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Standard Cop Backstory

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Wade: Rough childhood?
Vanessa: Rougher than yours. Daddy left before I was born.
Wade: Daddy left before I was conceived.

Picture your favorite character in a crime drama and think of their backstory. Got it? Good.

It's almost a certainty that they were abused as a child, probably by an alcoholic parent. Was the other parent dead? Maybe even both parents were dead. A stint in foster care is common. How about an irresponsible or troubled younger sibling that said character spent their earlier years taking care of? Do they have a history of failed romances and a fairly dismal personal life?

The probability of most of these criteria matching is higher than not. This is because on crime dramas, almost across the board, this backstory is used for at least one of the lead characters.

The common backstory includes several of the following:

  • Child abuse, usually, but not always, at the hands of a parent.
  • An alcoholic parent.
  • Missing Mom and/or Disappeared Dad. Bonus points if this is due to murder. Double bonus points if the murder is unsolved. Very often this missing parent was also a cop, and was murdered in the line of duty.
  • A stint in foster care.
  • Rape, in reference to either the character or someone close to them.
  • Directly or indirectly, but never on purpose, caused a death.
  • A close family member or friend who suffered from a mental illness and/or committed suicide.
  • Very low family income, bordering on poverty.
  • A troubled or irresponsible younger sibling that the character feels responsible for or an angelic and perfect younger sibling whom they failed to protect.
  • A dead spouse and/or child.
  • A trail of failed romances, possibly even a Serial Spouse.
  • A military career.
  • Little to no personal life, often resulting in the character becoming Married to the Job.

Some of these characteristics are more popular than others, and a character's backstory, by no means, needs to display all of them. It may only need to include two or three, depending on which two or three, to qualify.

This trope is used almost exclusively in straight dramas, where characters tend to have a Dark and Troubled Past, as opposed to dramadies or comedies, though certain elements of the backstory, such as a dead parent, are not uncommon in dramadies. It also seems to occur more often in lead characters, though it is not unheard of for a supporting character to follow the pattern. Additionally, the trope doesn't apply exclusively to law enforcement agents and is equally as common when a main character is a consultant for a law enforcement agency.

This seems to be a newer trope, as it was not apparent in crime dramas as recently as the 1990s.

May result in a Broken Bird or Jerk with a Heart of Gold. It can lead to the character being a Defective Detective, though it's just as possible they'll be more well-adjusted. Perhaps because True Art Is Angsty. Compare Accidental Child-Killer Backstory and Sympathetic Murder Backstory.


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    Anime and Manga 

  • John Blake in The Dark Knight Rises is a detective working with the GCPD who had a rough start in life; his mother died in an accident when he was very young, then when he was nine his father - a gambling addict - was killed by people he owed money to, resulting in Blake being sent to foster care and getting shunted around various homes due to behavior issues stemming from grief. One of the reasons Blake figured out Bruce Wayne was actually Batman was because when Bruce visited a boys' home where Blake grew up, he recognized that Bruce was putting up a facade to hide his pain over the murder of his parents, much like Blake learned to do. In the end, Blake becomes disillusioned with the police and quits, but Bruce leaves him the coordinates for the Batcave after faking his death.
  • In The Heat, Cowboy Cop Mullins is the one trying to look out for her drug-dealer little brother, and By The Book Special Agent Ashburn is the overachieving, friendless foster kid.
  • Both Bud White and Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential: Bud's father was an abusive drunk who eventually murdered Bud's mother and chained him to a radiator next to her corpse, while Ed's father (also a cop) was murdered by an unknown assailant.

  • Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Discworld grew up in poverty, with a dead alcoholic father ("His mum told him that the man had been run over by a cart, but Vimes suspected that if this were true at all, then it was probably a brewer's cart, which had 'run him over' a bit at a time for years"). He has no personal life before meeting Lady Sybil, and even afterwards needs to remind himself to make time for his wife and son.
  • Detective Harry Bosch, hero of a couple of dozen novels by Michael Connelly, hits a lot of these story beats. He had both a Missing Mom and a Disappeared Dad, his mother being a prostitute who was murdered and his father being one of her johns. His mother's murder went unsolved, although Harry eventually solves it himself in The Last Coyote. Because his mother was a hooker who was murdered when he was 10, he spent the bulk of his childhood in foster care or an orphanage. He had a military career (in fact he joined the Army out of high school and fought in Vietnam). Over the course of the series he indirectly causes the deaths of three people: a superior officer in The Last Coyote, his ex-wife in 9 Dragons (which also fills the "dead spouse" criterion), and a confidential witness in Dark Sacred Night. He has a trail of failed romances, and he spends most of his career Married to the Job (he takes files home to work in his off time!), although it becomes marginally less true after his daughter Maddie moves in with him later in the series.
  • In Death series: Eve and Roarke. Both of them suffered child abuse at the hands of their parents, had at least one alcoholic parent, their parents are missing, had little in terms of family income when they were young, and had little in terms of personal lives. In Eve's case, her father raped her more than once, she killed him in self-defence when she was 8 years old, had a stint in foster care, and had just one-night-stand before Roarke. Roarke had a younger angelic sister named Marlena who was raped and torture-murdered by a gang who had a grudge against Roarke. Roarke responded by going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge and killed all six men. Honestly, it's like Nora Roberts was trying to hit as many items on the list as possible!

    Live-Action TV 
  • On Bones, Brennan, Booth, Sweets and later Aubrey show this trope. All three of them have a history of abuse, Brennan and Sweets both spent time in foster care, and Brennan and Booth both have a dead parent and a string of failed romances. Brennan's mother's murder was unsolved until the end of the first season. Aubrey's dad was an embezzler who abandoned the family when Aubrey was a kid. He comes to town near the end of the series and Aubrey has to arrest him.
  • Regularly parodied and deconstructed in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Few cops actually have backstories like this, but whenever they go undercover or otherwise use aliases, they tend to give themselves tragic pasts full of drama for the sake of coolness, such as claiming they're trying to avenge a fallen partner or wildly exaggerating their real problems for sympathy. The only major officer in the Nine-Nine to have a Standard Cop Backstory is Peralta with his Disappeared Dad, and even then, it didn't make him a brooding Anti-Hero, just a goofy Manchild.
  • While he is more of a vigilante than a cop, Michael from Burn Notice has most of these in his backstory. His father was an abusive, alcoholic gambler, which caused his family to live in poverty (not to mention an irresponsible younger brother). Like the troubled cop character, Michael chose his career as a spy because it got him away from his old life.
  • Kate Beckett on Castle hits three parts: the string of failed romances (even during the show; we know of her failed tryst with Sorensen, then see Demming and Josh crash and burn), little to no real social life, and the Missing Mom (in fact, she would've been a lawyer, thus averting the poverty aspect, but for her mother's murder).
  • Chicago P.D.:
    • Just about everyone has some tragedy in their past: Voight's father, who was also a cop, was killed when Voight was eight. Lindsay, whose mother was a junkie and father was in prison, bounced around foster homes. Halstead, Olinsky and Mouse were all in the service. Atwater has custody of his ten-year-old sister. Ruzek's parents had an extremely vicious divorce when he was a child. Platt was shot in the line of duty, on top of entering the force at a time when women police officers were not very well respected by their colleagues, and ended up on desk duty for the rest of her career. Nadia was a teenage drug addict working as an escort.
    • Burgess averts it initially, perhaps explaining her impossibly sunny disposition in Season 1. Which makes everything that happens to her from Season 2 onward (getting shot, partner nearly gets killed in front of her twice, sister gets raped, etc.) an ongoing Standard Cop Back Story.
  • Lilly Rush on Cold Case is a textbook example of this. Her father abandoned the family at a young age. She grew up on welfare with an alcoholic mother and an irresponsible younger sister. She has a history of failed romances and, outside of these failed romances, no personal life.
  • Multiple characters on Criminal Minds have backstories that include elements of this trope, such as Reid's father's absence and his family's history of schizophrenia and JJ's sister's suicide, but the only character with enough of them to fit the trope is Morgan, who grew up in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood, lost his father at a young age, and suffered abuse at the hand of a leader in his community. Garcia's parents died when she was a teenager and she had to take care of herself. Rossi epitomizes failed relationships, having never been able to maintain a marriage. Hotch eventually falls prey to this and later to a dead ex-wife - they still loved each other, though. His technically isn't a backstory though. Like most of the characters, his father did die when he was pretty young, and there are hints that his father was also abusive.
  • CSI:
    • Until he hooked up with Sara Sidle, Gil Grissom was a workaholic with no personal life and hinted at an unhappy childhood - mainly the death of his father; things were ok with his mom. Asked what he was at high school, he replied "A ghost."
    • Sara was basically his Distaff Counterpart. She had an abusive father and saw her mother kill him.
    • Jim Brass, former Marine/Vietnam vet, had an affair, followed by a divorce from his wife who was also having an affair, and a daughter, Ellie, who went completely off the rails and turned to prostitution and drugs. It eventually turns out his daughter isn't actually his daughter. Oh, yeah, and he accidentally shot another policeman once.
    • Nick Stokes was the victim of child sexual abuse from a babysitter.
    • Ray had an abusive father who was a war vet and lost his battle with his inner demons. He was divorced, but may have reconciled with his wife after being written out.
    • Morgan didn't have much contact with her dad, Ecklie, after her mom took her and left. At least till she started working around him in Las Vegas.
    • Warrick lost his parents as a young child and was raised by his grandmother. He had a hard time staying out of trouble. He was also recovering from a gambling addiction.
  • CSI: Miami:
    • Calleigh Duquesne has an alcoholic father.
    • Horatio and his brother Ray had an abusive father.
  • CSI: NY:
    • Lindsay witnessed several friends being murdered as a teenager.
    • Danny grew up fairly poor in "a family of cops." It was his older brother who was the irresponsible one, joining a local gang while Danny took the responsible path into law enforcement, giving him Big Brother Instinct by proxy.
    • Don Flack has spent a lot of time trying to keep his troubled sister on the right track, even before the show started.
    • Stella was an orphan from the age of 2. She spent some time in foster care, but mostly grew up in an orphanage.
    • Mac saw combat as a Marine in Beirut (where he was severely injured) and Afghanistan, and is a 9/11 widower who buried himself in work afterward to cope with the pain. He also had an incident as a teenager where he tagged along with a friend who had a delivery job and the friend's brother. The group was attacked, and Mac grabbed a nearby gun, but was too scared to fire it, and the friend's brother was killed. The now ex-friend still blamed Mac for it even as an adult.
    • Jo - divorced, lost her sister to a drunk driver.
    • Hawkes' sister was murdered, and his former girlfriend was raped, resulting in Hawkes screwing up being there for her.
    • Adam's father was verbally and physically abusive to him, his brother, who left home because of it, and their mother. His dad now has Alzheimer's, meaning he neither remembers, nor takes responsibility for, his actions when Adam confronts him.
  • Dexter:
    • Dex was present at his mother's murder and sat in her blood for three days. His brother turned out to be a serial killer and now, his wife is dead.
    • Doakes was abused as a kid and has no social life. Deb really doesn't either (talk about failed relationship after failed relationship. She just cannot catch a break).
  • Due South:
    • Ray Vecchio, who had an alcoholic, good-for-nothing father.
    • Fraser lost his mother to a murderer when he was six, and for the next few months, his father was out of it.
    • Ray Kowakski was an orphan who once witnessed a bank robbery as a kid.
  • On Fringe, Olivia shows this trope, having lost both parents, been abused by her stepfather as a child, feeling responsible for her younger sister, and having no personal relationships with people that aren't related to her and don't work with her.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street toyed with this. Some of the detectives came from relatively ordinary backgrounds, and others had dealt with genuinely traumatic upbringings.
    • Bayliss grew up with an abusive father, and was molested by his uncle throughout his childhood.
    • Lewis grew up in a one-room apartment in a housing project, and with a mentally ill brother who lashed out and caused trouble around the neighborhood. Lewis is haunted by the fact that he let his brother attempt suicide, something that destroyed their relationship.
    • Hinted at with Felton, who mentions once his father was neglectful to the point of not visiting him in the hospital when he broke his collarbone.
  • JAG: Harm's father was missing in action for most of his childhood, and early seasons had Harm obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Bud's father was physically abusive, as was Mac's. Mac is also a recovering alcoholic and she and Harm both had several failed romances under their belts before their Last Minute Hook Up in the series finale.
  • Justified:
    • Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens' father Arlo is an abusive career criminal who drunk too much and often beat up Raylan's mother, Francine. Francine died when Raylan was just a kid and Arlo had her buried in their front yard. Raylan's wife left him for another man and he has had a string of failed relationships that tend to end badly.
    • Rayalan's fellow deputy US Marshalls have similar backstories. Tim also had an abusive father, drinks too much and is a Shell-Shocked Veteran from serving in Afghanistan. Rachell's younger sister was murdered by her abusive husband and Rachell's marriage is on the verge of collapse.
  • Mike Logan of Law & Order was seriously messed up. Abusive Parents, an alcoholic mom, a Catholic priest who molested him, and a string of relationships that didn't go anywhere. No wonder he's a Cowboy Cop with an explosive temper and no regard for any structured authority.
  • The main cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit goes right down the list:
    • Detective Olivia Benson believed for many years that she was a Child by Rape. Her mother was also an alcoholic, and her half-brother is an irresponsible Manchild she feels responsible for. She also struggles to have a personal life because of the nature of her job.
    • Her partner, Elliot Stabler, had Abusive Parents including a mentally ill mother. He also has a troubled marriage and strained relationships with his children. The fact that he was a Marine also plays into a lot of stories.
    • John Munch's father committed suicide, and Munch himself famously has a string of failed marriages (albeit the latter is often Played for Laughs).
    • Captain Don Cragen lost his wife, a flight attendant, in a plane crash. In a Season 14 episode, he indicates that before her death, they tried to have a child but were unable to. For most of the series, he has virtually no life outside of his job, to the point where he starts hiring escorts for non-sexual interactions just to have someone outside the job to spend time with.
    • Fin Tutuola has a strained relationship with his son Ken, partially because Fin's undercover assignments took him away from the family for long periods of time when Ken was growing up, and partially because of his own initial struggles to accept Ken's homosexuality. He was in the military as well.
    • Nick Amaro's father was violently abusive toward his mother on a regular basis, and eventually abandoned the family. Amaro also takes it really badly when his own wife files for divorce.
    • Amanda Rollins has an irresponsible (and eventually outright backstabbing) younger sister for whom she feels responsible, a father who ran up gambling debts and eventually abandoned the family, and a mother who subsequently dated abusive men (and was herself emotionally abusive to her two daughters). She was also sexually assaulted by an authority figure at her precinct in Atlanta, hence her transfer to Manhattan SVU.
    • Even the shorter-term unit members are not immune to this: Brian Cassidy (who never made the opening titles) was sexually abused by a sports coach, and Chester Lake (who was only in one season) grew up in foster care. In fact, for the first 15 seasons, the only major cop characters who didn't fit this trope were the ones whose backstories weren't explored at all (like Monique Jeffries).
    • Mike Dodds, the unit's sergeant in Season 17, averts the most traumatic variations of this trope, but even he has a mother who is implied to be largely out of the picture (though she's at least alive), a military background, and a drug-addict younger brother that he feels responsible for.
    • Finally averted with Dominick Carisi, who had a normal childhood on Staten Island. His biggest complaint is that he was the Only Sane Man as the only boy in a family of four children. Naturally, this makes him the only character who isn't Married to the Job and The One with a Personal Life.
  • Law & Order: Criminal Intent:
    • Bobby Goren's mother was insane, and his younger brother was dysfunctional. His biological father turned out to be a serial killer.
    • Alexandra Eames' husband was a cop who was killed in the line of duty. Neither she nor Bobby had much in the way of a social life.
  • The Mentalist:
    • Lisbon's backstory: She was abused by her alcoholic father after her mother's death, and spent the rest of her childhood taking care of her three younger brothers.
    • As a child, Jane was used by his father to con desperate people out of their money. His wife and daughter were also murdered by a serial killer after he psychoanalyzed said killer on national television.
  • NCIS:
    • Gibbs has the dead spouse/child backstory in spades. After that, it's failed marriage after failed marriage.
    • Tony's father was a useless alcoholic who neglected him and sent him to live in boarding schools after his mother died.
    • Ziva's sort of difficult to place. Her upbringing was rough; she grew up surrounded by violence, her father admitted to having "raised her to be a killer," and most of her immediate family had died by the time she joined the show.
    • McGee's father, a Naval admiral, was absent during most of his childhood and a neglectful "Well Done, Son" Guy when he wasn't absent. McGee also has a troubled little sister.
    • And Palmer, while not an agent, also revealed that his daddy wasn't exactly Father of the Year.
    • Fortunately, this is balanced out by several characters who seem to have had happy, normal childhoods, including Abby and Bishop. Though the latter still gets divorced when her happy marriage becomes strained after she joins NCIS.
  • NCIS: Los Angeles:
    • Callen lost his family (and his first name) when he was a child and went from one foster home to another before Hetty recruited him.
    • Deeks was nearly killed by his own father and had to kill him in self-defense.
  • NUMB3RS has a few:
    • Megan Reeves was wealthy, but her father resented her because she was born a girl, and it's hinted (but never confirmed) that there's more to the story. Whatever did happen, it was bad enough that she didn't speak to him for over a decade.
    • David Sinclair grew up in a poor neighborhood "dodging gangs just to get [his] high school diploma". His father died when he was in his early teens, and one of his best friends was killed in a random act of violence (for which another close friend was unfairly blamed).
    • Colby Granger's father died in a single-car wreck when he was fifteen. There's no way to be sure, but Colby has always suspected it might have been a suicide. He also spent several years in the military.
    • Recurring character Ian Edgerton also has the military background; the rest of his backstory is a complete unknown.
    • Notably averted with Don. Charlie's being a prodigy caused a few small issues, but he was always loved and cared for. There's a reason he's still so close with his family. He does have a few failed relationships, but that's implied to be mostly by choice.
  • On Once Upon a Time, Emma grew up in foster care thinking she was abandoned by her parents. She suffered abuse at some of her foster homes. We don't know how many failed romances she's had, but the one we do know of had a pretty big impact. She also had absolutely no social life prior to her arrival in Storybrooke, due partially to the nature of her job and partially to the fact that she struggles to open up to people.
  • From Reno 911!, Lieutenant Dangle's father abandoned his family when he was a child, and his mother committed suicide.
  • Trace has many examples. Let's see:
  • Veronica Mars:
    • It is hinted at that Sheriff Lamb suffered some child abuse. Very little else about his background is given, but he does seem to spend a lot of time in the office.
    • Veronica herself fits a few of those points too: her backstory include losing her best friend to murder, having been raped, and her mother abruptly leaving.

  • In Les Misérables, in "Confrontation" Inspector Javert reveals that he was born in a jail, and his criminal upbringing motivated his relentless drive to enforce the law.

    Video Games 
  • Disco Elysium plays around with the trope by playing some expectations straight and subverting others.
    • The protagonist grew up poor, working class and has lost his ex-something, and his childhood friends were a gang of teen delinquents who died because of drugs. He has been suicidal for most of his life, has no personal life and cop work is all he has left. However, The Final Cut reveals that he had a relatively happy childhood, with his brain rejecting Measurehead's insinuation his father beat him ("more likely, he wasn't even around to beat you") and a high level Shivers check indicating his mother loved him and made him feel safe. Also, he's well educated, having an art degree. His physical aptitude is not connected to him being ex-military, but to him being a former high school gym teacher. His lost ex-something is also not a mourned Lost Lenore either - she left him for basically ordinary reasons, and he only broke down because of his own personal weaknesses.
    • Kim Kitsuragi was orphaned in the Revolution and only spared because he was a toddler at the time. He was a close friend of his previous partner who was a drug abuser and died, which he still feels pain about. However, the military-style plain clothes he wears turn out to be an affectation based on his nerdish enthusiasm for Revolutionary aerostatics, not due to him having been in the military, and while he takes his job seriously he has a lot of well-developed hobbies that have nothing to do with the job. Also, he didn't have a particularly glamorous ascension through the ranks, instead spending over a decade in the Juvenile Crimes Unit going undercover as a teenager due to his naturally youthful appearance.
  • While only alluded to in Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Last Window confirms that Kyle is of the Disappeared Dad variety. Namely, that he was murdered during his One Last Job as a safecracker. Another key aspect dealt with in the first game is the implied betrayal and shooting of Kyle's former partner, Bradley.
  • One of Yakuza 4's new protagonists is the detective Masayoshi Tanimura. His father was a cop who got murdered when he was only four years old. All Tanimura had left of him was his detective notebook, later inspiring him to become a police officer himself so he could discover the truth behind his father's supposed "accidental" death. He was also raised in an impoverished part of town known as Little Asia, full of foreign families struggling to live in a discriminatory society, as well as immigrant children separated from their parents due to deportation. His experiences would push him to abuse his authority in order to extort certain illegal businesses for money, as well as gambling incessantly on the job. All these ill-gotten gains would be used almost exclusively for supporting those living in Little Asia. His role in the main plot is to track down his father's killer, while on the side he has a long substory chain that plays out like its own mini crime drama, which adds even more to his cop-flavoured backstory: he's actually an adoptee who never knew his real parents, and by taking down a sex trafficking ring he discovers that his biological father was also a cop who conceived him with an immigrant sex worker from Thailand, and who gave up his life to protect his lover and their child.

    Western Animation 


Video Example(s):


Death Threat Backstory

After Annie learns that there's a possible threat against her life, Helen shares her own story about how a past death threat affected her.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / StandardCopBackstory

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