Cops Need the Vigilante

"I'll minimize the "vigilante" stuff in the press; tell them it's creeps killing creeps. Nobody cares, anyhow. It'll be just like before, Mr. Vigilante. With one important difference: you're gonna work for me."
Inspector Richard Shriker, Death Wish 3

In first world countries, cops have rules. They're not allowed to beat a confession out of you or ransack your home on a whim or throw you in prison for months and wait for a confession. There's also a great deal of paperwork. A By-the-Book Cop follows these rules scrupulously, a Cowboy Cop just breaks them. A lot of cops get annoyed by them.

Private citizens, though of course bound by the law, aren't bound by the rules cops have to follow. A lot of cop shows/movies like to throw a cop and a civilian together so that the civilian can work around the annoying rules and the cop can nab the bad guy officially. Unless he just shoots him, possibly when he takes the civilian hostage.

In truth, it doesn't matter if you're getting a paycheck, if you're working on behalf of the state you're a state agent. That is to say, a cop can't ask you to do what he's not allowed to do.

There are two different ways this can go. If a cop asks someone to do something he can't the law has been broken, the evidence is inadmissible, and everyone walks away with egg on their faces; fiction typically ignores this except to ratchet up the tension. If the cop didn't ask, but gets an unexpected windfall, then the law was still broken, but many jurisdictions will still allow the evidence (providing it can be authenticated).

Related is Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee when the cop "accidentally" helps the other party.

Compare Recruiting the Criminal and Boxed Crook. See also Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work and Vigilante Man.


Examples:

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     Comic Books 
  • Comic books play this every which way. Batman is perhaps the worst offender. He is, and always has been, more or less a de facto agent of the Gotham PD. That they have the Bat-Signal up on the roof confirms that. Therefore pretty much everything he does is entirely illegal, as it contravenes all the rules of evidence gathering, chain of custody, interrogation, etc. Some recent series have gotten more sophisticated, going so far as to actually get this right (Batman is an agent of the police and therefore this is inadmissible, or Batman is entirely unconfirmed and you can't prove there's any contact making this very murky but admissible, for example), though some have gotten it wrong while trying to be clever (no, bringing in a bureaucrat whose only job is to turn on the Bat-Signal doesn't make it okay because the bureaucrat is acting as an agent of the police which makes Batman an agent of the police). Learn more here.
  • Blacksad: Commissioner Smirnov gives Blacksad free reign to avenge Natalia's death after he tried to investigate her murder through the official channels but was quickly shut down when it got too high up. After Blacksad kills the wealthy businessman responsible for the murder in a Vigilante Execution, Smirnov even covers for him by lying right in front of the two employees who saw Blacksad carry out the act.

     Film 
  • 48 Hrs. and Another 48 Hrs. are at least honest in that the guy breaking the rules is an actual criminal. Still, the case would get thrown right the hell out.
  • Beverly Hills Cop (I'm sensing a trend here, Mr. Murphy) does this, too, in a funny way. Detective Axel Foley isn't a cop in Beverly Hills. His antics are amusing, but illegal.
  • Death Wish 3: The Captain of the local police precinct gives Paul Kersey carte blanche to do whatever it takes to eliminate the criminal gang that is terrorizing the town (because crime rates overall are high enough that the police's hands are tied, and this has given the gang the idea that they have free reign to perform said terrorizing).
  • The Dukes of Hazzard movie actually did this mostly right. The Duke cousins all broke the law, but they did so not only without permission, but in the face of police antagonism.
  • The Dark Knight. While officially maintaining the fiction that Batman is a wanted vigilante, the Gotham P.D is openly working with him, even bringing in Batman to conduct a violent interrogation of the Joker while the detectives look on. However by the end of the movie this changes when Batman takes the blame for the death of Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon is shown smashing up the Bat Signal with an axe.

     Live Action Television 
  • Angel: The series mostly skirted this issue, as Angel Investigations tended to stick with demonic activity (though the fact is the law probably wouldn't particularly care that the murderer was an immortal demonic entity). They tended to operate without police sanction, but they were called in by Detective Lockley a few times.
  • Barney Miller
    • In "The Vigilante", a vigilante pops up when the 12th Precinct is too overworked to reach all their calls. It turns out to be an elderly immigrant who's otherwise a good citizen, just one taking exception to people getting mugged in his neighborhood. The squad gives him a warning, but when they hear that someone of his description is at it again they modify all the descriptors just enough before putting out an APB.
    • Played more darkly with Bruno Binder, who puts up posters offering money to people who kill criminals in the act. When recurring character Cotterman and another store owner do take a shot at a criminal (though not for the reward), both are horrorstruck to learn that one of them is guilty of taking a life.
  • Bones: The show is particularly terrible about this. Agent Booth will tell Dr. Brennan to step in in the middle of an interrogation if a suspect lawyers up. She dives in and steals evidence right in front of him. The entire team colludes to hide that one of their own tampered with evidence in an investigation he should have recused himself from. They have to have the worst record of any team ever for case closure.
  • Burn Notice: The show is at least honest that their main characters are all criminals. Good guys, but criminals nevertheless. As the police never ask for their help (the CIA is another matter), this should actually pass muster.
  • Castle: The series both acknowledges that Rick Castle is an agent of the police and that his actions routinely screw the pooch. Good job, ABC!
  • Marvel's Netflix shows show that the NYPD has to adapt to the arrival of all of these new superpowered freaks, some of whom they're allied with and some with whom they're enemies.
    • Daredevil sees Matt Murdock, as Daredevil, develop an uneasy secret alliance with Sgt. Brett Mahoney. Ultimately, in season 1, Matt's role as Daredevil was necessary given how many of Hell's Kitchen's cops were in Wilson Fisk's pocket. By season 2, Brett is not too fond of the alliance, even nearly arresting Matt on a couple of occasions. In one scene, Brett mentions to Foggy and Karen that the NYPD rank and file are split on their views of vigilantes like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the Punisher. Some cops see the vigilantes as making their jobs much easier, but others think they're just making the issue worse. Brett is in the latter category, explicitly saying in "Penny and Dime" that just because Matt stopped Wilson Fisk doesn't put him and the NYPD on the same side. Later in the episode, when Brett and his partner roll up on Matt and Frank Castle in the cemetery, Matt persuades Brett to take all the credit for the Punisher's arrest and not make any mention of Daredevil's presence at the scene.
      Matt Murdock: Take the collar. Take the credit. Get a promotion, if you can. You've earned it.
      Brett Mahoney: Bullshit.
      Matt Murdock: No, people have to know the system works. Not his justice and not mine. Vigilante days are done in this town. The police are in charge.
      Brett Mahoney: That's not how it happened.
      Matt Murdock: Then make it how it happened.
    • Luke Cage: Misty Knight is an NYPD Detective, and after Luke hits Cottonmouth's main stash house at Crispus Attucks, she and Rafael Scarfe briefly discuss whether or not "gifted" people like Luke Cage are a boon for the NYPD or a thorn in their side. Scarfe is a Dirty Cop on Cottonmouth's payroll, but he celebrates a Vigilante Man helping cops out when years of investigation have no payoff, especially when crime bosses like Wilson Fisk and Cottonmouth have cops and government officials on their payroll and "gifted" people exist everywhere. Misty, though, believes vigilantes (especially superpowered ones) are dangerous and should not be left untouched, and has a very adversarial relationship with Luke. The show goes to great lengths to show that both sides make good cases: the NYPD are sometimes in way over their heads and gifted vigilantes can really be a boon for them. However, since Luke Cage has a code against killing, at some point he's going to need the system again or else the criminals he beats up will just come back. This is best highlighted in the final episode: Diamondback is taken off the streets, but Misty's only witness against Mariah Dillard got killed by Shades because no one trusted the system enough to make sure she was protected.
  • Dollhouse: The Dollhouse is once hired to assist a DEA operation. As the Dollhouse is already an illegal entity, everyone involved is up front about the iffy nature of this operation.
  • Fringe: The pilot brings us Peter Bishop walking into an interrogation room after Agent Dunham walks out so that he can torture information out of a suspect.
  • Kamen Rider Drive: This is part of the dynamic between Shinnosuke (Drive) and Gou (Mach). Shinnosuke is a cop and (especially once his Secret Identity is exposed) has to do his superheroing by the book, while Gou is a civilian who even points out how useful he can be.
  • Law & Order: This franchise, with its passion for legal truthiness, was typically careful about this. Cops weren't allowed to break the rules and neither was anyone else. When someone did break a rule, it usually meant the DA's office had to tap dance on quicksand to keep the perp from getting away with it.
  • In New Tricks, the retired cops sometimes take advantage of the fact that they are no longer official police to do things they could not do if they were still on the force. While they can still expect official censure, it will generally be light if their actions resulted in an arrest.
  • NYPD Blue has one episode that applies reality to such a scenario. A civilian comes to the cops with evidence that another man is an active pedophile. They met while in an "ageplay" online group and the civilian pretended to be a little girl interested in sex. To get the other guy hot, our civilian sent him some child porn. The cops tell the civilian that not only was that planting evidence, he just confessed to the cops that he had child porn to send to someone else.
  • Psych: Shawn usually commits about two dozen serious infractions solving every one of his cases. He usually gets called on it by the people he works with. Only once did it actually screw up a case.
  • White Collar: The series plays with this, as the FBI know the crook-of-the-week is operating out of a warehouse, but they do not have a warrant. So convicted felon Neil Caffrey, who works as a consultant, simply runs to the warehouse and he is taken inside by the guards- where the FBI then tracks him using his monitoring bracelet, the FBI can use probable cause to go inside. This follows under the heading of "an agent of the police can't do what the cops can't do". That said, Neil's handler tells him if he tries this stunt again, he will be back in jail.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Traveller adventure The Argon Gambit. Part of Grant's plan is to have the PCs arrested by the local police after they've broken into Kashkanun's villa and stolen some documents. The police don't have enough evidence to get a search warrant for the villa, but if the documents are seized in the course of an arrest they will become valid evidence.

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    Visual Novel 

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