Don’t worry, Penelope Garcia is a Good Guy

Like most police procedural shows, CBS’ Criminal Minds often takes a hostile view toward civil liberties. Due process and warrants and the Bill of Rights are frequently portrayed on such shows as troublesome obstacles that hamper law enforcement in their efforts to keep us safe from the monsters threatening us all.

This is particularly insidious on Criminal Minds for a couple of reasons. First because the heroes of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit never seem to face any difficulties after catching suspects due to illegal, warrantless searches — mainly because they tend to end up killing those suspects after catching them red-handed (often literally red-handed). The team’s leader, Agent Aaron Hotchner, is a former prosecutor, but I don’t remember ever hearing him express any desire to focus on evidence that would be legitimate in court. I suppose if you usually end up killing suspects without a trial, you don’t have to worry about what would or would not be admissible in court.

This is how the NSA’s PRISM program works.

But Criminal Minds’ casual disdain for civil liberties is also insidious because it’s embodied in the lovely, friendly person of Penelope Garcia. Garcia is the show’s magic hacker — or “Techno Wizard” — a character whose quirky fashion and personality serve as TV shorthand for her apparent ability to hack into any computer database quickly and without leaving any trace.

Let me say that I enjoy Criminal Minds and that I like Penelope Garcia. Kirsten Vangsness and the writers make it almost impossible not to like Penelope Garcia. She’s kind and loyal and emotionally vulnerable and unfailingly well-intentioned. But it’s exactly this — Garcia’s kindness and benevolence — that makes her routine disregard for civil liberties all the more pernicious. Because Penelope Garcia is the personification of the NSA’s PRISM program.

What happens on the show is that the BAU team is tracking a serial killer or a predatory sexual sadist — there’s a new one every week, suggesting that the world is filled with such dangerous people. And at some point in most episodes, the team asks or hints that Garcia should work her hacking magic — there’s no time for warrants or other legal measures — to help them locate the killer. She hacks into the databases of credit-card companies, cell-phone providers, ISPs, ATM networks, tax records, medical records, sealed court proceedings — you name it.

Note that Garcia does not, herself, create any of these files or databases. She’s not Big Brother, recording or compiling data by snooping on private citizens. She simply helps herself to all the data compiled by the perfectly legal snooping that has long been practiced by a variety of private, corporate entities. She’s not tapping anyone’s phone, but merely tapping into the records of the phone company. She’s not creating a surveillance state in which every individuals’ every movement and transaction is being tracked and recorded. The cell-phone companies and credit-/debit-card companies set all of that up on their own. She’s just borrowing their data and putting it to some other use.

A benevolent use, of course, because Garcia is good and kind and honest and she would only ever use her otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty.

That is essentially the same argument being offered to defend the otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power of the NSA. And it’s a lousy argument. A presumption of benevolence is never a sufficient check on power.

Penelope Garcia is fictional, and in fiction we can agree to play along with the impossible notion of an unfailingly benevolent person. But we know real people are not like that. And real institutions are nothing at all like that.

The danger Criminal Minds portrays is not fictional. The monster-of-the-week format of a procedural series may serve to exaggerate the prevalence of lurid serial killers, but such dangerous people really do exist in the real world, where real FBI agents and real law enforcement agencies really do perform a heroic service in protecting public safety. But we quite sensibly do not cede law enforcement agencies unlimited and unchecked power to fulfill their necessary role, because power can always be abused and unchecked power is a license for unchecked abuse.

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  • BaseDeltaZero

    (*His motivation is to prevent them from enjoying power ballads, which makes the whole episode a little surreal.)

    What? No, seriously, what?

  • Mark Z.

    It is by far the most insultingly stupid show on television.

  • Ben English

    In my experience:
    1) People perceive it to being creepy because it supposedly normalizes bestiality, and because clandestine fan-organized conventions that involve sex are ripe for abuse and predatory behavior.

    2) A lot of people see, from the outside, the furry subculture producing things like Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokemon porn, or hear about ‘yiffing’. There’s a perception (valid or not) that furries are particularly bad keeping their kink to themselves, shoving it into contexts where those who don’t share the kink will encounter it.

    3) There is the sense that furry-fetishists are disproportionately likely to have other terrible opinions or disturbing fetishes. There’s a sense that the furry fandom is welcoming to Nazi fetishists/Holocaust deniers, transhumanists, bestiality apologists, and extreme narcissism, and lack of perspective. Hence melodramatic coinages like ‘fursecution’.

    (Not saying any of these perceptions are fair, but the fact that you do run into such people discourages those outside the kink from further research.)

  • Ben English

    Gotham was still better off by the end than they would have been without Batman. Sure, the Joker is seen as escalation, but remember that Ra’s had planned to cover the city in Scarecrow toxin whether Bruce had done anything or not. And the city only got to its sorry state because a secret society of international terrorists dating back to Roman times was intentionally sabotaging its industry and politics.

  • Ben English

    I’m not making a tone argument. Indignation at injustice is something we need more of. But it needs to be directed in a way that makes positive change, and it can’t be tainted with hatred. Look at your average Tea Partier: they’re a bunch of disaffected working class people who have been screwed the fuck over by the GOP. But between the propaganda machine of the right wing and the racism buttons pressed by having a black president (and by said propaganda machine with its conspiracy theories). The disaffection of the white working class could have been a powerful force for change. Hate turned it into a corrupting influence that gave the right the house back.

    And that sort of toxic hatred is spewed every day into my house when my family wathces Fox News and my brother tells me about Alex Jones’ latest revelation, and I’m goddamn sick of it.

    So yeah. We need indignation, absolutely. That wasn’t what I was talking about.I just don’t see what hating the former president accomplishes, and at this point my stomach is turned by the suggestion I should hate people. I’m sorry that I came across as lecturing you.

  • general_apathy
  • zmayhem

    Bless his Endless self. You’d think being around for so long would have made him less willing to tolerate the foolishness of us mortals, but instead it seems to have exponentially intensified his Zen.

  • FearlessSon

    As Lliira said, being unable to retract consent is rape, no bones about it. That said, contracts do have some value in power-exchange relationship, depending on the nature of the exchange. In such a case, they are mainly just a signed codification of the pre-negotiation that both partners have consented to. That way it can be referred back to by both parties to avoid “It’s not what it looks like!” scenarios in case someone sees or overhears, draws the wrong conclusions, and gets the authorities involved.

  • Ben English

    Support is the operative word there for me. Nobody is supporting W. because he’s not running for office or making public policy anymore. Nearly every president is remembered more fondly than they deserve, but I personally don’t see what hate accomplishes.

  • Yeah, that’s not the case here. We’re talking more like liability waivers. “I agree that whatever happens to me is totally my fault for signing this, God help me.”

  • FearlessSon

    The phrase “Person of Interest” always reminds me of Overwatch in Half-life 2, as it progresses from “Person of Interest” to “Anti-citizen One.”

  • Lori

    I gave up on the show many seasons back, so it’s entirely possible that they’ve changed their approach since then. I certainly wasn’t the only one to notice the offensive approach they took to kink in the early going and I imagine they got push back on it.

  • Lori

    I think the presentation was still that it would have been better if the police had been effective and if Bruce hadn’t been, you know, a little over the edge.

  • Lori

    No one is supporting W, but they are supporting his policies and what he stood for.

    People are supporting Obama. To the extent that they’re doing so purely because people are attacking him I think that’s wrong.

    As for what hate accomplishes, to each their own.

  • David S.

    So it’s creepy because it involves clandestine conventions that aren’t clandestine enough; and disturbing because people consider them Nazis and they lack the appropriate perspective on that? There’s also a pattern in life; the more marginalized a group is, the stronger the group bonds and the more they’re likely to tolerate the assholes among themselves.

    As for normalizing bestiality, I again compare it to things where people actually hit people with whips and actually handcuff people to beds. (And I don’t care how normal most people involved in this are, there are people who go dangerous places with it.) Being okay with the thin lines about the latter, and not see the huge separation in the first is not proportional.

  • David S.

    Can’t the police get surveillance camera footage pretty easy? I can’t see why a business would have a reason to fight them about it–it doesn’t hurt them–and most business would want to keep on their good side.

  • David S.

    Honestly, I think the corruptibility of organizations is a lot more bounded then that of particular individuals. You’ll find cops in the pay of drug lords, but rarely entire police departments. Police departments will rarely, at least in modern days, be freely racist or anti-gay even if individual members are. Businesses may not be very nice at heart, since the pursuit of money is not a pretty goal, but they do balance pure profit and short and long-term reputation to a pretty grey effect most times. Most fast food places in the US wouldn’t get near Chick-Fil-A’s positions because they don’t want that trouble; only the individual at the top of Chick-Fil-A put them there.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Police departments will rarely, at least in modern days, be freely racist




  • David S.

    I don’t know why, but Manning certainly seemed to be able to go through a fishing expedition through a huge number of documents.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve only seen the first film, and one of the later ones whose name I don’t remember. The first one was fascist not necessarily for its take on vigilantism, but for its ideological context. The serial killer wore a peace symbol and his lawyer was a Berkeley intellectual, two aspects of the story that pandered to reactionary attitudes.

  • True, but Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976) show a more nuanced portrayal of Harry compared to the first. The Enforcer is particularly interesting, because it was made in the tail end of the era of Black Power militant groups which had become part of the popular consciousness in the 1970s, and it by no means presents the Black militant leader as an unreconstructed villain: he is willing to do a deal, and Harry in his turn is willing to abide by it.

    In fact, the person who screws the pooch on that one is an overeager superior officer who wants to make headlines rather than solve a case properly.


    The whole thread is an interesting discussion, but I think the first post about nails it.

  • Indeed. Also, I’ve read the books and Holmes, for his time, shows some remarkably nuanced views about the way men treat women, and he does not dispute the women who castigate the then-extant divorce laws in the UK.

  • ISTR Holmes took a pretty dim view of men who would manipulate or harm women. He holds little remorse for Dr. Roylott (The Speckled Band) or for Mr. Windibank (A Case of Identity), both of whom were implicated in crimes against their daughters, even if technically the crimes weren’t actionable.

  • Been Googling all over, and all I can find are bits and pieces. I has a sad.

  • YMMV, but for me hate is useful to remind me, “Never put up with that kind of bullshit again”.

  • Mmm, irony

    I never get tired of the irony of people condemning others for allegedly revelling in feelings of superiority, while using classist rhetoric to do so.

  • arcseconds

    that story, if memory serves, also answers David’s question as to who made Holmes judge and jury.

    Holmes ‘convenes’ what might be described as a kangaroo court to (it turns out) acquit the sailor, appoints himself judge, and Watson as the jury ‘and no better man to represent one’, or words to that effect.

  • Daniel

    I generally agree on that point, but those films tend to have a “one bad apple” attitude- someone else (other than the hero) in the shadowy agency will have a redemptive epiphany where they explain “this isn’t what I signed up for” and the power corrupted head will defend his or her shameless disregard of civil liberties. It’s always one bad person who leads others astray, or one sub-division of a governmental body that’s scary and omnipresent. The message is normally that the institution as a whole is good, and because of the freedoms that institution defends there will inevitably be someone who goes too far. But they can be fixed- usually by killing them. So the message is both “be grateful the freedoms you have allow you to confront this” and “because of the freedoms you have some sort of corruption is inevitable”. It’s quite an insidious way of reaffirming the status quo- be grateful you have a government that can both enable and destroy this sort of thing.

  • arcseconds

    It seems to me, given that Western cop shows tend to be all about tracking down rapists and murderers (some like The Bill and an australian show I saw snatches of a couple of times provide a bit more of a complete picture, but there’s still plenty of chasing down fairly major crime) Chinese cop shows must basically be a completely different genre. Soap opera, maybe.

    What are the blue police portrayed as doing in these shows?

  • GuestPoster

    I tend to use the first view, in part I suppose because I prefer the Marvel universe, where so many of the comics DO seem to be meant to be taken more realistically, and to be directly tackling reality, rather than super-reality.

    But even then, when they bother to give Lex a personality beyond ‘evil madman’, he tends to become very sympathetic. Probably best done in “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel”, but even in, say, the planet Lexor arc, we see him work almost exclusively for the good of *a* people, with just those occasional forays to destroy Superman (which, sadly, eventually lead to the destruction of the planet, but still).

    But look at Luthor in, say, Smallville, arguably one of the best (ie: most developed) backgrounds he’s been given. Coming from a VERY broken home (which we know in reality really screws people up), he may have lots of rich kid toys, but he has to earn every scrap of power himself. Facing regular discrimination, ESPECIALLY from Mr. Kent (whom he idolizes as a down to earth ‘good man’), he befriends Clark, and doesn’t get REALLY dark until Clark gives up upon him (in no small part because of Lex’ insatiable curiosity about kryptonite, etc.). But even then, Lex basically watched everything he wanted drift towards Clark, even the love of his own father, and was utterly powerless to do anything about it. Yes, he gets very dark in the later seasons, and starts doing some horrific things, but you can see why.

    Then, look at the Luthor as President story arcs. He does a lot of good! Just about all the evil he does is directly tied to heroes – he has to do things to them because otherwise there’s no story. But when not forced by literary necessity towards evil, he tends towards some of the better things we see come out of real politicians.

    Similarly, folks talk about Luthor vs. Batman and the good they do, but legally speaking, who has actually done more harm in modern incarnations? Most of Luthor’s criminal activities (in recent adaptations, at least) are white collar crimes – shady business dealings and the like. Batman, on the other hand, is a vigilante who has directly led to the escalation of crime in Gotham, and, because he operates outside the law, catches villains who then must be sent to the asylum, rather than jail.

    Similarly, sure Luthor doesn’t do much directly ‘good’ with his money… but what mega zillionaire does? Wayne doesn’t, really – he’s got just as much cash as Luthor, and granted Waynetech doesn’t build weapons, but what DOES it make? Giant phone spying systems that make the NSA surveillance measures look like they’re made of play-doh?

    And finally, even in continuity, who does the world go to when Superman needs to be put down? Look at the old Superman cartoon: when Darkseid brainwashed Superman, and sent him to attack Earth, the army didn’t go to Batman, they went to Luthor, and asked him to help solve the problem. Granted Luthor was happy for numerous dishonorable reasons, but still… even in continuity, there are not a few people who like what Luthor is doing, and are very happy he’s around.

    I know he’s the villain, and I know he’s evil, but I find that in most of the recent interpretations, he’s only a villain because Luthor has to be a villain. Much of what he does outside of harming Superman/Batman/Justice League members is honestly often on the better side of human nature. Compared to Superman, who is nigh invincible, causes more property damage than Luthor while ‘helping’ us, and just needs a sliver of red rock to turn into a force of destruction, if I had to get one of them in the real world, I’d go Luthor every time. At least he can be stopped by good old fashioned human works if he gets out of hand.

  • Carstonio

    It’s in her book Deeper Into Movies.

  • JohnK

    Well, that is true. The tapes of a surveillance camera of a business belong to that business and they don’t need a seizure warrant unless the business refuses to give it to them (which rarely happens for obvious reasons). As far as phone records go, it depends on what you mean by that.

    The superficial level, which contains only the record of incoming and outgoing phone calls for a specific phone number, can be obtained with a subpoena (in less restrictive states) or a search warrant fairly easily; USAPATRIOT notwithstanding, the restrictions really clamp down (at least on the local/state level) when you go beyond that and start looking.

  • AnonaMiss

    …Is Keanu Reeves the Doctor?

  • dpolicar

    If we’re going to ignore the stuff that only happens because of narrative constraints (like the evil they do because the story requires them to be villains) it’s probably worth adding to this equation that Superman can be killed by a “sliver of [green] rock”. Generally, he only survives because the story requires him to survive.

    In realistic terms, Superman (ultranaive, ultrapowerful, ultraconfident, and easy to kill with the right tools) is much easier to stop than Luthor.

  • Lori

    You’ll find cops in the pay of drug lords, but rarely entire police
    departments. Police departments will rarely, at least in modern days, be
    freely racist or anti-gay even if individual members are.

    I think it is fairly rare for police departments to be engaged in wholesale corruption, but it happens. For example, the reputation of the New Orleans PD was sadly earned.

    As for open racism & homophobia, I take it that you haven’t been following the stories about the NYPD’s stop & frisk policy? Open, obvious racism as a matter of department policy.

  • Some Canadian TV productions are starting to take their cues from US productions, though. The series “Continuum” is one example. By the nature of the way it presents the story, you’re almost forced to identify with the protagonist police officer, even though she is nominally defending n shgher gur nhqvrapr jbhyq svaq fbzrjung hanccrgvmvat.

  • The Drug Warriors have allowed recording phone numbers from pay phones since at least the mid 1990s, incidentally.

    EDIT: Also, speaking of surveillance, one thing I’ve noticed even back in ’96, ’97 is the sheer pervasiveness of *private* surveillance on Americans. I remember going into a 7-11 because I needed to call a buddy of mine and I didn’t want to keep wasting quarters on a pay phone trying to get his pager.

    Well, I was a little zinged to find out the guy at the counter couldn’t let me use the phone because all calls were recorded, and he could lose his job if he let me use that phone.

  • Hexep

    That’s the big difference. There are very few ‘police procedurals’ in the western sense, and the few that there are tend to shy away from showing any real human depravity.

    At this point, we’re shying away from my expertise, because as much as I like to study the idea of Chinese television, I spend as little time as possible watching it – and when I do get around to watching it, I usually watch the costume stories because I’m getting a foot massage and that’s what the massueses like.

    But the last time I caught a cop show on TV, the villain was a kidnapper who was very explicit about the fact that he was only in it for money. He kidnapped women and played cards with them until their husbands or fathers paid for their return. When overt evil appears on TV in China, it’s the demense of WW2-era historical dramas with Japanese villains, who are allowed to be cartoonishly, laughably evil.

    Blue Police appear more often in domestic comedies or slice-of-life soap opera dramas, where they are forthright, honest, and helpful people – like Leifeng.

  • Lori

    Manning was able to access documents that he should not have been able to because folks weren’t following proper procedures, but TTBOMK they were all tied to his actual job and involved what the government was doing, not personal information collected from citizens.

    Having a security clearance really isn’t a license to wander through any and all classified documents. A security clearance is sort of like the card keys I had when I had office jobs. Mine would get me in the front door of my building, the door to my floor, other buildings during work hours and the gym. It wouldn’t let me into other buildings after hours and certainly not onto the executive floors. If I had tried to use the card to go somewhere I wasn’t authorized to go the system would have had a record of that and I would have been asked about it and possibly disciplined or even fired, depending on my answers. I had a card key, but it didn’t allow me to roam at will.

  • Mark Z.

    You’re thinking of “corruption” in very limited terms. It’s rare for an entire police department to be in the pay of a drug lord. It’s extremely common for an entire police department to be funded by the drug trade, by a combination of asset seizures and federal drug enforcement grants. This doesn’t result in the police directly protecting drug dealers–the real damage is how it screws with their priorities. An exceptionally stark example here (warning: sexual assault).

    And this has been going on for a while. You have drug trafficking on Interstate 40. The drugs mostly flow east, the cash flows west. So the police patrol the westbound side of the road and leave the eastbound side alone. The drug task force that’s making these stops is, at this point, funded entirely by seizures of cash and cars. This got so sophisticated that the drug task force was negotiating with sheriffs for specific days and times on which they’d be allowed to make stops. The police as a system are largely cooperating with the drug trade as a system, without any collusion between individual cops and drug dealers.

    And they’ll protect their revenue stream, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. Look at any of the states that have decriminalized marijuana, and you see that much of the opposition came from the police union. Because the police as a system know who pays the bills.

  • Lori

    The only reason for Canadian TV to take it’s cues from US productions is that Canadians will watch the resulting product and I’m uncomfortable with laying that all at the feet of US media. It denies agency to Canadian viewers and I also don’t think US media ought to carry all that weight.

    Basically, if US viewers have to take responsibility for making 24 a hit, and I think they do then Canadian viewers have to own whatever success Continuum enjoys.

  • For that matter, the NYPD seems to have a running tradition where once every decade, twenty or thirty cops get caught selling drugs or guns as part of a big smuggling ring.

  • Lori

    That is bad, but given that the NYPD has over 30k officers* I don’t think that’s really evidence of departmental corruption. No matter what safeguards you put in place there’s no reasonable way to prevent knowledgeable insiders from circumventing them periodically.

    *I sometimes forget how huge the NYPD is and that’s not just in absolute terms, it’s also in officers per capita. One of the reasons that the policing styles of the NYPD and LAPD are so different is that NYC has almost twice as many cops per capita as LA does.

  • That said, the “branch plant” concept holds true culturally as well as economically. We face tremendous influences from the USA to the point where sometimes it’s hard to remember that there are fundamental legal differences between our nations (as one example) due to the sheer weight of police-procedurals set in the USA.

    So while a domestic production should be “owned” domestically, the salient fact remains that the creators of such a production can be influenced by outside forces.

  • That’s the one. Which is one of the reasons I said “Holmes’ and Watson’s justice” above, rather than just “Holmes’ justice”. :)

  • My wife watches that show. I find it hard to imagine how exactly the pitch went here. Time travelling cop has to stop evil terrorists (so far so good) who are an obvious and specific expy for the Occupy movement (Hey wait a minute) in order ot ensure that the future will be a corporate-controlled (Uh oh) plutocracy.

  • Now that is just not true. The NYPD is very careful to pretend their stop & frisk policy isn’t obviously racist.

  • Lori

    The commissioner and other assorted mouthpieces are very careful to deny that it’s racist now that people are scrutinizing it, but that’s not quite the same thing.

  • One way to rationalize it is that judging from the snippets of the 2077 reality we see, Kiera Cameron actually had it pretty good compared to the dispossessed who were faced with arbitrary withholding and/or price increases of basic foodstuffs, drug addiction as an escape from present-day problems, and a complete lack of anything like today’s legislative / judicial structure.

    To put it in TVTropes terms, the Liber8 Strawman Has A Point.

    PS. Their portrayal of 2077 is actually quite eerily good. Just like pictures of Vancouver in the 1930s are almost unrecognizable except for the basic network of streets, I can barely recognize the geography of 2077 Vancouver and environs.

  • arcseconds

    I’ve seen the first season of Sherlock and the first Robery Downey movie, and I’ve the same thing to say about both.

    Great portrayals of Holmes and Watson from the actors and the writers.

    Weak plotting and scripts otherwise, which veer too far towards sensationalism.

    (The Downey film in particular draws too heavily from James Bond and Dan Brown)