9

There are shows like Castle, The Mentalist and more where the main character acts as a consultant to the detective team. Like in Castle, Richard Castle works as a consultant in NYPD (NewYork Police Department) and in The Mentalist, Patrick Jane for CBI (California Bureau of Investigation).

Castle doesn't get paid for his voluntary service, he earns from his books. I'm guessing Patrick gets paid as he does nothing else except consultancy for police.

Are these posts real? Do American police departments allow services from others like this and give them official recognition? Do they get paid?

  • 3
    Can't say for the US Police, but for instance the London Met has thousands of civilians working for them, in all kinds of capacities - "From Accountancy to Administration, Finance to Forensics, HR to IT and Occupational Health to Operational Support" - content.met.police.uk/Site/policestaff – Tetsujin Oct 11 '15 at 14:05
  • 1
    A good parallel to check out might be the differences in how the central character in Cracker operates in the UK series vs the US series I'm not claiming either are true to life, but it may highlight some of the differences. (Personally, I've never seen the US version, so can't actually comment on those differences) – Tetsujin Oct 11 '15 at 14:34
16

What you see on TV is entirely fictionalized. Nothing like what happens in Castle or Bones or The Mentalist happens in real life. Any remotely competent defense attorney would tear apart a case where an untrained civilian did half of the investigative work, handled evidence, etc. And that's not even counting putting a civilian in the line of fire on purpose.

However, "police consultant" -- the job title that the civilian half of these shows typically claim -- is a real position. Police departments have pretty broad leeway to hire civilian experts to assist in investigations. That even includes paying the occasional psychic (for a while, those occasionally popped up in missing-persons cases).

These police consultants are there to offer advice and information on topics that the police aren't familiar with. However, you would never see them going out with armed officers apprehending a suspect. Typically, what these consultants do include things like:

  • Examine crime scenes and try to provide information to help the police determine likely suspects.
  • Provide assistance on technical aspects of a case to help police identify useful evidence
  • Testify in court in topics that fall within their area of expertise.

And yes, these people are paid for their work; in the case of expert testimony, their fees are a matter of public record (since being paid to testify calls into question their impartiality); other consultants are paid whatever hourly rate they can get the police departments to agree to.

To relate this back to TV shows: if you eliminated every instance where she accompanies Booth in the field, Brennan and her team from Bones are all reasonable approximations of what a civilian forensics lab would do for the police. A lot of scientific and forensic work is done by private labs, because most police departments can't afford to do their own. (The FBI actually has it's own labs, though, for routine stuff like DNA, bloodwork, drug testing, etc.)

The Mentalist (or it's far better sibling Psych) are pushing the boundaries of what a police department would even consider. It wouldn't be unusual for police to hire someone who does what Patrick Jayne really does -- criminal profiling -- but they would hire him as a profiler. (And again, a state-level police force might already have their own.) It's unlikely they'd hire someone who admits that he's a con man, as that wouldn't tend to go over very well in front or a jury.

The very first episode of Castle is a bit of a stretch, but not unreasonable to think that police might contact someone they think has relevant information related to a series of crimes, and request their assistance in an advisory role for that specific investigation. And it would mostly involve the detectives interviewing him a lot, not standing around the crime board theorizing with him. (The idea that a homicide detective would let a writer follow her around for 4 years and conduct interrogations with her is beyond absurd.)


As several people in the comments have pointed out, there is a second option here, as seen in shows like Monk, or the most recent seasons of Castle: that the "consultant" is a licensed private detective. The rules for PIs vary in the US from county to county, but in general, they're required to obtain a license to operate, and have to follow some (but not all) of the rules that police detectives do. My understanding is that PIs usually work for attorneys moreso than the police, but that they are sometimes brought it on capital cases where the police department may be understaffed.

In theory, their training and certification requirements make them better equipped to handle evidence, interview witnesses, and in some cases even detain suspects. They are often allowed to be armed beyond what local laws allow for private citizens (again, varies from place to place). Having not seen Monk myself, I don't know how realistic the show's depiction is, but a PI would most likely be hired on a case-by-case basis, rather than as a permanent addition to a homicide team.

  • Agreed on most of your points [not that I really know how the US system works], however regarding 'handling of evidence', in the UK, Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO) & forensics could be almost entirely civilians - though hardly 'untrained' – Tetsujin Oct 11 '15 at 14:26
  • 1
    The US is much the same; properly trained professional can handle evidence so long as they know how to maintain "chain of custody", and can be trusted not to tamper (intentionally or otherwise) with it. Random civilian consultants handling evidence would almost certainly be raised at trial as a source of "reasonable doubt". – KutuluMike Oct 11 '15 at 15:06
  • 1
    Psych and The Dresden Files has them as licensed Private Investigators. Dresden files even had an episode where he had to take mandated classes to get his license renewed in order to continue being hired by the police. – cde Oct 11 '15 at 16:36
  • 1
    This answer is utterly infactual. "far better sibling..." pfft ;) hehe. It may be interesting to add the dynamic we see on Monk (the show with the consultant with OCD) -- in his case he was a former detective. If this is handled any more accurately than the other examples it could add to the answer (I dont know enough about it to do much more than guess) :) – Mac Cooper Oct 11 '15 at 19:06
  • 1
    "The idea that a homicide detective would let a writer follow her around for 4 years and conduct interrogations with her is beyond absurd." Writer David Simon followed homicide detectives around for a year (as a "police intern") to collect material for his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He wasn't a consultant and didn't conduct interrogations, but this part of your answer reminded me of him. :) – Miles Oct 12 '15 at 5:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .