Another true-crime podcast, another body. This time, it’s an infant, found in a cooler. The narration is reliably weathered, dragged forward by a voice so grizzled it makes asphalt feel like Charmin two-ply. (That’s how you’re supposed to know this is authentic.) Everything that happens in the episode is pretty much what you’d expect from a standard genre entry: the pitter-patter of investigative procedure, stops and starts in the pursuit of information, dramatic emphasis on lurid detail. The whole business is the kind of true-crime fodder that many, many millions consume as entertainment these days.
But there’s one crucial difference with this particular true-crime podcast: It’s a production of the New York Police Department — which isn’t only, you know, an actual law-enforcement agency, but one of the more visible departments in a time when controversial policing has never been more pronounced.
The podcast, called Break in the Case, isn’t exactly unique. A recent New York Times write-up identified the show, along with the Mountain View Police Department’s The Silicon Valley Beat, as part of a small but emerging string of “copcasts” — essentially a bizarro experiment in public relations that has popped up from some police departments across the country in recent months. To be sure, there were probably sporadic instances of police departments using podcasts as a straightforward communications tool at various points in the past, but this new crop is defined by specific peculiarity: the fact that it aggressively blurs the line between outreach and entertainment.
Break in the Case sounds near indistinguishable from any other true-crime podcast, borrowing much of their moves, mood, and structure. It’s narration-heavy, interspersed with active and retired police officers relevant to the case. The series launched last month, and its opening volley is a five-part series on the aforementioned infant-in-a-cooler mystery, which played itself out in the early ’90s. It’s hosted by an active police officer, who provides intros and outros to the episodes, but the bulk of the narration is carried out by Edward Conlon, a retired NYPD detective who wrote an acclaimed best-selling book about life in the department while he was still on the job. Conlon rejoined the department last year as “director of executive communications for the police commissioner,” ostensibly a kind of public-relations czar role. He previously tried producing long-form stories distributed over the department website; Break in the Case is his latest project.
Perhaps the first time I heard about one of these podcasts was around this time last year, when word of a show called Countdown to Capture, produced by the police department in Newport Beach, California, began to bubble up. The surreal nature of that production is fairly easy to pin down. Explicitly aping the construct of something like Up and Vanished, the 2016 true-crime pod that saw its civilian creators kicking up an actual break in the cold case they were looking into, Countdown to Capture’s conceit involves the Newport Beach Police Department picking up the tools of true-crime podcasts to try to crack a case. Basically, they were engaged in a multiyear pursuit of a millionaire on the run for the suspected murder of his wife; their search had been sputtering, and they wanted to reenergize interest in the case. You can see the “Why the hell not?” logic embedded in the entire enterprise: What better way to renew public attention in a murder than through a true-crime podcast that plays into a broader cultural trend?
Countdown to Capture’s six episodes rolled out across September 2018. Almost a year later, there was, indeed, a break in the case, and the suspect was captured. The Newport Beach Police Department claims that the podcast contributed to the resolution, according to the L.A. Times — but to what extent this is actually true remains unclear.
The complication of a podcast like Up and Vanished — where civilians pick up the work of law enforcement — can be pegged to the way it harvests sensitive material, including the deaths of actual people, and reprocesses it as entertainment. But an artifact like Countdown to Capture takes that complication and twists it even further. Here we have an official law-enforcement agency harvesting sensitive material and reprocessing it as entertainment with the purpose of furthering their actual work as law-enforcement officials. The snake has gone full ouroboros.
Break in the Case is an altogether different beast, but the fundamental complication is pretty much the same. Sure, the NYPD’s podcast can be perceived as a more straightforward public-relations gambit, featuring what appears to be a mix of active and retired law-enforcement officials serving up grizzled narrations of past cases. Again, you can broadly see the outlines of that same “Why the hell not?” logic: What better, more modern way to deepen the relationship between the public and law enforcement — to help humanize law-enforcement officials in the eyes of the public, and to increase public understanding of the work — than through a true-crime podcast?
“The way that we’ve traditionally disseminated information is standing on a soap box and yelling at people about what’s happening,” an NYPD lieutenant told the New York Times for its story. “That’s not listening, and it doesn’t allow the community to be truly engaged.”
Except, of course, the historical problem with police public relations isn’t really that the latter insufficiently understands the plight of the former. After all, cops and their struggles have been the protagonists in our culture for ages — just ask Dick Wolf. More often than not, the problem is the other way around: It’s law-enforcement agencies not sufficiently grasping how they’re relating to the public they serve.
There’s something distinctly absurd about this state of affairs. Sure, law-enforcement agencies have every right to use any means of communication to engage with the public. It’s not only their right, it’s part of the job. But the how of it all matters. It’s one thing for, say, a retired cop to write books about his life on the force to better increase public understanding of police work (or just to provide entertainment), or for an active-duty cop to write fiction off the clock as a means to explore larger ideas about the role of police in society. But it’s another thing altogether when we’re talking about active law-enforcement officials producing what can essentially pass as entertainment products in order to achieve their goals.
At best, it’s a variation on standing on a soapbox yelling at people about what’s happening, only that the soapbox is a stage and the officers are cosplaying as actors. At worst, it’s just crude propaganda.