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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

Race and Crime on TV: "Criminal Minds" as a Representation of Policing and Law Enforcement

Photo Retrieved from Paramount Plus

Season 5, Episode 4 of tv drama Criminal Minds, titled “Hopeless”, follows everyone’s favorite FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit as they track down a team of killers in Southeast Washington DC. Local police ask for help from the BAU when two couples are brutally murdered in their home. The team quickly links this crime to a series of vandalism in the area that they suspect is a result of anger towards the gentrification of the neighborhood and the disenfranchisement of the local working class. They remark that vandalism commonly escalates into violence and that vandalism breeds a pack mentality, pointing to the likelihood of multiple perpetrators. The team notes that the area is mostly black working class that is struggling financially while wealthier families move in. Despite this, the idea that these crimes are racially motivated is dismissed due to the fact that the victims in the murder were white and black. The team ultimately tracks down the perpetrators when they use a nail gun to aid in their crimes and this leads to looking into construction workers and contractors in the area. One of the murderers is caught by police and the other two are killed by police when they pretend to have guns on them.

Criminal Minds is notorious for its unrealistic and overdramatized depiction of law enforcement, behavioral analysis, and crime and this episode is no exception. The real BAU does not intervene in ongoing investigations nor do they apprehend suspects or investigate live crime scenes. The show is also widely criticized for its depiction of heinous and excessively violent crimes, most often against women. High-profile, shocking violent murders like the ones represented in the show make up a fraction of the crime committed in the US. The show’s depiction of graphic murder every episode leads audiences to believe this activity is much more rampant than it actually is.

When it comes to race, Criminal Minds, also succumbs to stereotypes and a lack of diversity, especially in earlier seasons. In this episode, Derek Morgan is the only person of color on the BAU team, being a biracial black man, and his character falls into racial stereotypes as he is seen as the “rough” and more aggressive member of the team while also being known as the flirt and womanizer of the group. His coworkers in this episode recognize that he is inappropriately flirting with and getting close to a victim’s family member. His character also comes from a troubled past where he spent much of his childhood in and out of juvenile detention centers in Chicago following the death of his father.

Despite the recognition of the high rates of a black population in Southeast DC early on in the episode, the idea that these crimes may have a racial element behind them was quickly dismissed and I believe not addressed properly. “Hopeless” discusses themes of gentrification and poverty but disregards how race plays into that. Showing the intersection of race and class, especially given the location of the episode, would’ve provided a more thoughtful analysis of how crime and policing affect minority and marginalized groups differently. There is a comment in the episode that policing in the area was increased following the spree of vandalism but there is no discussion of how policing varies based on the racial makeup of a neighborhood. Criminal Minds and other crime-centered television dramas would benefit from a more candid discussion of the realities of policing and law enforcement in the United States.

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