Feb 25 2012

“In a Superhero Story, How Could I Keep the Police From Getting Involved?”

Published by at 4:39 pm under Detective/Crime Stories,Superhero Stories

If you’re looking to write superhero stories that are more about superheroes than about the police, here are some possible explanations.


1.  The police mistakenly conclude that no crime took place.  For example, if a supervillain murders someone, maybe he planted evidence that makes it look like a suicide, faked an accident (e.g. pushed the victim down the stairs) or used a poison that induced a heart attack. In a theft case, the villain might have replaced the stolen goods with a convincing forgery.  In an assault case, the victim might have been intimidated into silence.


2. The police didn’t realize that this was an extraordinary case and gave up when ordinary police-work didn’t pan out.  If Mary Jane gets killed and the police can’t find any helpful forensic data at the crime scene or any witnesses or even anybody with a discernible motive to kill MJ, the police are screwed.  Half of U.S. murders go unsolved and the police will declare it a cold case and move on if they’re not getting anywhere.  In a lot of cases, the police don’t have the necessary background information to figure out what’s going on–for example, knowing that MJ was dating a superhero would have been really helpful.


3. The case is unusual enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start. For example, let’s say a ghost kills somebody.  The police will probably get lost running down more mundane angles if they don’t know that ghosts are an actual possibility.  (They may even unknowingly railroad an innocent guy if he looks like the only plausible suspect).  Even if detectives are willing to risk their careers by telling their superiors they think it’s a ghost, what are the police going to do? Arrest a ghost?


3.1. If the police know how unusual the case is, they may delegate it to an expert. In the Dresden Files, the Chicago police use Harry Dresden on supernatural cases.  They know he’s more experienced with that sort of thing (being a wizard and all) and using a freelancer gives the police some degree of plausible deniability if the case goes horribly wrong.


4. The case is hard enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start.  If you need Batman-grade detective and/or scientific skills to realize the first thing about who committed a crime or how to find him, it’s plausible that the police will give up after regular police-work doesn’t bear any fruit.  For example, many Sherlock Holmes cases are first reported to the police, but then Holmes is brought in (either by the victims or by the police) after the police have failed to get anywhere.


5. The police may suffer from corruption, political interference and/or gross incompetence.  For example, the Penguin is politically connected in Gotham (e.g. he’s a viable candidate for mayor), and it’s plausible that police brass would be more careful about investigating somebody that might be their next boss.  (Political considerations may also be a factor for prosecutors and judges). Police officers and lab technicians that have been bribed might “lose” evidence or make “mistakes” that cause crucial evidence to be thrown out of court.  Forensics analysts might be paid to implicate the supervillain’s rivals (maybe even a superhero).  Corrupt supervisors might reassign honest police officers and technicians that won’t take a hint.


6. The story’s setting is anarchic.  For example, if the supervillain’s plan involves causing a huge and unexpected hurricane or earthquake, it’s plausible the police will be so distracted by rioting and/or AWOL officers that they won’t be able to stop the villain(s).  Alternately, maybe it’s a dystopian setting and law enforcement has been severely hampered.  Another possibility is the city has such huge crime issues that the police just don’t have the manpower to even try solving every crime–think Gotham.


7. The police are relegated to a secondary role, such as crowd control.  In superhero stories, most superpowered brawls risk a lot of collateral damage.  If the police clear out civilians within a few blocks of a fight, that could save tens of thousands of lives if a building goes down. (Skyscrapers hold a lot of people–CNN estimates that about 200,000 people worked in or visited the 7 World Trade Center towers per day).  This rather unglorious work–clearing out hundreds of thousands of evacuees, preventing lethal stampedes and helping stragglers–takes a lot of manpower.


7.1. The police and/or police brass may actually prefer a secondary role instead of fighting with a supervillain.  If police officers engaged the villain(s), would they have any chance of accomplishing something?  Additionally, firing thousands of bullets downtown is very risky.  Those bullets have to go somewhere and some of them will hit bystanders.  (Windows and cars generally will not stop bullets).


8. The villains and/or protagonists are undermining and/or misleading the police.  For example, somebody might be sabotaging the police department by planting false leads, destroying and/or stealing evidence, threatening or killing witnesses, planting moles and/or listening devices in the police department, interfering with electronics (like diverting 911 calls or hacking traffic lights to impede the police from responding to a crime), using supernatural powers to induce amnesia or otherwise hamper an investigation, etc.


9. The victims of the crime do not go to the police. For example, the victims might have been committing a crime to begin with (e.g. an illegal immigrant might be uncomfortable about asking the police for help against an abusive smuggler), so going to the police might be riskier than (say) asking a superhero for help.  Alternately, for any of the previous reasons, the victim may suspect that the police wouldn’t be willing and/or able to help.  Another possibility is that the victims don’t want the police or superheroes to help, but the superheroes are working the case anyway.


10. The crimes take place across a variety of states/provinces or countries but aren’t obviously linked.  Maybe the killer’s modus operandi has changed or maybe the crimes are sufficiently different that the links are not obvious.  The police in London may be aware of the theft of a high-grade lens from an optics firm, but unless they also knew something about a blackmailing in Denver and a murder in Toronto, it’d be difficult to piece together that this is a doomsday plot in the making.  (Hat-tip: Milan).


11. The police have unknowingly settled on an innocent suspect.  If the police are looking at the case from a wrong angle (perhaps because the actual perpetrator has framed somebody else and/or because the victim is hiding information from the police), it would be difficult for them to solve the case correctly on their own.  Even if a police officer does have the idea that the case is much more complicated than it initially appears, his/her lieutenant or captain might shoot that down.  Especially in high-profile cases, police officers are under a lot of pressure to solve cases quickly and cleanly.  In particular, it will be extremely hard for a police officer to get the police force to start pursuing new theories of the crime without conclusive proof.  If the villains and/or victims have made it difficult to get that proof (or if an innocent guy has been pressured into falsely confessing), the police might never identify the actual perpetrator on their own.


12. The police are knowingly framing somebody innocent.  

  • Perhaps they’re protecting a police officer. For example, if a police officer fired too quickly and killed a suspect that later turned out to be harmless, maybe the officers plant evidence to make it look like the dead man fired first.
  • Maybe they’re protecting an outsider (e.g. a politician or family).
  • Perhaps they’re trying to correct a mistake.  If the police think that John Doe committed one felony but Doe got off at court (especially on a technicality), maybe they’d frame Doe for a later felony if they were really upset about the first.   Two potential problems: 1) what if he actually was innocent of the first crime and 2) trying to frame somebody makes it virtually impossible to find the actual perpetrator of the second crime.
  • Maybe they’re trying to get rid of a problem.  For example, if it’s a corrupt police force and somebody’s been asking too many questions, preemptively framing him/her would reduce his/her credibility.

13. Antagonistic police-hero relations. If the heroes have access to vital information, one way to prevent the police from solving the case on their own is to create obstacles to police-hero cooperation.  For example, if the police regard superheroes as vigilantes, it’d be politically difficult for them to cooperate with the heroes (except perhaps in sly, unofficial ways, like Jim Gordon working with Batman in The Dark Knight).  Another consideration is that the police may be backing one supergroup over another (perhaps a government-sponsored group rather than a competing team of “vigilantes” or a relatively well-behaved superhero like Superman rather than a more legally questionable hero like Batman).   Hat-tip: Mister S.


14. The setting of the crime rules out immediate police involvement.  For example, if a crime is committed deep in the mountains during the snowy season, it’d be very difficult for police to respond quickly.  Some other possibilities:

  • The environment is so removed from civilization that police cannot get involved promptly.  For example, if you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest town, in deep space, hundreds of miles out at sea (or under the sea), you’re probably on your own for at least the short-term.
  • Hurricanes/typhoons, sandstorms, blizzards and other unusually difficult weather could make it hard for police to respond quickly.
  • Widespread electrical and/or communications issues might make it harder to call 911 and/or for the police to promptly dispatch officers.  For example, maybe a severe brownout and/or a villainous attack cause electrical issues that take down the city’s traffic lights or interfere with cell phone towers.


15. For whatever reason, the police would prefer to believe that no crime has taken place.  For example, perhaps the victim belongs to a highly unpopular group (e.g. mutants) or was engaged in a questionable activity (e.g. killed while buying drugs) and the police are not particularly sympathetic.  Alternately, maybe it’s not clear that there actually was a crime committed and the police don’t want to open up a case that would be hard to solve because it’s bad for their clearance rates.  (“Are you sure it was sexual assault, Ms. Doe? If the case goes to court, how will we prove it wasn’t just a drunken one-night stand you regretted the morning after?”)  Alternately, perhaps the police are under pressure from politicians in tough elections, so the police are under-counting cases so that the crime statistics look better.  Alternately, the police might treat cases as less serious than they actually are–for example, Texas and federal authorities have accused Dallas of repeatedly discounting violent crimes to make its crime situation look better than it was.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to ““In a Superhero Story, How Could I Keep the Police From Getting Involved?””

  1. Robert Granton 26 Feb 2012 at 7:45 am

    This is a great resource and very useful, thanks.

    I would like to add that the Superhero may have been targeted specifically by the villain(s). If the superhero is “called out” by the villain then the police might actually step back and coerce the superhero into taking the active, lead role.

    Love this site!



  2. VisaVion 26 Feb 2012 at 11:00 am

    Excellent article! Another reason- the reason I am using in my story- is that the police ARE the antagonists, or at least one of them. They try to implicate the freaks in everything, and are not too bothered if one of the freaks are killed. The freaks are their scapegoats if they can’t find the criminal- they just pick one at random and throw them into prison.

  3. B. McKenzieon 26 Feb 2012 at 11:43 am

    In a less antagonistic way, I think a lot of police officers (especially in homicide units/cases) are under pressure to find the criminal. Some innocent people do stupid things that incorrectly lead police officers to believe that innocents are guilty. (For example, some people falsely implicate themselves in illegal activity because they’ve been held in interrogation so long they aren’t thinking straight). Even a well-meaning police officer on your police force might stop looking on a particular case if one of your mutants (or whatever they are) confesses to the crime. Even if a particularly scrupulous police officer asks something like “But how would a mutant with power X have committed this crime that was apparently done with power Y?”, his lieutenant might get really annoyed because the officer is jeopardizing the unit’s clearance rate in favor of a suspect that has already confessed.

    –Public and/or political pressure may be affecting the police. For example, when Duke lacrosse players were falsely charged with rape, the police force moved forward with a case that it knew was extremely weak* because it was under massive public pressure and the district attorney was in a tough primary fight. (*The alleged victim’s account of the crime kept changing, the DNA found did not match any of the Duke lacrosse players even though the victim claimed the rapists did not use condoms, etc). Eventually, the Durham police rigged a lineup to make sure that the victim picked out a Duke lacrosse player. (Normally, police lineups MUST include people that are certainly innocent, such as police cadets that are ethnically similar to the suspect and wearing similar clothes–the police MUST gauge whether the witness is reliable/accurate, and somebody that picks out a police cadet obviously isn’t). In your story, if a victim (actual or lying) is presented a lineup of 5 mutants suspected of a crime, the victim will probably implicate someone of the crime rather than admit that he/she doesn’t remember or didn’t see it all that clearly. Or, if he DOES admit he’s hesitant, the police might gently nudge him to go with the person he’s most sure about. (Note: defense attorneys are usually present to make sure that this does not happen–otherwise, the lineup will probably be thrown out at court. The Duke lineup above was held without defense attorneys present and would have been thrown out at court for several reasons, but contributed to the public hysteria).

    *One extra fold: in your story, the police might not have ready access to mutants it knows are innocent. Under those circumstances, it might cut corners by lining up mutants that are suspects, lining up a few mutants that don’t really look like the suspect, or lining up a few humans that don’t look like the suspect. I’m not sure what else the police could do, particularly if the suspect in question doesn’t look anything like a human. If Beast or Nightcrawler is the suspect, how do you find a few other similar-looking people to stand in a lineup with him?

    –If the suspect in question has a criminal past, ethically dubious officers might be more receptive to arresting him for a crime even if it’s not clear he has actually committed this particular crime. Especially if the police feel certain he committed a previous crime but, for whatever reason, he wasn’t convicted of it. (Maybe that case fell apart on a technicality).

  4. Emilijaon 26 Feb 2012 at 11:59 am

    This is very useful! Thankyou!

  5. VisaVion 26 Feb 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Very useful, thanks!

  6. Linebylineon 26 Feb 2012 at 6:02 pm

    You know, #7 could actually be the basis for an interesting story by itself. Or more generally, a story set in a universe teeming with supers but focusing on non-super-powered police work might be really fascinating.

    Anyway, the police doing crowd control is a good idea, and goes a long way toward explaining why so many cities seem to have abandoned building districts.

  7. Comicbookguy117on 26 Feb 2012 at 10:32 pm

    Hey guys, I know you guys are probably busy and everything but I’d really like some feedback on my script. It’s located in my review forum. Please you guys, I’m trying to get better as an author. This is the first of many planned scripts and I need to know if it’s any good. Thank you all.

  8. Milanon 28 Feb 2012 at 5:56 am

    N. Keep switching out the police. With every scene in a different county, or a different country, the police might not get much of a look-in. If the individual crimes are not obviously part of a bigger picture then you might not attract the attention of federal or international law enforcement. Eventually this could beggar belief, so perhaps a fake death or corrupt international agency might be needed to refresh your supertramp supervillain.

  9. MisterSon 02 Mar 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Great article! Another good topic would be the Super’s relations with the police. Do the police approve or disprove of your character’s vigilante actions? Do they have their own in house heroes?

  10. RandomGirlon 17 Mar 2012 at 8:56 am

    Another possible point is that there’s too much evidence, Like say a dead body was found in a very public place such as a motel room or park restroom. There would be so many fingerprints and extraneous DNA that unless the body itself hold the evidence (which it can possible not) there is no way the police would have an idea of what direction to go in.

  11. Andrewon 27 Oct 2016 at 5:00 am

    Here’s a couple questions. With my hero team, they at first have to deal with dirty cops, which make up a majority of the police force with the exception of a few good cops. The commissioner of this period is crooked to the bone, being secretly in league with the other main antagonists I have. First question: Would it be more effective to make him the main antagonist of an arc or a secondary antagonist while another villain serves as the main? Second question: Can police commissioners run for mayor of a city? I just wanted to know because it would be interesting if they had an iron fist type of rule over the city, setting up curfews, going after the heroes/vigilantes etc.

  12. B. McKenzieon 27 Oct 2016 at 5:50 pm

    “First question: Would it be more effective to make [the police commissioner] the main antagonist of an arc or a secondary antagonist while another villain serves as the main?” I’d say the main advantage the police commissioner gives you over a standard supervillain is that he could theoretically win, whereas it’s extraordinarily uncommon for a supervillain to accomplish anything bigger than killing a few VIPs. If you’ve already ruled out a scenario where the corrupt police chief/candidate walks away mostly victorious, you might still be able to keep people guessing. Some other considerations:

    –Personality and character development of the police chief vs. alternate villains under consideration.
    –Genre and/or plot focus. I’m guessing the police chief might lend himself more to an investigation-heavy plot than, say, rolling superpowered battles. You could take a supervillain in an investigation-heavy direction, but the tone would probably be different going after, say, a lone psychopath or a small group of criminal masterminds than a thoroughly dirty police force.
    –Ability to interact with the characters, either directly or indirectly, would probably be a plus. E.g. in Captain America 2, the villain wasn’t particularly ineffective, but a warlord masquerading as a humanitarian probably would have gotten more opportunities to have interesting interactions with, say, Tony Stark or maybe Thor than Captain America. As it is, I think Captain America only shared one scene with the villain, which probably isn’t ideal.

    “Second question: Can police commissioners run for mayor of a city?” In the U.S., yes, though it’d be intuitive if winning the election would force him to give up the police role. (That said, at one point, William Worton was simultaneously a Marine general and the interim police chief of Los Angeles, a hell of a temp job. I think President Truman signed off on a leave of absence or two to cover this unusual arrangement as a short-term solution to a police scandal). However, police commissioners generally can be appointed/fired by the mayor, so presumably he either has the support of the current mayor (who may be retiring or resigning, possibly because of a scandal the police chief had a hand in) and/or can blackmail the current mayor not to fire him for running for mayor and/or he’s so confident that he will win the election that he’s okay getting fired as police chief for running. (If I were running as a reform candidate, getting fired for opposing an unpopular mayor seems much advantageous than being thought of as a minion of an unpopular mayor and he might reason that whoever else was running for mayor would probably have put in his own guy as police chief anyway).

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