Follow TV Tropes


Cops Need the Vigilante

Go To

Ingrid Block: I always hoped the law would catch up with him.
Elliot Stabler: The law doesn't always guarantee justice.
Ingrid Block: But this time, I did.

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. The cop might also help the civilian out of any legal trouble he gets into.

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.note 


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, Boxed Crook and Vigilante Injustice. See also Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work and Vigilante Man.



    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga 
  • In Codename: Sailor V (of which Sailor Moon is a spin-off), much of Tokyo's police treat Sailor V as their saviour due a combination of being the only one who can deal with the mysterious attacks on civilians and being well on the way to arrest every single criminal in Minato Ward (and at one point she does, getting even the panty thieves), and treat Wakagi as a weirdo for his insistence they should instead do their jobs and arrest Sailor V for vigilantism. As for Superintendent-General (the chief of Tokyo's police) Natsuna Sakurada, she has ordered to bring Sailor V in for questioning... Because she's actually a fan and wants to recruit her.

     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.
    • This was deconstructed in one storyline: Batman: No Man's Land. After a massive earthquake devastates Gotham and the US Government declares it to be "No Man's Land", various gangs end up claiming territories for themselves. The Gotham PD themselves become such a gang, the Blue Boys, with Jim Gordan at the head, egged on by Petit to be more ruthless, and causing him to resent Batman for seemingly abandoning them in their time of need. Another officer questions why Gordon is really that mad at Batman, and Gordon's wife Sarah explains that he initially tried to leave Gotham and join another Police Department, but was laughed out of all of them since he's considered incompetent for relying on a costumed vigilante, resenting Batman for making him look like a fool, and his forces now never mentioning him by name, instead of calling him "The B". When Batman returns and claims Scarface's territory as his own, Gordon just sees him as another enemy, with even Batman's attempt at revealing his identity to regain trust failing since Gordon refuses to look at his face. Gordon doesn't manage to get much done on his own, however, relying on an alliance with Two-Face that quickly turns sour, Petit breaking off and forming his own gang after Gordon doesn't go far enough, nearly gets killed by David Cain only being saved thanks to Cassandra, and capped off with The Joker killing Sarah right before NML was lifted.
  • 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.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe:
    • In the Disney Ducks Comic Universe, including Paperinik New Adventures, Duckburg's police department knows they can't deal with the far too numerous criminals without Paperinik's help, though the exact relationship may vary with the story: while Paperinik is never an official member or associate of the police, the cops in the streets tend to look the other way, while the brass either condones such actions or try and get him arrested. And the one time cops on the ground openly asked for Paperinik's help against orders of a chief of the police (actually a criminal in disguise who wanted to get rid of Paperinik) to not work with him at all, the judge had to let all thieves arrested by Paperinik that night go.
    • Occasionally, especially in the earlier years where Paperinik tended to live up to his title of Devilish Avenger, even the cops on the ground would try and arrest him on sight... Invariably leading to failure, humiliation, and sometimes pain for whoever was stupid enough to try and arrest Paperinik, leading to the unspoken reason the cops on the street usually let Paperinik do his thing: they know they can't beat him, so they let Paperinik free to beat up criminals and leave them for the police to arrest so they have at least something to show.

  • 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, this changes by the end of the movie when Batman takes the blame for the death of Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon is shown smashing up the Bat Signal with an axe.
  • Man on Fire: Although they never directly interact, Detective Manzano is fully aware that Creasy is carving a bloody path through the Mexican underworld and accomplishing more in a week than he could in a lifetime. After keeping tabs on Creasy's progress throughout the movie, Manzano personally takes care of the main villain after Creasy sacrifices himself to save Pita.
  • Discussed in The Amazing Spider-Man. When Peter has dinner with Gwen's family, discussion turns to Captain Stacy's pursuit of Spider-Man. Peter tries to point out that he thinks Spider-Man is trying to help, but Captain Stacy is firmly convinced Spider-Man is a danger and points out that he's targeting criminals who all look the same, "like he's got some personal vendetta," not to mention his actions have interfered with long-term police stings.
    George Stacy: He's an amateur who's assaulting civilians in the dead of night. He's clumsy, he leaves clues, but...he's still dangerous.
    Peter Parker: He's—he's assaulting people? I'm not sure. I mean, I saw that video with him and the car thief, and...I-I think most people would say that he was providing a public service.
    George Stacy: Most people would be wrong. If I wanted the car thief off the street, he'd already be off the street.
    Peter Parker: So why wasn't he then?
    George Stacy: Let me illuminate you. See, the car thief was leading us to the people who run the entire operation. It's been a six-month-long sting. It's called "strategy", I'm sure you're aware of the term "strategy"? You've probably heard about that in school?
    Peter Parker: Okay. Well obviously, he didn't have a plan.
    George Stacy: Deep d-you seem to know an awful lot about this case. You know something we don't know? I mean, whose side are you on here?
    Peter Parker: I'm not on anyone's side. I saw a video on the Internet-
    Peter Parker: Well, no, I'm just saying if you watch the video, maybe I send you the link, it looks like he's trying to help-
    George Stacy: Yeah sure on the Internet, he's been made to look like some kind of masked hero or something.
    Peter Parker: No-no-no, I'm not saying he's a hero, I don't think he's a hero at all.
    George Stacy: What are you trying to say?
    Peter Parker: I'm saying he's trying to help, but he looks like he's trying to do something that maybe the police can't.
    George Stacy: Something the police can't?
    Peter Parker: I dunno-
    • Both undergo Character Development, with Captain Stacy realizing that, with things like The Lizard running around, there are things Spider-Man can do that the police can't, and Peter realizing that Spider-Man needs to be more than just a way to avenge his uncle's murder.
  • Nothing but Trouble: A Played for Horror reveal: the state police knows perfectly well that J.P. Valkenheiser is a murderous Hanging Judge and not only do nothing about it but send him criminals to get rid of covertly. Chris and Diane discover this while surrounded by the army of cops that came to "arrest" the Judge after they first escaped and the Judge himself all acting chummy, and the massive collapse of Valkenvania happens just in time to interrupt what seemed to be our heroes being murdered to silence them.
  • Miss Meadows: Implied by Mike's actions throughout the film and especially the ending, as Miss Meadows is able to eliminate criminals whom there's no evidence against.

     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 (2015): In seasons 1 and 2, Matt Murdock, as Daredevil, develops 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.
    • In season 3, Daredevil's necessity is made clear as the FBI agents that are supposedly guarding Wilson Fisk are actually secretly working for him. Once Ray Nadeem realizes that Dex is the fake Daredevil that Fisk hired to attack the Bulletin, he and Matt team up to break into Dex's apartment to investigate. Later on, after Nadeem finds out that his boss and the rest of his colleagues are also in Fisk's pocket, he continues corresponding with Matt. Matt ultimately trusts Nadeem enough that when Nadeem goes rogue, and Matt rescues him and his family from assassins Fisk sends to their house to kill them, he unmasks himself as a show of gratitude. Then Matt and Foggy rep Nadeem as he decides to testify against Fisk.
    • Luke Cage (2016): 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 they can pay to quash investigations into their criminal activities, 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.
      • In season 2, the events of The Defenders (2017) have left Misty more trusting of Luke, to the point she's his sidekick at several points as they investigate leads on Bushmaster since she doesn't trust her police colleagues (especially considering that her boss Captain Thomas Ridenhour is stonewalling her investigations into Mariah, ostensibly to protect her as he was her high school sweetheart and confidant).
  • Dexter: Zigzagged. Dexter is a legitimate agent of the police (albeit a lab technician, so he does not have the authority to arrest anyone) whose nighttime activities as a Serial-Killer Killer are beneath notice by the rest of the department. When Dexter himself becomes a target of the FBI after a mass grave of his victims' corpses are discovered, most of his colleagues are quick to denounce the "Bay Harbor Butcher" and his one-man war on crime. Later, when Dexter was going after the Barrel Girl Gang, a group of criminals who raped and murdered numerous young women, Debra walked in on him in the middle of his kill ritual after he and Lumen, one of the gang's would-be victims, captured their leader. Dexter and Lumen were concealed behind a sheet of plastic, but Debra just said that she was going to let them get away with it because their victims were just that horrible.
  • Dollhouse: The Dollhouse is once hired to assist a DEA operation. As the Dollhouse is already an illegal entity, everyone involved is upfront about the iffy nature of this operation.
  • Elementary: Sherlock and Joan regularly break into suspect's homes and other property in order to gain or simply secure evidence for the NYPD. Sherlock even states that little things like the 4th amendment don't apply to them, since they're "only consultants". Except they are on the NYPD payroll, thus bound by all the constitutional requirements that entails.
  • The Arrowverse plays both sides of this:
    • In The Flash (2014), the cops really are out of their depth dealing with metahumans, which is demonstrated in Season 1 (when the Reverse-Flash casually takes down a roomful of heavily-armed cops) and in Season 2 (when Zoom slaughters a dozen cops in a split-second and sends an army of Earth-2's metahumans to wreak havoc on Earth-1's Central City). While the Flash is technically a vigilante, he's such a beloved hero that this is simply ignored. The Flash often delivers metahumans to the cops without mention of any legal issues, and the Flash's team has helped the cops without their knowledge by providing them power-containment technology through their civilian identities.
    • In Arrow, it's brought up several times that vigilantes taking care of criminals is making the cops look bad and has a negative effect on morale. Legally, the city varies between trying to ignore the vigilantes to actively hunting them. This usually depends on whether or not a villain is framing them at the moment. In Season 7, Team Arrow is even legally incorporated into the Star City Police Department (though making this work in practice is shown to be rather difficult).
    • In Supergirl (2015), regular cops really can't do much about aliens and metahumans. The DEO, on the other hand, is more equipped to handle some of the threats. Still, without Supergirl, National City (and probably all of Earth-38) would have fallen long ago. Of course, the DEO is an official government organization and Supergirl an on-the-books agent, making this more a case of cops needing federal help.
    • Legends of Tomorrow zig-zags this in Season 3 with the introduction of the Time Bureau. While they do an excellent job sorting through the mess created by the Legends at the end of Season 2, their arrogance does, occasionally, result in them screwing up, forcing the Legends to step in and resolve the issue (hopefully, without making the problem worse). The Legends are semi-official agents; at the very least, the Bureau has agreed to stop actively trying to arrest them.
  • 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.
  • Knight Rider: This is explicitly the premise, with the Foundation for Law and Government targeting dirty law enforcement and unethical corporations. Subverted in that Michael Knight is a former law enforcement officer who knows where to draw the line, and Knight and FLAG do call in the state police or FBI when they have enough evidence to bring charges.
  • 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. This was occasionally taken to the opposite extreme: there were several episodes where civilians obtained evidence illegally through no fault of the police, and it was suppressed anyway.
  • Generally averted in Lucifer, especially in the early episodes, where Lucifer was more concerned about punishing the guilty (i.e. his day job). He typically does that by briefly revealing his true face to the killer, oftentimes resulting in them being committed to a mental hospital. In one episode, though, a cop killer ends up getting a Not Guilty verdict, so one of the detectives contacts The Mafiya and tells them that the killer beheaded one of their own, who was about to testify against him. It's not pretty what the Mafiya ends up doing to the killer.
  • 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.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Non-cop example, but Sisko frequently involves Garak for this purpose.
    • "The Way of the Warrior": When Sisko is under orders not to disclose a piece of information to the Cardassian government, he calls Garak into the wardroom to "measure him for a new suit" and then openly discusses the situation with the other senior staff, tacitly signalling Garak to report it to his government.
    • "In the Pale Moonlight": Basically the entire episode. Sisko gets Garak to help him with the war effort through a little extortion, forgery, and murder.
  • 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.
  • Wonder Woman (2011 pilot): Wonder Woman is basically an illegal police liason, being allowed to interrogate suspects, pursue her own investigation, and when Detective Indelicato points out that he and his fellow officers cannot actually bust the villainess' drug lab because they do not yet have enough evidence for a warrant, Wonder Woman immediately breaks in so they will have an excuse to do so.

     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.
  • When a Shadowrun team is hired for some kind of illegal work, there's always a chance that the Johnson hiring them is working for the police - not as a sting operation against the runners, but in order to gather information or evidence that they can't legally go after themselves. There's also "avenging angel" contracts, where Lone Star hires a shadowrunner team to do in a crook who got Off on a Technicality or who they otherwise can't touch.

     Video Games 
  • In Fallout: New Vegas, the quest "Silus Treatment" has Lt. Boyd recruit the Courier to help her interrogate Silus, a captured Centurion because NCR law prevents the torture of prisoners. One option you have is to just beat Silas into revealing information.
  • This sums up the Kaneshiro arc in Persona 5. A Tokyo Yakuza boss has been lording over the city, extorting and blackmailing high-schoolers into smuggling drugs or even prostitution, and the police haven't been making progress. While the cops don't directly contact the protagonists, the one who puts them up to the job is the sister of a Public Prosecutor on the case, figuring that the Phantom Thieves' methods may be the only way to take Kaneshiro down. Part of the reason the Phantom Thieves are on-board is to prove to the public they only target criminals and aren't entirely opposed to law enforcement. Since everyone they targeted before was a Villain with Good Publicity, the public was still sceptical of their intentions.
  • Sly 2: Band of Thieves: Neyla gives Sly several leads, with the justification that she can't follow them up herself, as she lacks sufficient evidence for a warrant, whereas "a thief like you can go wherever he pleases". Cleverly, it turns out that Neyla's willingness to bend the law really should have been a red flag.
  • Spider-Man (PS4): Spider-Man actively works with the cops at various points, and Captain Yuri Watanabe doesn't discourage him from raising a ruckus at the Kingpin's various bases because they give her a reasonable justification to arrest them. After solving certain crimes involving Mr. Negative's Demons, a cop remarks that he would have originally arrested Spidey for vigilantism, but they need all the help they can get.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution: A side mission sees ex-cop Adam Jensen recruited by one of his former colleagues to help with a case. Though there is some lip service paid to the fact that they're "bending the rules" and "have to be careful how we handle this," Jensen is perfectly able to collect evidence and even "arrest" suspects (by knocking them out for the police to retrieve later) without a warrant with no consequences to the investigation. The only concession is that remaining unseen while in gang territory will net a bonus reward for the player, as their being detected will "complicate" the investigation.
  • Borderlands 3: In a Borderlands 2 ECHO log, it's mentioned that Amara took it upon herself to clean up crime on her homeworld. It's unclear whether the cops needed her to handle criminals for them, but since she's an uber-powerful Siren, they decided to stay the hell out of her way. They also seem to appreciate her presence — one lets slip a "you go, girl!" before panicking and pleading his interviewer to cut that bit out (they didn't).

     Visual Novel 

     Western Animation 
  • SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron:
    • Subverted by Commander Ulysses Feral of Megakat City's Police force, The Enforcers. Feral believes the SWAT Kats are lawless vigilantes and should be brought to justice, although he doesn't know the SWAT Kats T-Bone and Razor are Ex-Enforcers themselves. Also borders on downplayed, however, when Commander Feral has reluctantly accepted the SWAT Kats' help on a few occasions.
    • Played straight by some of the other Enforcers, especially Lieutenant Felina Feral (an elite Enforcer and Commander Feral's niece), who is more than happy to assist the SWAT Kats almost every time they meet.
  • Subverted in the first two seasons of The Batman. Gotham’s complete reliance on Batman to stop crime is regarded as a black eye by the police, and has lead to Gotham being rated “America’s scariest city.” As such Batman has to deal with occasional police interference, and one cop is suspended for being too sympathetic to the Bat. This is worked out by the end of Season 2, and the trope is played straight after that.