. The series follows a close-knit group of criminal profilers who work for the FBI as members of its Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). Criminal Minds is notorious for its oversimplistic and unrealistic portrayal of law enforcement and crime in the US - which could be attributed to the exciting and entertaining nature of the series. However, the show still portrays an inaccurate characterization of the BAU and has been complicit in reproducing many gender and racial stereotypes.
We can see these factors at play in season 4 episode 12, “Soul Mates”, where the team has been called to assist local police in solving a series of murders and kidnappings in Sarasota, Florida. From what we know of the case, 3 young college women were murdered and a high school girl was missing - the victims were both white and black.
The episode begins with the arrest of a black father, William Harris, by local police. Eyewitness testimony and a “history of similar offenses” (03:18) allowed the police to receive a search warrant and an arrest warrant - of course, in real life, probable cause requires certain criteria that are not discussed in the episode, and the process of obtaining a warrant is not as straight forward. Moreover, studies have shown that inaccurate eyewitness testimony accounts for almost half of all wrongful convictions and racial biases tend to skew these testimonies.
While searching William Harris’s laptop, Dr. Spencer Reid comments that “[William Harris] appears to be quite intelligent, he’s covering his tracks pretty well”(09:25). While we’re used to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, sadly many black males in America are not granted this privilege; instead, for the “suspicious black male” it is guilty until proven innocent. We see this in action especially at the beginning of the episode when all the team has on Harris is eyewitness testimony, a prior conviction of rape - of which the charges were dropped - and their conviction of his guilt.
Within this close-knit group of profilers, special agent Derek Morgan is the only black male on the team, and thus leads Harris’s interrogation. The lack of racial diversity within law enforcement and the burden of being a minority is pointed out by the defendant as he characterizes Morgan as a “black cop in the FBI, [you] got a big chip on your shoulder, a lot to prove” (24:38). Their interactions and conversations embody stereotypical characteristics of hypermasculinity and a power complex.
Photo retrieved from Criminal Minds Wiki
As it turns out, William Harris is guilty but was not acting alone - his partner in crime was an affluent white male. While both suspects are described as having dominant personalities, the white male is portrayed as mentally ill, his whole character is carrying a more “sick” narrative if you will. He is the one who kills the victims, he bites his victims, he is a lot more anxious. This narrative is commonly used when referring to white males, whereby they are victims of a mental illness rather than villains.
The intensity of the episode may have made the facts seem realistic, especially when reading Miranda Rights during the arrest, which we are all familiar with. However, there are still nuances in the criminal procedure that were overlooked and even the main assailants were inaccurate. Not only was the case resolved a lot faster than what would have been in real life, but the percentage of serial killers who are African American is extremely low.
While it may be entertaining to watch procedural crime drama television series such as Criminal Minds - and I am guilty of binging a couple of episodes myself - it’s important to keep in mind that the show is ultimately made for entertainment and thus displays a fictional storyline with exaggerated stereotypes and unrealistic representation of crime. Many of these stereotypes have been found to affect racial judgments in real life and therefore must be recognized and challenged at every opportunity.