Charles Petzold

Persuading the Suspect to Sing (2007-08 Season)

September 14, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

I have nothing but respect and sympathy with the plight of television police officers. These gallant men and women serve in the front lines to keep us safe from the weekly barrage of serial killers, sex predators, terrorists, and lesser pervs and scumbags who haunt our commercial television channels. Their task is daunting: They must solve the crime, apprehend the perpetrator, and extract a case-closed confession within a mere 48 minutes of air time.

Is it any wonder that these police regularly resort to ugly threats? How else can the slimy perp be made to sing?

One of the all-time favorites — used by countless police officers during interrogations in countless police programs — is the threat of the death penalty:

Unfortunately, this threat falls rather flat in any program that takes place in New York City (for example, any episode of the Law & Order franchise) because there hasn't been an execution in New York State since 1963. Yes, 1963.

Another perennial favorite goes something like this:

What is this, really? A blatant admission that American prisons are so over-crowded and anarchic that basic safety can't be guaranteed? And why isn't the suspect threatened with mere prison beatings and knifings? Why is this considered the ultimate punishment? And why is this threat delivered with such a strong dose of homophobia and more than a little tinge of racism?

But those old threats are so 2006. In their constant search for greater intimidation and faster, weepier confessions, television police (and particularly the FBI) have developed a newer, better threat. If my ears haven't deceived me, it was even used twice last season on Numb3rs. As the new season of cop shows begins, be on the lookout for this one:

Yes, the standard American prisons are now considered much too soft for the most hardened of television maniacs. Surely even Governor Romney's double-size prison at Guantánamo Bay won't be adequate for the nutcases who need a little waterboarding before they fess us and save everyone the tedium of a trial.

I'm sure overseas viewers are also quite amused that the prison at Guantánamo Bay has become so throughly integrated into American culture that it can now serve as a "prop" and throwaway line in our television programs.