The Castle season opener shows our divorce from our police

Summary: The TV show “Castle” shows how the police have become a strange tribe that TV explores, like National Geographic used to write about central Africa.  The season 8 premier episode shows how far TV has evolved from the 1950’s idealized portrayals of Dragnet and Highway Patrol to today’s dark fantasies.  Spoilers!


Warning: spoilers to the first episode of “Castle” season 8

Today’s police procedurals show how we’ve become accustomed to our New America, and disconnected from the government and its security services. Police procedurals tend to idealize police, but modern ones tend to accept their corruption and see police as Lone Rangers fighting evil despite their organization. While immersed in correct details, overall they make early procedurals — like Dragnet (1951 – 1959) — look like documentaries (there are exceptions to this, of course).

Who knew in 1971 that Dirty Harry would become the model for 21st century policing in US fiction?

The law-breaking cop Danny Reagan (co-star of “Blue Bloods” (especially criminal in the first 2 season) is one example; we should root for Internal Affairs to get him fired. The Gestapo-like agents of “NCIS Los Angeles” are another. Last week we saw an extreme version of this problem in “XY”, the Season 8 opener of “Castle”. Like the film Independence Day, every scene was bizarre in its own way — but unlike that great film, it was not funny.

Toks Olagundoye.

Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a licensed Private Investigator (PI), consultant to the NYPD, and the husband of a Captain in the New York Police Department. Hayley Shipton (Toks Olagundoye) is a PI with whom he partners in season 8, although she freely admits she is a criminal — and immediately demonstrates it.

Castle: “Hayley, we can just walk through the front door. There’s no bolt cutters required.”
Hayley: “Oh, you’ve been playing at being a cop too long, Rick. As a P.I., you don’t have a badge, don’t have search warrants. You’ve got to get creative. Lie, cheat.”
Castle: “And the occasional B&E {breaking & entering}, apparently?”
Hayley: “Yeah, if that’s what it takes.”

While this is odd, the main plotline is even less believable. Two NYPD detectives learn that Captain Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) killed 3 men, and is now missing — leaving behind only her bracelet lying in a pool of her blood. That would set off alarms at the highest levels of the NYPD; there are only 400 Captains among the NYPD’s 34 thousand officers. Later they learned that she was alive but failed to report in, at which point senior officers would run the investigation, perhaps from Internal Affairs.

Extreme measures would be taken after she kills a fourth person, a woman, and again runs away — becoming a rogue killer cop. But in “Castle” two detectives (her friends) continue to work the case, along with her husband and his 22-year old daughter (who works as an unlicensed PI, a misdemeanor in NY). Business as usual. Putting this in context, the FBI defines a “serial killer” as someone who kills three people.

Perhaps this week we’ll see the logical conclusion to this two-part episode when the NYPD fires Beckett (as she was fired by the FBI in season 6). I doubt the NYPD would tolerate a senior officer’s wholesale rule-breaking on the first day of her probationary period. The best she could hope for would be reassignment back to the streets as a detective.

NYPD Captain's shield

Oddities, & lessons for us

Beckett could not become Captain. As a Detective First Grade (earning slightly less than a lieutenant), she was on the investigative career track. She could switch to the supervisory track by taking the exam for sergeant (13% of the total force, base pay $80 thousand) — then become eligible to take the exam for Lieutenant (5% of the total, base pay $102 thousand), and then take the exam for Captain (1% of the total, base pay $115 thousand).

Note that the NYPD has, like more American police forces, an extremely flat (i.e., efficient) organizational structure. They have the same ranks as the military, but without the officer bloat.

But more important than that detail are those salaries. A sergeant is the police equivalent of a corporate department manager, but carries a gun and far greater responsibilities. A Captain is much like a district manager of a large corporation, but makes life and death decisions. Their salaries (even with the benefits) are low for people with their responsibilities working in one of America’s most expensive cities, and more so compared with salaries of people of similar rank working in NYC’s corporate headquarters.

One result: few Lieutenants take the Captain’s exam, believing the small extra pay (but no overtime) is not worth the longer hours and heavier responsibility (see the NY Post articles here, and here).

No wonder corruption — often venial, sometimes serious — is a pervasive problem in the police of our major cities.

For More Information

I recommend seeing this insightful review by Joy D’Angelo of the season 8 opener.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the police, and especially these about Castle. It gives us a mirror in which we can see ourselves, skillfully constructed by the best producers, actors, and technicians in Hollywood.

  1. Spoilers for “Castle”: explaining the finale & season 7. It’s a metaphor for America.
  2. What the TV show “Castle” teaches us about America, and ourselves, — About our myths
  3. The TV show “Castle” challenges us to see our changing values. Most fans decline, horrified.
  4. “Castle” shows us marriage in America, a fault line between our past & future
  5. “Castle” shows us a dark vision of Romance in America
  6. Richard Castle shows us the dark reality of justice in 21st C America
  7. “Castle” shows that many of us don’t defend New America because we don’t like it
  8. The bitter fruits of our alienation from America — more lessons from “Castle”
  9. “Castle” helps us adjust to a new America, with women on top.
  10. Beckett shows our future. She chooses wisely & marries Castle, but dreams at night of her alpha ex-boyfriend.

14 thoughts on “The Castle season opener shows our divorce from our police”

  1. Your insights on how TV shows assumes a violent lawless police combined with an ignorance of how police actually works is interesting and well documented.
    Your conclusion that police corruption is widespread in the real world, however, seems unsupported.

    1. hunter,

      Some things are too obvious to need documentation. Any investigation created to investigate police corruption has found it, if they looked. It’s been a persistent problem in America since the creation of modern police forces in the late 19th century, from local cops up to the FBI — e.g., their crime lab, the Boston Office (details here), and Hoover’s involvement with organized crime (strong circumstantial evidence, but never proven).

      The latest frontier is the growing realization that the crime labs — given so high a profile on modern police procedurals — tend to have high levels of corruption (e.g., manipulating evidence to serve prosecutors).

  2. Never forget: “It’s a STORY!” Stories are not meant to be truthful at the outer level. Their truth lies in what they say about human behavior and relationships. Much of the science in science fiction is wrong, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the story. Stories are populated by characters, not people, and a character is quite different from a real person. Let’s face it: how many people would actually have taken the red pill instead of the blue one?

    Another point: the police are now facing a huge PR problem arising from the ubiquity of smart phones. 99.999% of all police work can be perfectly proper, but that 0.001% of bad behavior is what shows up on YouTube. And it creates a false impression of widespread police malfeasance. Police chiefs throughout the country must get body cameras on each and every officer ASAP and require them to be operational in order for a police officer to interact with the public. That’s the only way they’ll be able to combat the bad PR coming from those smartphones.

    1. Chris,

      “Never forget: “It’s a STORY!””

      I am amazed that I have to point this out — popular stories are mirrors to our beliefs and values. They show our dreams and nightmares. Hence the large social science literature studying fiction — ancient and modern — to learn about societies.

      ‘that 0.001% of bad behavior is what shows up on YouTube”

      That’s quite delusional. Only a tiny fraction of police incidents get recorded, so the vast majority go unknown. Also, a distinguishing characteristic of incidents of police corruption — including the videos of police violence — is perjury not just of the offending officer but the others on the scene – showing that these things are at least tolerated.

      More broadly, the rule in many (most?) police departments is omerta — silence to outsiders about crime in the ranks. That’s one of the major barriers to enforcement by Internal Affairs. The other organization with such a rule is, of course, the Mafia (although it no longer works well for them in the US). Similar needs evolve similar solutions (although of course, they represent crime on very different scales).

    2. Mr. Editor, is there anything between “We agree” and “Your argument is quite delusional” in your assessment of comments? ;-)

      1. Chris,

        Yes. As is quite obvious from reading my comments.

        For example — to state “99.999% of all police work can be perfectly proper, but that 0.001% of bad behavior is what shows up on YouTube” is delusional. That’s one bad cop of every 100,000. That’s equivalent to one bad cop in the combined force of the 15 largest US police departments.

    3. OK, make it 99.99%. Or 99.9%. Or 99%. I should not have used a number, instead writing something like “the vast majority”. In any event, your writing style certainly indicates a black-or-white approach to reality, and you seem to leap at any opportunity to disagree.

      For example, your comment that “I am amazed that I have to point this out — popular stories are mirrors to our beliefs and values.” is certainly true, and in fact is simply a way of restating my point. Stories are not about objective reality, they are about our feelings. Yet you chose to phrase a point that paralleled my point as if you were disagreeing.

      Why are you so argumentative? I greatly enjoy discussing difficult issues with people who can disagree in substantial ways, but this black-or-white approach is less productive. The content of the articles is impressive, but your comments fall well below that standard.

      1. Chris,

        You have made 14 comments, starting with a grandiose claim about your science background. However your posts are almost devoid of supporting evidence, frequently appear quite bogus (e.g., your bogus claim of 0.0001%), and when called on your statements you’ve proven unable to support them.

        My guess is that you’re accustomed to commenting in websites of your “tribe”, where big claims in accord with the tribe’s beliefs are accepted — no matter how outlandish. But you’ve ventured into deeper waters, where the ability to support statements with fact and logic are prized.

        “Why so argumentative?”

        Try supporting your statements. Then they’ll be treated with more respect.

    4. Well then, what evidentiary support can you offer regarding these statements of yours:

      “popular stories are mirrors to our beliefs and values.”
      “Only a tiny fraction of police incidents get recorded”
      “a distinguishing characteristic of incidents of police corruption — including the videos of police violence — is perjury not just of the offending officer but the others on the scene”
      “More broadly, the rule in many (most?) police departments is omertà”
      “Similar needs evolve similar solutions”

      It is hypocritical to denounce me for failing to provide evidence to support my claims when you make similarly vague claims without evidentiary support.

      I am perfectly willing to accept reasonable statements reflecting either common knowledge or facts that are easily verified. My habit is to focus on more important issues, nuances that delve into the issue in greater depth. I challenge a claim only when I know or suspect it to be false.

      Look, you’re obviously a young fellow suffering from a lot of testosterone poisoning. You see enemies all around you. I now realize that you’re not capable of engaging in serious adult discussion. I shall therefore terminate my participation in this blog. However, I would like to offer some avuncular advice:

      1. You can learn a lot more from nuanced discussion than head-butting.
      2. The world is not drawn in black and white; it’s drawn in grays.
      3. There are many dimensions of intelligence; strength in one doesn’t necessarily imply strength in any other. In your case, I suggest that you explore the dimension called “social intelligence” or “emotional intelligence.”
      4. Master your anger.

      I truly do wish you well. Vaya con dios.

      1. Chris,

        For all these long excuses and attacks your written, you could have more easily either admitted you were wrong or supported your statements. Your disinterest in doing either is telling.

        “OK, make it 99.99%.”

        Now you believe that there are 3 corrupt cops in the NYPD. You don’t display much facility with numbers for someone claiming an advanced degree in science.

        “It is hypocritical to denounce me for failing to provide evidence to support my claims when you make similarly vague claims without evidentiary support.”

        First, your statements — which I’ve repeatedly questioned — are unlike those rather obviously correct statements. Second, because I could support my statements — if you seriously questioned them.

        “you’re obviously a young fellow suffering from a lot of testosterone poisoning.”

        Wrong, again. I am 59. Your resort to an ad hominem insult is itself a sign of someone unable to provide any support for their statements.

      2. Chris,

        Follow-up reply. I seldom give unsolicited advice, as it’s wasted effort. But I’ll make an except for you.

        You comments began with a patronizing insult, and you consistently reply to questions & objections with attacks — right thru to your last comment. I suggest you read more of the comments here. Of the 42 thousand comments probably a dozen or so are by people admitting error. Except for me; there’s hundreds of those (unfortunately). Readers reactions to these are interesting: they’re usually incredulous (e.g., my comment, the reaction). Rightly so. The rule on the internet when caught in an error: insult, attack, or run away.

        Try being different. When questioned, admit it when you were wrong, or are unable to support your statements (different than being wrong). Better yet, keep a list of your mistakes — like the Smackdowns page on this website. I suspect you’ll find it enlightening.

      3. Chris raised the question how how many police are corrupt.

        It depends on the how high we set the bar to “corruption”. But even excluding venial or minor corruption, history shows the numbers are staggering.

        From “Corruption in Law Enforcement: A Paradigm of Occupational Stress and Deviancy” in the Journal of the Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

        If such activities as free meals are excluded, a significant number of police officers do not engage in any corrupt activities. But with extremely rare exceptions, even those who do not engage in corrupt activities are indirectly involved because they do not report what they know or suspect. In some large urban departments, even the reported extent of corruption is staggering.

        • A 1972 study revealed that one of every three police officers in Chicago was found to be guilty of a criminal act, one of four in Boston, and one of five in Washington, DC. Their crimes included assault, theft, shakedown, extortion, and accepting bribes.
        • The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption, published in 1973, charged that as many as half of all officers in the New York Police Department were corrupt.
        • According to a 1994 report, 100 of 1,046 Miami police officers had been, or currently were being, investigated on corruption-related matters, and officials predicted that as many as 200 additional officers might eventually be investigated.
        • In New Orleans in 1995, the local U.S. district attorney and several watchdog groups estimated that between 10 and 15% of the 1,500-officer police department was corrupt {“Crime on the take in the Big Easy”, TIME, 20 March 1995}.
  3. Fabius Maximus,

    “One result: few Lieutenants take the Captain’s exam, believing the small extra pay (but no overtime) is not worth the longer hours and heavier responsibility”

    People take jobs for the pay or the “perks” which can include reputation and other sorts of non-financial benefits. I think it’s always worth pointing out we could pay our civil servants more as a way of getting better applicants, but I feel like the counter-argument of a gold-plated and overpaid bureaucrat is a larger concern for our society (it probably shouldn’t be), but we’re far more concerned about that than we are about corruption because it is normally focused at the poorest. Honestly, this seems like another service where we’ve become convinced it’d be better to do it cheaper and kind of crummy than do a decent job. America gets what it pays for.

    “Who knew in 1971 that Dirty Harry would become the model for 21st century policing in US fiction?”
    America, for the past 20-30 years has been enamored with stories of the cop/soldier/spy who defies the stupid bureaucracy and goes rogue and breaks rules. Part of that is escapism and national spirit (the pioneer over the industrious worker) but you’re right to point out how this can cause a feed back loop which distorts our perceptions of problems.
    I can’t find a link but I think that there’s an article in the Baffler that made the point that movies and TV shows haven’t impacted individual levels of violence in society but they sure seem to have impacted our policy debates.

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      Re: NYPD

      I’m unsure of your point. The NYPD has insufficient numbers of quality people taking the Captains exam to fill the necessary spots. It’s not an immediate problem, but will grow more serious over time unless this changes.

      Re: effect of fiction

      I agree that there has been little effects on violence. The effect on the policy debate is one example of the effect of fiction on our beliefs and attitudes. The shift in emphasis from organization to lone rangers mirrors and furthers our declining confidence in our institutions. That’s a bad thing for several reasons, most notably because it diminishes our ability to govern ourselves. As lone rangers we are just sheep.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top