02 Feb Episode 153: Crime Stoppers, America’s Most Wanted and Rise of Vigilante TV News
Citations Needed | February 2, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Happy new year everyone, welcome to 2022. We are back with new full-length episodes after our holiday break. We hope everyone had a wonderful holiday despite the ongoing global pandemic, but hey, we are here, the podcast is going, and we are so thrilled to be back. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded.
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Nima: “Let’s get this guy off the streets before he targets another innocent person.” “If you’ve seen any of these fugitives, call our hotline now.” “Thanks to a courageous tipster who did the right thing, this criminal won’t be bothering anybody else for a very long time.”
Adam: For decades, local and national media, from nightly news broadcasts partnering with Crime Stoppers to primetime TV shows like America’s Most Wanted, have warned consumers of dangerous criminals on the lam, lurking outside our neighborhood grocery stores or their children’s schools. The FBI and police departments throughout the country, the public are told, are doing everything they can to catch The Bad Guys — they just need a little help from concerned, responsible, and vigilant citizens like you.
Nima: Cue the calls to action imploring people to submit tips through hotlines, law enforcement websites, and social media. But what are the effects of this model, and how effective, really, is it? How does it shape the ways in which the American public understands crime? And why, after all of the scholarship documenting how police do little to make us more safe, does this vigilante television addiction persist?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine how news and pop cultural media deputizes and urges listeners, readers, and viewers to act as neighborhood vigilantes. We’ll study how this instills a climate of constant, unnecessary fear; presents the current US and criminal legal system as the only option to reduce crime; excludes crimes against the poor and working class like wage theft, food and housing insecurity, and lack of healthcare; and inflicts unjust harm upon the subjects of these anonymous tips.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by writer and journalist Tana Ganeva. Her reporting on criminal justice, drug policy, immigration and politics has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Intercept, The Appeal, Vice, The Nation and The New Republic.
Tana Ganeva: A good citizen that’s helping keep communities safe and that’s what you are. It is just so funny, it’s time travel from the 1980s, so shocking that that’s still the spiel of organizations like this. You know, here we are berating Karens for calling the cops, they’re the most reviled character ever, and then, in this other world, people are like call, report anyone that is between the ages of 18 and 25 and Black.
Adam: So yeah, as we oftentimes say, on the show, in fact, I think we get mocked for it all the time, but I’m gonna do it anyway because I really don’t care what people say on Twitter about me —
Nima: We’re starting the new year off by doing all the tropes.
Adam: I read them all, they all bother me. By the way, any podcast or any low tier, ‘f-this,’ semi-public figure like me who says they don’t read, they read them, they read them all. They read all the comments, all the reviews, everything, and it upsets them. If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying.
Nima: It either brightens their day or hurts their heart.
Adam: It only hurts my heart. So this is a spiritual successor to Episode 97: Porch Pirate Panic and the Paranoid Racism of Snitch Apps, which are these kinds of vigilante apps. There’s one side of the equation we didn’t talk about that we’ve always wanted to get to, I’m excited to get to it today, which is the use of Crime Stoppers on national TV and shows like America’s Most Wanted, and other vigilante television shows that, for want of a better term, empower the viewer, deputize the viewer to view themselves as someone who’s going to go to their local Jewel-Osco when they go by their bacon burgers, and they’re kind of pushing the cart around before they go home and watch Netflix, they’re going to kind of look around and see if they see anybody they recognize from the latest episode.
Nima: “That five o’clock shadow looks familiar.”
Adam: Yeah, and this kind of sense that we’re all out snooping and looking for bad guys, it has been such a pervasive cultural product of how we’ve perceived crime for so many decades, and of course, it really reached its zenith in the ’80s and ’90s, that we really wanted to go into the history of this and the sort of propaganda externalities of this, although they’re probably not externalities, they’re probably the kind of point of it, as well as the efficacy, which we will contest as you would probably imagine in this episode, so I’m excited to get into it.
Nima: Now of course, there is always historical precedent, right Adam? Informants and vigilantes, cops and criminals, these stretch back through millennia to ancient worlds, to Judas, and of course from the medieval period to the early 19th century, English criminal justice relied on severe legislation to deter crime and a small body of officials to enforce the law. This was before official police forces. Hundreds of capital statutes, most of them for property crime, were passed by the British monarchy to dissuade offenders from breaking the law in the first place, most upon pain of death. These so-called “bloody codes” ranged from sheep stealing, forgery and petty theft to poaching burglary, all the way up to murder.
Now arrest and prosecution, the so-called maintenance of law and order, were primarily individual and private affairs unconnected to the state. Justices of the Peace had been in existence since 1361, appointed by the Crown, and were widely disregarded as effective due to rampant corruption. Companies and communities hired night watchmen; local constables were unpaid and part-time.
But by the 17th century, a crop of unofficial policemen, known then as ‘Thief Takers’, sprang up around London. Seizing the opportunities afforded by the British government publicly offering rewards for the citizen arrest of wanted people, the Thief-Takers would capture suspected criminals for money and negotiate deals in order to return stolen goods to private owners.
The rising crime rate in London prompted the government to increase the rewards on offer to around £100 for the arrest of a highwayman, someone who robbed travelers, often on horseback. The increase was considerable from the £40 offered in 1692 for the conviction of such a criminal. Now, the result was predictable, even more private thief-takers operating around London, because they could make more money doing so, rather than the intended consequence of incentivizing victims to prosecute the person who had carried out the crime.
At the same time, during the 17th and 18th centuries, crime literature became increasingly popular throughout England, with accounts of capital crimes and speeches made at trials published as lurid entertainment for an expanding readership. The rise of daily newspapers opened up opportunities for people who had property stolen to essentially broadcast the theft in print and offer rewards for its return, attracting the attention of these thief-takers. Perhaps the most notorious thief-taker was Jonathan Wild, whose corruption was well-known. He ran a gang of thieves, they often kept the goods that they had retrieved that has already been stolen so they re-stole them, they waited for the crime and theft to be announced in the newspapers before springing into action. Now, as far back as 1714, Wild was advertising his own pawn brokerage in newspapers such as London’s Daily Courant to encourage thieves to bring their stolen goods to him, which he then turned around, gave back to their owners for the reward.
Now, as the population and urbanization expanded in England in the 18th century, critics of the society’s lawlessness argued that this system of a severe criminal code coupled with limited local law enforcement was inadequate. A leader among these critics was Henry Fielding, chief magistrate at Bow Street magistrate’s court in London. And yes, that’s the same Henry Fielding who wrote the famous English novel Tom Jones. The year it was published, 1749, Fielding and his half-brother John, also a magistrate, established a small group of six semi-professional police officers to apprehend criminals.
As noted in Patrick Pringle’s 1955 book, Hue and Cry: The Story of Henry and John Fielding and Bow Street Runners, he wrote this, quote:
In the winter of 1748–49 the newspapers had plenty of crime to report. ‘Not only pickpockets, but street-robbers and highwaymen, are grown to a great pitch of insolence at this time, robbing in gangs, defying authority, and often rescuing their companions and carrying them off in triumph,’ the London Magazine reported.
Adam: The original flashmob.
Nima: Exactly. Now, operating out of 4 Bow Street, where Fielding’s magistrate court was located, this semi-official police force became known to others as the “Bow Street Runners,” publicizing their services with Fielding’s coined motto: ‘quick notice and sudden pursuit’.
Adam: In 1751, Fielding wrote a pamphlet called An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, which argued that local policing and victim prosecution were insufficient for the needs of the growing metropolis. By 1753, the British government came around to Fielding’s way of thinking, lamenting the expenditure of too much money in rewards with no apparent decrease in the crime rates.
Fielding appealed for state funding to both pay his Bow Street officers for full-time work and also, perhaps even more importantly, to advertise in newspapers and printed pamphlets the activity of the Bow Street office and to encourage private citizens to report crimes and provide information about offenders; initially the advertisements would be published in the Public Advertiser, a paper in which the Fielding brothers had invested. So they obviously had a personal investment in lurid tales of crime.
Before Fielding’s published advertisements appealing to Londoners to report burglaries and robberies to Bow Street, the public gave no thought of reporting these types of crimes to the police. Fielding even started a journal called the Covent Garden Journal, containing information about criminals and their activity, and requesting public assistance in apprehending thieves.
Nima: So London newspapers started carrying news of crimes reported, they used to run copy about so-called reexaminations that Fielding would hold, you know, every Wednesday and then it would give the newspapers copy for the next few days talking about the crimes that had been committed, what had been said in court. As Fielding started to hold these reexaminations from October 1772, he also made sure that the information that was shared during these kind of show trials were included on the front page of the Monday edition of the thrice weekly London newspaper, The London Packet, or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, and then he just started doing it himself in a newspaper he started himself called The Hue and Cry. So this idea of intimately including the public in crime reporting, in encouraging others to do the work of law enforcement is nothing new. We have seen this for a very, very long time.
Adam: Yeah, basically since the rise of popular printing presses, a major social function and economic driver of newspapers has been the solicitation of rewards for outstanding crimes both real and fake. Which brings us to our next iteration of this trope, which is the publishing of US slave patrols in American magazines. A great deal of revenue of newspapers in both the north and the south came from selling ads soliciting the public to search for runaway slaves. From Arlene Balkansky’s 2019 article on runaway slave ads we have a runaway slave ad from the Columbus Democrat of Columbus, Mississippi. It’s got a picture of a, a somewhat crude picture of a slave and it reads:
From the subscriber near Clinton Greene County, Alabama, my negro boy named Fagans, who is heavy built, about five feet eight or ten inches high, near thirty five years old, has a heavy black beard, large and long forehead, thin visage, a remarkable long sharp nose, and having lost one of his front teeth. Any person who will catch the above described boy, and return him or give us any information, shall be liberally rewarded.
These were very common, we don’t need to read all of them, but they were pretty much a major backbone and economic driver of publications. This is a logical extension of what Fielding established in Britain, that they were going to use mass media to effectively deputize the media consumer to sort of look out for these perceived bad guys, whether or not they’re actually guilty, what the circumstances of their being on the lam is, or what any kind of false positives may exist be damned.
Nima: Right, lurid crime reporting leads to a very engaged public, which leads us to what is now known as the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list. Now I’m sure everyone has seen these, but to give this media phenomenon its proper historical context, we need to really kind of look back a little bit to the FBI in the mid-20th century.
Now, the FBI debuted its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1950, as the Bureau’s power was growing in the wake of World War II, and obviously under the leadership of its director J. Edgar Hoover. Now, Hoover is of course known for his efforts to destroy any and all Black liberation, communist, and anti-imperialist movements: overseeing COINTELPRO, declaring the Black Panther Party the, quote, “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” being at the helm of the FBI when it sent a letter to Martin Luther King telling him to kill himself. The list goes on and on.
Now, the official story of the genesis of the Most Wanted Fugitives list is that in the late 1940s, William Hutchinson, a reporter for the Washington Daily News, asked the FBI for the names and descriptions of the quote “toughest guys” the FBI then sought to capture. The result was a February 1949 article in the Washington Daily News with the headline, quote, “FBI’s ‘Most Wanted Fugitives’ Named,” and this front page will come as no surprise, it bold print “most wanted” and then it has ten different headshots, and little blurbs about all the so-called fugitives that the FBI was then hoping to capture.
Adam: The FBI claims that the article generated so much publicity that J. Edgar Hoover implemented the ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ program, which would regularly publicize the people being targeted, using post offices, town halls, news and radio programs. The list originally focused on property crimes; through the 1950s, it mainly consisted of bank robbers, burglars, and car thieves. Then, as the FBI’s own website states, quote:
Once into the radical 1960s, the list reflected the revolutionaries of the times with destruction of Government property, sabotage, and kidnapping dominating the list. During the 1970s, with the FBI’s concentration on organized crime and terrorism, the ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ included many fugitives with organized crime ties or links to terrorist groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, the list included sexual predators, international terrorists, and drug traffickers. This emphasis, along with crimes against children, white collar crime, and gang violence, continues today.
And would you believe, of course, that a not-insignificant amount of these “terrorists” were left-wing, especially in the 1970s. The list included former Communist Party USA leader and Black Panther Party member Angela Davis. That same year had the most people listed at one time–16–when six members of the Weather Underground were added for “acts of domestic terrorism.” Former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur was added to the “Most Wanted Terrorists” list in 2013, based only on speculative claims: FBI agent Barbara Woodruff explained in 2014 that “Back in the ’70s when the BLA were more active, they were looked at as part of an internal security investigation that eventually would have morphed into domestic security or domestic terrorism.”
Nima: Yeah, so it was such a successful media gambit that the FBI turned it into this regular thing that they started pumping out to the public, and of course, to the press. Now, similar efforts to recruit viewers to report crimes was happening simultaneously in 1960s Europe using the medium of television. Now, one of the first programs dedicated to this concept was the UK’s Police 5, a five-minute crime report initially used to fill a gap in its network’s programming schedule, interstitial programming. It’s host, Shaw Taylor, would summarize local instances of crime, often, again, property crimes like petty theft and robbery, and exhort viewers to quote “Keep ’em peeled” — referring, of course, to their eyes.
Now this is from a 1987 edition of Police 5:
Shaw Taylor: Finally to a crime that is on the increase and carries a word of warning to shopkeepers who hire out video cameras. For a comparatively small deposit thieves are hiring video cameras under a false name and address and obviously, not returning them. This gentleman gave a false name and address, and was fleetingly caught on camera. Fleetingly, but perhaps just long enough for someone watching to be able to tell Chichester detectives who he is. Certainly his shirt was outstanding. If you can put a name to him, give them a ring on that same number 024378 4433 and they were set about finding him and the Philips camcorder that he hired. And incidentally a tip for hires, video cameras which I learned from a shop in Gillingham, and that is they always say to the customer, please may I point the camera at you and take a shot of you just in case. If the customer is genuine, they say sure, fine, go ahead. If not, and they still have the picture taken, we always have Police 5 to assist in recovering the camera. Hope you’ll give me your company next week as usual. Until then, bye bye.
Now, to this day, Police 5 is celebrated in Western press. According to a 2015 obituary of Shaw Taylor in the Guardian, quote:
Within two weeks it was obvious that Police 5 and Taylor were going to be a successful combination. Two of the three cases covered in the first programme were solved as a result of information supplied by viewers: a stolen car used as a getaway vehicle was recovered, and abandoned baby twins were returned to their parents. The show became regular, greatly lengthened, and offshoot programmes were established in other regions…it was a breakthrough in criminology.
Adam: It didn’t take long before the show’s model was exported elsewhere in Europe. German TV presenter Eduard Zimmermann, who reportedly survived in part on petty theft and black market trading earlier in his life, hosted a Police 5-inspired show whose title Vorsicht, Falle! — it translates in English to Watch Out — Trap! The show, which premiered around 1964, depicted scenarios in which people fell prey to swindlers and gave viewers advice on how to avoid these situations.
In 1967, Zimmermann went on to host a show whose title roughly translates in English to File Reference XY … Unsolved. The show featured dramatizations of real-life unsolved cases and, like Police 5, urged viewers to submit information via a dedicated hotline. The show’s set even featured a PBS-telethon-style room in which operators in the back took calls from viewers.
The BBC adapted File Reference XY into a series called Crimewatch, which was broadcast in 1984. Crimewatch featured presentations from and interviews with police and forensic scientists explaining how they use evidence and imploring people to submit tips. We explored how much of this “evidence” is based on junk science in Episode 94: The Goofy Pseudoscience Copaganda of TV Forensics.
Nima: Here’s a clip from the BBC adaptation:
Man: Hello, and welcome to Crimewatch UK. Now, if you’ve ever worried or complained about crime, this is your chance to do something about it. The police can never solve crime on their own, of course, at least not in a country that demands the sort of liberties that we expect. They can act only on information received. So we’re going to ask you to turn amateur detective and help out the professionals. This is about real life crime, not the stuff of fiction. These are all real police officers, they’re all waiting for your call. Everything you see in this program will be for real or meticulously reconstructed from the facts.
Woman: You may find some details disturbing, but they’ll only be there if it’s necessary evidence that could make all the difference in solving a crime, and if you see anything tonight that jogs your memory, please call us. We hope to see immediate results.
Adam: Yeah, so we have again, there’s the sense that you’re being empowered. There’s all this crime, which of course, you know, back in the ’60s and ’70s, was much higher than it is today, both in UK and in the United States, and there’s this idea that there’s this crime run rampid, and of course, you can do something about it, you’re empowered and you can help the police.
Nima: And you must help the police because the reason that they can’t do their job is because people are so damn free. The liberties we enjoy are used as this call to arms, for us to live in a free society like this we all need to also be cops.
Adam: Right so cut back the United States around the same time, by the mid 1970s, Crime Stoppers was founded. Its origins go something roughly like this: in Albuquerque, New Mexico detective Greg MacAleese was struggling to find leads in a local murder case. According to the organization, Crime Stoppers, MacAleese partnered with a local TV station to raise a reward fund and film a reenactment of the crime. Viewers were given a phone number they could call anonymously with information on the case and receive the reward if their information — this part is crucial — led to an arrest.
Crime Stoppers, which describes itself as, quote, “a partnership between the Community, the Media, and Law Enforcement,” claims that one of the first calls to the program resulted in the arrest of three men within 72 hours, who had been involved in the homicide of the young college student that had occurred 4 months earlier and boasts, quote, “an average conviction rate of approximately 95% on cases solved by a tip to the program.” That’s almost certainly bullshit.
The Houston chapter was founded by newscaster David Ward. So we’re gonna listen to a clip of David Ward, for those who grew up in Houston in the ’80s and ’90s, you know what we’re talking about here, just you and me. Everyone else doesn’t get it. David Ward, god he was at ABC News forever. We’re gonna listen to a clip of him from 1987 in one of the earlier broadcasts of Crime Stoppers involving a reenactment, which of course, you can’t see, but you can hear it, and it’s got some Oscar worthy performances.
Dave Ward: In south and southeast Houston robberies of Hispanic women are on the increase and a growing concern of the Houston Police Department. On May 9 of this year, a 35-year-old woman was walking in the 3800 block of Lovejoy Street when two men in a car pulled up.
Man: Do you know where this street’s at?
Woman: I don’t know. (Scream)
Dave Ward: He grabbed the woman first, jumped in the car and sped away. Suspect described as an Hispanic male, 30 to 35 years old, around five feet seven inches tall, weighing around 145 pounds. He has short straight black hair. These same two men are believed to have committed some 15 robberies since April 1 of this year, and all have occurred in the same manner. Previous vehicles used been described as a 1977 blue or white Ford Granada or a 1975 to ’77 green or green and white large model Ford or Chevrolet. Most of the robberies have occurred in the south central and southeast part of the city and they usually take place on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday between 11am and 8pm.
Adam: Okay, so here we have a Latino male with slicked back hair, who may or may not drive a white or green or blue car, who robs people between 11am and 8pm —
Nima: On weekends.
Adam: In the southwest or south central side of the city. So that pretty much describes like 20 percent of Houston.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: This, of course is one of the problems you’ll see with these kind of vigilante setups is that they are an invitation for racial profiling by definition.
Nima: Crime Stoppers now has about 20,000 chapters across the United States that relay their anonymous crime tips to police. By the early ’80s, as Crime Stoppers was growing, a climate of fear and panic was cropping up on TV throughout the country of course.
In 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted and murdered; Walsh was the son of John Walsh, who would later go on to host America’s Most Wanted. The event, which followed multiple other high-profile child-abduction stories, was dramatized in the 1983 made-for-TV movie Adam. Now, at the end of the movie, photographs of dozens of missing children were shown, along with a national hotline number to call with information on any of their abductions. The movie was broadcast to a reported audience of 38 million people, and the next year, John Walsh and his wife Revé would found the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, complete with an opening ceremony at the Reagan White House.
Now, when the movie Adam re-aired in 1985, the photo series was accompanied by voiceover from Ronald Reagan himself stating, “maybe your eyes can help bring them home.” A sequel, Adam: His Song Continues, followed the next year in 1986, also concluding with a photo montage and hotline number.
Now, these abduction stories were of course horrific, but they were also part of a media campaign that instilled a mass sense of paranoia — famously known as Stranger Danger — that children were constantly in harm’s way. A 1985 article in the Denver Post stated that advocates had greatly inflated the numbers of missing children each year. 95 percent of missing children reports, it added, were for runaways, and most runaways returned home within three days. Most of the rest were children abducted in parental custody disputes — meaning by people they knew.
Karen Anne Joe Laidler, a research fellow at the state attorney general’s office in the 1980s, told Jezebel reporter Rich Juzwiak that, quote, “In the early 1980s, Reagan took on the presidency, and much of his campaign was to a) rebuild and strengthen the American family, and b) get tough on crime. As part of this push… there were many calls to ‘save the children’ in legislative discussions.” End quote.
Adam: Yeah. In the last year of Reagan’s presidency, the aforementioned America’s Most Wanted, hosted by John Walsh, premiered in 1988. The idea for the show was first suggested by an aide to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox, after the aide had seen programs such as Crimewatch on European television. Not coincidentally, the similarly themed Unsolved Mysteries premiered the year before on NBC.
The show featured extended lurid, schlocky reenactments of situations leading to the supposed crimes — and the supposed crimes themselves — meant to terrify. The reenactments were interspersed with on-camera interviews with cops and FBI officials and Walsh’s creepy voiceover narration. Each episode included photographs or artist renderings of the alleged fugitives, and a hotline number for viewers to call with tips. The show used the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list as its primary source material and cultivated a thoroughly close relationship with the FBI from the beginning.
A pertinent episode from 1989 gives background on the political turmoil of the 1960s and condemns a number of left-wing movements of various stripes, including the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Puerto Rican independence group FALN. In it, John Walsh interviews a high-ranking FBI member who characterizes these groups as terrorists, which we’re going to listen to right now.
John Walsh: Though many demonstrated peacefully to change the system, others used terror and violence to achieve their own ends. Among the most violent were the Weathermen, the SDS, the Black Panthers, and the FALN, a radical Puerto Rican separatist group blamed for a series of bombings and attacks on US military bases. Four fugitives on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List are a product of those troubled times. Buck Revell is Associate Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Buck Revell: John, terrorism is violent crime committed for a political purpose. The four Top 10 fugitives that you’re profiling tonight, all belong to organizations that use terrorism for those purposes.
John Walsh: Buck, the political climate in America has changed. Those men and women we’re about to profile, are they still really a threat?
Buck Revell: Yes they are. Those organizations the El Rukns, the FALN, the Macheteros are all connected, not only domestically but to international terrorist organizations. The El Rukns were dealing directly with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the FALN and the Macheteros have been connected to Cuban intelligence.
John Walsh: Well, let’s review their cases now.
Nima: In a 2010 interview with Geraldo Rivera, America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh explained how the show sought to portray cops favorably and forged a symbiotic relationship with the FBI. Let’s listen to that.
Geraldo Rivera: Who’s gonna watch this show?
John Walsh: Just the question you asked me ten minutes ago, was, will law enforcement support it? The relationship with the media is not a good one. Cops don’t really trust the media, because it’s always about the bad cop. It’s always the Rodney King issue. It’s not the paralyzed cop, not the hundred and so cops that have been killed in line of duty. It’s always about the brutal cop. Will cops work with his show? Will anybody ever call because people do not want to get involved? Americans aren’t famous for my god, ‘I’m going to be brought into that courtroom.’ ‘Somebody is going to kill me.’ ‘There’ll be retaliation.’ ‘I’ll be in a trial forever.’ ‘No one’s going to protect me.’ Wouldn’t you know it, William Sessions, the first director of the FBI said, ‘I will do a press conference before the show airs. I know you, John, I’ve seen you testify. For us and against us.’ After Adam’s murder the FBI refused to get involved in Adam’s murder and the FBI opposed the missing children’s bill, and that was on record. I was a big critic of the FBI, and when President Reagan signed that bill, the FBI had come out and opposed the missing children’s bill. Simply forcing the FBI to get involved in cases of missing children. Director Sessions said, ‘That’s all bygones, you know, that’s all water over the dam, we’re going to support you, and I’m going to have a press conference with you and I’m going to support this television program. The FBI does not have any good history with the media. We don’t partner up with the media, but I will have that press conference and I will never forget it.’
Adam: From the beginning, the point of the show was to work with and to help burnish the reputation of the FBI and police in general. Walsh repeatedly argued that cops got a bad reputation because of the Rodney King beating, and that in many ways he viewed America’s Most Wanted as part of an effort to, you know, of course it had been on air for two or three years before the beating, but that its run subsequently was largely about helping protect the reputations of the police and the FBI.
Nima: America’s Most Wanted was basically an appendage of the FBI. The FBI assigned several agents to serve as liaisons between the program and the Bureau and the FBI director William Sessions appeared on the May 29, 1988 program to announce three additions to the 10 Most Wanted List, which was obviously used as a primary source for the show’s dramatizations. Now a New York Times article about the show from September 25, 1988, quotes Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau as another ardent supporter of America’s Most Wanted, and he says this, quote:
‘If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I’m all for it,’ says Morgenthau. ‘Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or F.B.I. agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.’
Adam: So yeah, so they got they got in the war and terror bandwagon. So here’s a promo that Joe Buck read during the October 2001 World Series between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, which again would be funny if it wasn’t really bleak, but we’re going to listen to it, I think we’ve listened to the show before.
Nima: Yeah, we’re bringing this one back. Joe Buck has a permanent residence.
Adam: Yeah, Joe Buck reading this dreary ad copy is worth listening to again.
Joe Buck: This Friday, you can join them in their quest for justice. The White House has asked John Walsh and America’s Most Wanted to air a special broadcast to help take down the world’s top 22 terrorists starting with Osama bin Laden. Fox is proud to bring you a special edition of America’s Most Wanted: Terrorists this Friday 9 Eastern, 8 Central right here on Fox.
Nima: (Laughs.) That’s so bleak.
Adam: So America’s Most Wanted has been canceled and brought back a couple times after it returned to air again in March of 2021, again on Fox. Variety ran a headline in March 2021 that said, quote, “‘America’s Most Wanted’ Viewer Tip Leads to 1,187th Capture (EXCLUSIVE),” which rings some red flags for me. So the number has grown since March of 2021 to supposedly 1,190 as of April 2021. The number of episodes that have aired as of that month, April 2021, was 1,095. This means there’s been allegedly an average of 1.09 captures per episode?
Nima: That’s right. More than one per episode. (Laughs.)
Adam: Right, and each episode features one to three stories, usually three, which have been extremely high quote-unquote capture rate. Julianne, our associate producer, emailed them a couple times asking them to verify these numbers and asking them what the criteria for capture was, because “capture” is a very kind of slippery term. It’s unclear if it’s supposed to be an arrest or conviction or if they just kind of captured some random guy. So if we’re to assume that each episode features three cases, and there’s a list of roughly 3,285 names, yielding a clearance rate of 27.6 percent at the lowest, just from a single television show. For reference, FBI offers numbers for its 2018 clearance rates source from cities universities, college, county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies, and their clearance rate for rape and robbery are roughly 30 to 33 percent, murder is higher at 62 percent, burglary is 13 percent, larceny is 18 percent, and motor vehicle theft is only 13 percent. This would put America’s Most Wanted well within the range of the clearance rate of actual police departments, again, this is their claim that the show itself captured these people. So the capture rate would be comparable to that of the actual police. Making matters more confusing, raw numbers from America’s Most Wanted, they don’t have any qualitative, they don’t answer any qualitative questions about issues like parallel construction, false convictions, or police claiming they use anonymous tips when they actually sourced information illegally, or submitted tips themselves. So it’s common for police historically, for those who don’t know, if you look at a lot of wrongful conviction cases, pretty much pick one at random, very often what you’ll see is that they obtained evidence through illegal or quasi legal means, unconstitutional means, but they need a way of later getting in front of a judge and saying, ‘Well, this is why and how we knew where to search for something else.’ So the cops will say they had an anonymous tip, they’ll launder it through an anonymous tip to hide the fact that they’ve obtained information through either illegal or legally dubious means.
So when we asked them for questions about, where did 1,095, I mean, a clearance rate of almost 30 percent, that would be huge, again, that’s a minimum, it’s somewhere closer to 35 percent if you actually average out the number of shows themselves, that would be, for a show for each case, for one in three cases that they put on air they solve?
Adam: And they didn’t get back to our inquiry because that seems high. I mean, I’m sure it’s happened, right? I mean, it’s a show, people watch it, but I mean, what’s their viewership, a couple million? Because, again, they don’t say it has led to the conviction of or even arrest of, they say “capture,” which is sort of an interesting sort of marketing term. There’s been little inquiry, no press has ever actually asked America’s Most Wanted about how they come up with these numbers, or what their success rate, or more importantly, you know, for our purposes, you know, what is the number of false positives they’ve had, something that America’s Most Wanted has never really addressed or responded to, they have been asked that before. The people you feature on here, for the most part, are suspects that police quote-unquote, “suspects,” the police say did X or Y, how many of those, obviously police get that wrong quite a bit, so how many of those people have been featured on the show with their names, faces, who were not guilty, or it was a mistake or some kind of malice on the part of police or corruption. That’s never come up, never been an issue, not been an issue they’ve ever addressed publicly.
Nima: Now, amid the celebrations in news media and the massive platforms given to Crime Stoppers, America’s Most Wanted and the like, the effects of this vigilante-recruitment model often go largely unscrutinized. As our guest today, Tana Ganeva, reported in her comprehensive profile of Crime Stoppers, published by The New Republic in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, on October 29, 2021, Crime Stoppers has been legally enabled to coerce defendants to pay the organization a fee, which can then go toward the reward fund for future tips leading to an arrest. This is what Tana writes:
Texas law dictates that felony defendants pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers as a condition of their parole, even if the organization had nothing to do with the reason they went to prison. Failure to pay that fine can send them right back to jail. Texas is not alone in this. At least seven other states charge defendants a fee that goes to their local Crime Stoppers: Louisiana, New York, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Indiana.
Now, there’s also a low likelihood that the anonymous tips submitted will go through proper vetting and filtering procedures. According to Ganeva’s reporting, police commonly use anonymous tips as the basis for search warrants. In one case in New York City, police arrested three men after receiving confidential tips that they had guns. The men spent a year awaiting trial, before it was ultimately revealed that police not only planted the guns but possibly also submitted the tips.
Adam: Crime Stoppers also encourages viewers to submit tips about petty crimes — always suspected! — suspected drug dealing, suspected petty theft, and evading cops. Videos from Crime Stoppers USA with dramatizations of anonymous callers submitting tips which we are going to listen to right now.
Man: Tip line, can I ask you what crime you’re calling to report?
Woman: I think my neighbor is dealing drugs on the corner. Uh, this is a family neighborhood.
Man: We understand. Let me get some information from you and I’ll assign you a completely anonymous ID number and we’ll see if your information qualifies you for a cash reward.
Woman: And you’re sure he won’t know it’s me?
Man: 100 percent sure, he’ll never know you called.
Adam: Yeah, they have an anonymous voice distortion, you get to randomly accuse someone of being a drug dealer without any evidence or accountability, and then the cops will go sick on them.
Nima: To be clear, the big reveal in the video that we just listened to the voice is that of, you know, a Karen, a generic white woman’s voice, but then the image of the anonymous tipster at the end is revealed to be a Black man, thus encouraging people to use the Crime Stoppers system because it can be confidently anonymized.
Adam: Yeah, so it’s a classic kind of reversal, where the Black guy is reporting a bunch of white drug dealers to let you know that don’t worry, this is not a racist vigilante mechanism, it’s actually about getting drug dealers who look like Ashton Kutcher off the streets. Crime Stoppers has since pivoted to a kind of full blown pro-cop lobbying organization as of late, they’re repeatedly referred to as kind of neutral objective authorities on crime, and they spend a lot of time quite aggressively opposing bail reform. KPRC 2 in Houston interview Crime Stoppers CEO Rania Mankarious in opposition to bail reform, and we’re going to listen to this clip here. It’s from November of 2021.
Man: At least that’s rising to a level where there’s more information coming out. When you talk about how many defendants who’ve been released on bond and are committing crimes when they’re out.
Rania Mankarious: Yeah.
Man: That’s something that you have as a routine for Crime Stoppers really pointed out, okay, here’s another person who might have been injured or killed by somebody who was out on bail.
Rania Mankarious: 153 people we’ve just added the last person, were at 118 since 2020 alone, when you have community members calling us and saying, ‘We were literally followed home, we were held at gunpoint in our garage, our children were tied up, a family member was shot in the face just driving home from a restaurant evening, what’s going on?’ We’re going to say what’s going on. And again, for us, there’s no political agenda. We’re not trying to keep a seat, you know, anywhere. So we just want to tell the truth. We want people to understand. We’re now having community meetings, we’re going to people’s homes, we’re doing them once to twice a week. We had 180 people at a church in Houston last Monday. People want to know, and it’s also important to clarify when people say, you know, the mayor has got to stop releasing, allowing these judges to release people, wait a minute, the mayor has nothing to do with this, you know, or the DA has to stop releasing people on bond. Well, that’s not the DAs role. So there’s been a lot of civics in what we’re doing now.
Adam: Yeah. So of course, 100 percent of people who say they don’t have a political agenda, of course, have a political agenda. Her political agenda, like all Crime Stoppers, is to promote a police narrative that crime is lurking everywhere coming to kill you, stab you, rape you, murder you to justify higher police budgets and to give the impression that they’re out there solving crimes and to sort of empower people into thinking they’re helping them do so.
Adam: You know, to watch them go from this this ostensibly neutral, I guess, crime fighting or public safety organization, to basically doing a Tucker Carlson routine and demagoguing crime and scaring the shit out of old white people on these local news stations that they themselves have built relationships with for years, just basically vomiting out police blotters with descriptions of suspects a Black male, aged 20 to 75, between five feet two and seven feet tall, ‘If you see this Black guy call us, we’ll go stop his car in Houston traffic.’
Now America’s Most Wanted and programming like it, they often relied on, and continue to rely on, assumptions about what a suspect may look like or where a suspect may be. Segments often show an image of a suspect’s assumed current appearance, provided by FBI quote “computer imaging experts” and vague, speculative warnings that a suspect may have lost or gain weight — which I always think is hilarious — grown or shaved facial hair or they wear their hair in a quote “variety of styles,” in order to evade capture. They also include vague statements about activities a suspect participates in, like, quote, “Authorities say he likes to gamble and may ‘frequent casinos or gaming events,’” making it all too likely that a viewer will identify the wrong person when submitting information.
And while there isn’t much readily available data about false arrests and convictions that have come from this vigilante-recruitment model of television, there’s plenty of history to draw from that tells us how dangerous it is. What often goes unexamined in this type of programming, Nima, and news coverage of its success quote-unquote “capture” rates, is the prevalence of false convictions from the FBI. Potentially tens of thousands of cases handled by the FBI have relied on pseudoscientific and unreliable identification methods. In July 2013, the FBI admitted that a technique called “hair comparison evidence,” which its agents had used in hundreds of criminal cases nationwide and in the training of state-based detectives potentially through tens of thousands of other cases, was scientifically invalid.
This is to say nothing of the FBI’s history of manufacturing ISIS plots and other kind of terror plots which we covered in Episode 31: Fake ISIS Plots and the Selling of Forever War, to sell the allusion that ISIS was hiding under our bed at all times.
And, finally, as we explored in Episode 142: The Summer of Anti-BLM Backlash & How Concepts of ‘Crime’ Were Shaped By the Propertied Class, “crime” here is never defined in such a way that the ruling class can ever be featured on these shows.
Adam: As we discussed earlier, wage theft, homelessness, all the kind of bleeding-heart left-wing bullshit we give you all the time, none of that’s ever featured on America’s Most Wanted. No white-collar crime, no wage theft.
Nima: This slumlord is never the “Most Wanted.”
Adam: Yeah, the slumlord with the faulty heater that burns 17 people, they’re never going to be featured on America’s Most Wanted, it’s a very specific genre of quote-unquote “crime” that is specific to those not wealthy.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by writer and journalist Tana Ganeva. Her reporting on criminal justice, drug policy, immigration and politics has been featured in places like Rolling Stone, The Intercept, The Appeal, Vice, The Nation and The New Republic. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by writer and journalist Tana Ganeva. Tana, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Tana Ganeva: Thank you for having me.
Adam: So you wrote about the seedy and exploitative underbelly of the so-called Crime Stoppers world, something people see a million times a day, though, you know, 180 by 180, grainy, pixelated video of a random Black guy from a 7-Eleven security camera, and we’re, we’re told to go look for a Black male between the ages of 12 and 85 who may be driving a car that may be blue or red, and may or may not have two legs and breathe oxygen. So we discussed the sort of history and problems with this largely based on much of your research, because there’s something one of those things that just goes uncriticized and unanalyzed, and you note specifically how it’s a regressive tax on defendants that props up some of these institutions. I want to talk about who funds it, we discussed its origins earlier, I want to talk about who funds it, why they fund it, and I think most importantly, what type of quote-unquote “crime” is centered in this kind of vigilante Crime Stopper framework?
Tana Ganeva: Yeah, well, in terms of the funders, you know, not the exploited defendants that have to pay them fees, but the rich people that largely prop them up, it’s real estate interests, generally random rich people in Texas, but also something that’s interesting is that there’s a very unsurprisingly, but unethically, there’s a really close relationship between the DAs office and the Crime Stoppers organizations. So Kim Ogg, who is the DA currently in Houston, used to be the head of Crime Stoppers, and quite recently, she announced, you know, to great fanfare that she was giving Crime Stoppers half a million bucks, drawn from what she called “dirty money.” So basically, asset forfeiture.
Nima: Yeah. Can you kind of talk about the feedback loop between how people accused of crimes often have to pay back into the Crime Stoppers network?
Tana Ganeva: Yeah. So with a particular chapter of Crime Stoppers that I focused on, which again, is one of the most powerful ones, well, you know, they have a lot of money. It’s court mandated that all felony defendants have to pay Crime Stoppers a $50 fee, even if Crime Stoppers had absolutely nothing to do with their case, and I think we’re all familiar with court fees that people have to pay and having to pay for the privilege of getting an ankle bracelet strapped to you, but in theory, at least, those fees can be justified by saying like, ‘Oh, they’re recouping the cost to the state.’ In this case, it’s a private nonprofit, why the hell are they taking $50 from poor people, especially when they’re so flush with cash? I mean, I mentioned in the piece that these people bring in almost $2 million in revenue every year. So it’s extra egregious that they also need to suck up money from poor people. That’s basically how that works.
Nima: And it’s not like that, you know, millions of dollars goes into the so-called rewards that people get, because even that’s in the hundreds of thousands, which, I mean, seems high also, but it’s like there’s a real profit motive there.
Tana Ganeva: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, there’s a profit motive for them to lobby against bail reform, which they have done so heavily. It’s funny, if you look at their alleged data, there’s almost no evidence of Crime Stoppers being integral to a very serious crime being solved.
Adam: Yeah. Is there any sense that this actually solves crimes or does it do similar to what we talked about at the top of the show? What is the nature of false positives and how often is it used? To put it crudely, and I know, this is difficult to tell, but I permit you, I know you’re a journalist and not a hack pundit like we are, but you know, I want you to indulge me in a little bit of speculation. Is there any sense of how much this is used as a smokescreen for parallel construction, because I know that pretty much every case where cops violate the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, name it — Third Amendment, they put a British soldier at the house — tell me, you know, I know that parallel construction and bogus anonymous tips are how they kind of cover their tracks and this kind of seems like an invitation to do that, because basically, what it does is it creates a situation where every major case has a ton of tips. Do you have any sense of if that’s something that’s an incentive here?
Tana Ganeva: Well, I mean, first of all, after I wrote the story, I had multiple defense attorneys from around the country contact me and say that they had clients completely screwed over by law enforcement stemming from a Crime Stoppers tip. Again, they have no data. I sent them 900 requests, and they never replied, and then after the story was published, one of their main Twitter people yelled at me for not getting a comment.
Adam: Oh, they always do that. Yeah.
Tana Ganeva: They always do that. Oh, cool.
Adam: Cops always do that.
Tana Ganeva: Yeah.
Adam: ‘Well, if you had asked us,’ it’s like, here are the 75 emails I sent you.
Tana Ganeva: Yeah, exactly. So yeah. So I don’t know how many people call in, for the most part, I don’t know, I mean, would you ever call? I imagine a paranoid old lady calling in or something. I actually don’t know if they get a million tips. I know they turn everything over to the police. So I imagine, I mean, if they were like swamping police with ten trillion totally pointless leads that the relationship between cops and Crime Stoppers wouldn’t be quite as cozy, right? They would just see them as like the fucking pranks. But there have been cases like in New York, there were three different men were held in pretrial detention for close to a year because some cops not only unconstitutionally used a Crime Stoppers tip to pursue the man on gun charges, but it’s pretty much known that the cops actually called in the fake tips themselves.
Adam: Yeah, that’s something that happens. Cops will call in their own tip.
Nima: It’s like the Cheney Iraq War feedback loop.
Adam: But every single case of parallel construction there is always a bullshit tip. They either make up the tip or they have their buddy do it, because it’s how they justify why they looked at X place.
Nima: And then there’s a paper trail.
Adam: Because the lead actually came from something from a poison tree.
Tana Ganeva: Well, I mean, also, I was actually just completely unrelatedly looking at this case of this guy who was accused of murdering a pet store clerk or something and robbing her when he was 15 and the way the law enforcement targeting him unfolded is one of his classmates in junior high heard about the $5,000 reward, which was doubled by the governor, and then called in Crime Stoppers and was like, ‘Oh, I know who did this, there was this guy, I saw him do it,’ or whatever. Obviously, he wasn’t going to get arrested based on that alone, but he gave the police enough leeway to talk to his acquaintances and friends, one of his friends that was with him on the day of the killing, somehow the prosecutors threatened him with the death penalty unless he gave false testimony. So anyway, this 15-year-old kid gets life in prison plus 20 years, because a junior high school girl falsely reported him to get the money. I mean, he spent like 30 years in prison, he was exonerated, maybe in 2012, or something.
Nima: Jesus. Yeah.
Adam: There’s the issue, which we’ve talked about, again, at the top of the show, that it is in many ways an invitation for racial profiling, almost by definition. So I’m going to read you the very, very first Crime Stoppers segment that Dave Ward aired in 1987. Here was the description he gave, the very first one, “Hispanic male 30 to 35 years old, 5’ 6’ to 5’ 7” 145 pounds, short straight black hair.” Anyone who spent any time in Houston can tell you, that’s like a third of the population.
Adam: I mean, what am I supposed to do with that information and this is something that — Black suspect between the ages of 25 and 30 — it’s like, what does this achieve other than just, again, mindless racial profiling and sowing a constant state of suspicion.
Tana Ganeva: As far as the racial profiling too it’s like, if the next step is a lineup, and then detectives already kind of know who they kind of want it to be, you know, there’s so many instances of mistaken witness identification, in large part because of the subtle to not so subtle coercive forces that both detectives and prosecutors use.
Adam: Yeah, you know, if the guy’s got like a swastika tattoo on his forehead, maybe that’s useful information.
Adam: But these vague racial and age descriptors are effectively useless.
Nima: Right. Brownish person in the vicinity of the city.
Adam: Yeah, that’s like 20 percent of Houston.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Tana Ganeva: If you think about it rhetorically, you know, they thunder dramatically ‘Black male age, blah, blah, blah,’ and then, you know, probably to have some blurry footage of somebody and he’s darting around looking shady, but yeah, it means that there’s something about their shows and the kind of drama and their style where you could see somebody being sucked into it and wanting to be a part of it, and you know, Adam, and you guys are interested in this concept of snitch culture and stuff, and it’s like, for the Crime Stoppers thing to work nobody likes snitches, right? They have to kind of reconfigure that character as a citizen, a good citizen that’s like helping keep communities safe, and that’s what you are, and it’s just so funny, it’s time travel from the 1980s, so shocking that that’s still the spiel of organizations like this. You know, here we are, berating Karens for calling the cops, they’re like the most reviled character ever, and then, in this other world, people are like, call, report anyone that is between the ages of 18 and 25 and Black.
Adam: Yeah, in some ways, it’s a prequel to the Nextdoor, Amazon, Nest, paranoid apps, right? It’s the sort of proto version of the more sophisticated —
Nima: Right. It’s like the telephone tip line version of the digital.
Adam: Yeah, yeah, I know that a mid-December Amazon filed a patent, and I know patents are speculative, but they filed a patent for basically syncing all Ring cameras in a neighborhood to try to spot suspicious looking people and reporting that to the neighborhood patrol, neighborhood patrols typically being a bastion of racial justice. So I, you know, I think it’s not the first informant culture, right? Lots of other countries have had very sophisticated informant cultures. This is just a version of that. But I know increasingly, Crime Stoppers has not even, have sort of shredded the pretense of being this kind of apolitical law enforcement mechanism, but it’s now increasingly involved in directly lobbying for certain policies specifically, again, I’m sure it’ll be a jaw dropping revelation to everyone listening, against bail reform, they are funded by the same forces and work with the same forces that oppose bail reform. Can you talk about how they’ve gotten more overtly politicized and how much they in many ways are very similar to police unions?
Tana Ganeva: I mean, they just lobby politicians and lawmakers and do lots and lots of media events that fearmonger about crime and present themselves as an absolutely essential part of the solution, and yeah, I mean, you know, I think it’s no secret that we’re seeing a massive, massive backlash to criminal reform right now, at every level, which is funny, because no criminal reform actually really even happened, but there’s still somehow a backlash to it. So I mean, they’re increasing engagement in political life, you know, I, you know, I talked to a couple of public defenders there, they weren’t excited that their clients have to pay them a fee, but they were really, really pissed that in the past few years, they’ve crossed over into active political lobbying because before then they have ostensibly existed apolitically, right? Which wasn’t too hard. It’s like both Democrats and Republicans were pretty much the same about crime policy in the ’80s and ’90s and now, so yeah they’re actively actively lobbying against bail reform, and that just cynical, shady way where they will take a violent crime and then ghoulishly dig into it to try to somehow blame it on reform or on a progressive DA.
Adam: Yeah, but of course, especially in Houston, these things don’t even exist.
Tana Ganeva: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, it’s just so cynical, and especially with this particular organization, where it’s obviously so profit driven and driven by the need to be seen as this very essential part of the community, and protecting the interests of the rich people that fund that, it’s just so annoying, too, because like, it’s not actually 900-year-old Dave Ward running the organization, right? Their CEO, I think, is in her early 40s and so they’re really good at parroting back the right kind of language. So you know, they’re not like, ‘Straighten everyone up, you know, who ever committed shoplifting.’ They’re like, you know, ‘We believe in the balance between serious reform, but maintaining community safety,’ you know, the, the CEO totally has this girlboss vibe, where she’s, ‘As a mother and a CEO like I care about,’ the whole thing, just when I was thinking about it, I was like, wow, this is such an anachronism. We’re mad at stupid white people for calling the police for no reason and then this whole alternate universe exists where this is presented as community service rather than snitching but it’s actually very much of its time because it exists in this moment of backlash where people seem willing to believe any kind of bullshit propaganda about rising crime rates, the rise in violent crime and, you know, trying to scapegoat the allegedly, ‘the progressive prosecutors that have taken over every branch of state and federal government.’
Nima: Right, and have so much power.
Tana Ganeva: And have so much power. Yeah, it’s like three guys, they all have this avalanche of money thrown in campaigns against them. And yeah.
Nima: It’s such a great point to make that if there’s a decrease in crime, there’s not as much crime to then stop, which means Crime Stoppers is going to lose its purchase and like how this pro-police, police are our heroes, you’re the hero, you’re a helpful concern citizen, but it all leads to pro-carceral solutions. But it relies on the fact that not only is crime everywhere, let alone what we hear now surging, you know, regardless of whether it being true or not, but it’s not that crime is everywhere, it’s that criminals are everywhere, that they’re all lurking around you and we need your help to rid your community of these bad seeds.
Tana Ganeva: Yeah, absolutely.
Nima: Something I’d love to get your take on, which is how Crime Stoppers and, you know, you’re talking about how it was of its time at a certain time, and now seems very much of this time, but how does it fit in with the pop culture obsession with cops, especially the TV versions of cops from say Dragnet in the ’50s to, as you’ve written about in your piece, Law and Order, or NYPD Blue, Chicago PD, that kind of TV cop version, and how does Crime Stoppers, which is always aligned with say nightly news broadcasts, how does it bring that into the reality of people’s lives?
Tana Ganeva: I mean, yeah, as far as ungodly marriage between the drama if it bleeds, it leads news and stuff like that and the extra dramatization of America’s Most Wanted, like the movie-ness of it in a sense does almost draw people into being in their favorite cop show. Its interesting, something I think is really interesting about media and like so-called copaganda is that Cops was cancelled recently, if you watch it now you’re like, what the fuck, how is this so popular?
Adam: It has been brought back.
Tana Ganeva: Oh, it is being? Oh, okay.
Adam: So is Live PD, there was a 10-minute window where people acted like they cared about racism.
Tana Ganeva: That’s fair, yeah.
Adam: It’s over now. Don’t you know that that’s in the past?
Tana Ganeva: It’s been solved, so it’s fine. Okay, well, it was very briefly canceled, but what I was gonna say is that nothing has taken down Law and Order SVU, I don’t know, robots are going to be watching it 500 years from now, it’s such a successful franchise and it presents a romantic vision of good and bad and good guys and bad guys, criminals and victims, and I think that’s why it’s still going strong, even during the height of criticism of police culture and stuff and in the protests.
Tana Ganeva: If you look at CAP stat is a really good database that tracks lawsuits against the NYPD, special victims units, there’s one special victims unit in each borough, and they each have like five employees, and then if you look at narcotics or the gang units or anti-crime it’s like 70 people including undercovers. Yeah, that is basically a fairy tale about police priorities and police resources.
Nima: You know, I think this whole romanticized vision is so important. Everyone gets to be like the informant on the other line, but in a good way. Deep Throat, right?
Adam: Yeah, because it’s all about stoking ego, because here’s the deal, maybe in some secondary or tertiary way, they care about maybe getting tips to solve crimes, but the primary goal is to have Crime Stoppers run on every single network nightly news and scary old white people. I mean, that’s the goal is to scare old white people, its to have the creepy sketch artist with the high cheekbones who looks like an alien, the fucking, just rotating images of faceless Black people you’re supposed to be scared of all day, every day beamed directly into your fucking skull. That’s the goal. Everything else is gravy.
Tana Ganeva: Yeah, you’re getting pumped full of ridiculous terror, constantly watching Fox News, but also like in this version of that you get to have some agency because damn, you can.
Adam: Right, you feel empowered.
Tana Ganeva: Yeah.
Adam: Yeah, and then you turn into George Zimmerman, you run around with a gun to try to find the bad guys.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: Just now, Bucktown in Chicago has started a community patrol. I mean, there’s two instances of retail crime and then they activate the vigilantes. I mean, it’s just, there’s nothing more American than paranoid vigilantes. With The New York Times we call a racial tinge to it. We don’t want to call it racist, racial tension, I believe they used to describe DeSantis in Florida, they use the term “racial stumbles.”
Nima: Right. He had some racial stumbles.
Adam: Racial stumbles.
Nima: Racially associated stumbles. Well, before we let you go, Tana, tell us a little bit about what you are currently working on, maybe some new reporting that people can look forward to, without of course, betraying anything.
Tana Ganeva: Oh, yeah. Let’s see. Well, I’m working on something for New York Focus about the NYPD plainclothes unit.
Adam: It’s back.
Tana Ganeva: It’s back. Yeah, it’s back. I’m doing something about how somehow there’s still no Narcan in jails and people keep dying. A longer project about habitual offender laws. Yeah, and then also kind of try to get a book together, but that’s hard.
Nima: Yes, I am impressed by anyone that even embarks on writing a book.
Tana Ganeva: Also I’ve failed, but yeah.
Nima: Well, I’m sure we could look forward to that. But no, this has been so great. We have been speaking with writer and journalist Tana Ganeva. You can find her reporting on criminal justice, drug policy, immigration and politics everywhere from Rolling Stone, Washington Post, The Intercept, The Appeal, Vice, The Nation and The New Republic, Daily Beast and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Tana, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Tana Ganeva: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: I mean, yeah, look, it’s something we’ve talked about a lot in the show, when you track actual crime rates with perceptions of crime around the late ’90s, there’s this huge gap that, I mean, literally, crime begins to crater down, it’s gone up a little bit lately, but you know, for years, for almost 30 years, the perception kept going up every year or remaining roughly the same, and it almost never goes down whereas the actual crime kept going down and there are people who wonder like, why is that? Now of course you have your Law and Orders, your murder shows your violent true crime podcasts, all that stuff kind of leads to a constant white noise of fear, but I do think the vigilante television shows and nightly news, because if you ever watched nightly news, it’s like the darkest thing ever.
Nima: Well, nightly news is basically just like all Crime Stoppers all the time.
Adam: It’s all police blotter shit and cop press releases, but this idea that like, here’s this horrific thing you’ve seen happen, you feel powerless to do anything about it, right? Someone’s been raped or murdered and not only that, they’re going to come find you because they’re wanted, they’re on the lam, they’re out.
Nima: Right, they are on the loose.
Adam: And how that just sows such disproportionate amount of fear in people because crime is extremely localized, but the way we cover crime is nationalized, and so you’ll see this, Sinclair does this a lot with local news coverage, they’ll have some horrific, you know, murder, like, you know, three kids killed by this guy or whatever, and then you look at the fine print this is a local news broadcast. You look at the fine print it’s like, oh, this happened in Tampa, not Chicago.
Nima: Right. But like, you’ll be hearing about it.
Adam: Well, right, because it’s so horrific and Sinclair has hundreds of television stations and knows that it’s going to be salacious and going to promote, you know, a sort of conservative agenda. Most people looking at that wouldn’t know that that was in Tampa, like most people look at these brutal murders that are aired on America’s Most Wanted, and they even think, ‘Well, this, you know, this could happen here.’ And of course, this is kind of localized version of this, the local news, the local Crime Stoppers, it takes people who feel powerless in places, that kind of vague powerlessness with the constant state that they’re vigilant, that they’re vigilantes, they’re going to be looking everywhere for these bad guys, and there’s eventually in the aggregate, that’s going to take a toll on people’s perceptions of crime. I don’t want to belittle it, it’s not as if these things aren’t serious. Of course they are. There’s just no proportionality. There’s no sense, and again, like we’ve talked about it to death, I won’t do it again, Nima, but our very perceptions of what crime is are informed by this.
Nima: Right. And so it turns everyone not only into a vector of fear, right, as you said, not only can this happen here, but it’s coming for us, it’s coming for my family, for my kids, but instead of just feeling powerless, you get to be emboldened, you get to be deputized, as we’ve been saying, because you’re constantly told that you are part of the solution as well.
Adam: And it’s an attractive offer, because we don’t have a lot of control in our lives, and when you’re recruited into these, these kinds of narratives, and you know, when Joe Buck tells us four weeks after 9/11, when there’s still hot, heaping ash in ground zero, that you can help find these terrorists by giving us grainy, 140 pixelated video of some Arab guy, clearly you’re not going to find that terrorist, obviously, no terrorists on that list were found by the show. It’s absurd, right?
Nima: It’s just going to make everyone look suspicious, which is actually the end goal of all of this.
Adam: Maybe maybe around the margins they probably want to catch criminals, bad guys or whatever. Sure. I’m sure they kind of do.
Nima: Well, sure, of course, but there really is a surveillance state and suspicion index here that gets elevated by all of these shows and I think that it’s so kind of ingrained into us at this point that it just seems natural. It seems like the local news exists to promote fear. I know that’s nothing new to our listeners or to the show or to anyone who pays attention to media, that’s been said forever, but it really does take a toll. It really does build this perception consistently and on purpose that not only are cops the solution, but you can be your own kind of cop, which then in turn, if you hear about say defunding police or putting resources elsewhere, you’re like, ‘Wait, but they need that so that I can also help them,’ because now you’re implicated in it, you’re part of this law enforcement system as well. You are the eyes and ears where they can’t get to because you’re constantly told that you are.
Adam: Right. And you’re not because crime is a social failure. It’s not due to a lack of vigilance on the part of Joe Blow six-pack.
Nima: Right. So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed, our first of 2022. Again, Happy New Year everyone, we are thrilled to be back, we will be back very soon with all new episodes, so stay tuned for those. Of course, until then, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do consider becoming a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 2, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.