The NYPD wants in on the true-crime journalism boom

At first, the inaugural season of the NYPD’s Break in the Case resembles many popular true-crime podcasts. There’s a sober-toned host who introduces each episode, and a rugged veteran reporter on the story. There’s a calamitous case, cold for more than two decades, involving the 1991 murder of an unidentified child given the name “Baby Hope.” A comprehensive array of sources are interviewed on the record. Even the music cues are the appropriate mix of serious and snappy.

It makes some sense that the NYPD wants in on the true-crime boom. As Jill Bauerle, executive producer of Break in the Case, told the New York Times earlier this month, “A lot of what police officers and detectives say is filtered through other sources. To have them telling their own stories is very powerful.” Helping police officers to tell these “very powerful” stories is Edward Conlon, who rejoined the NYPD in 2018 as director of executive communications for police commissioner James P. O’Neill, who retired last week. Conlon had been a detective with the Bronx’s Forty-Fourth Precinct, retiring in 2011. All the while, he wrote widely acclaimed nonfiction (Blue Blood) and two novels (Red on Red, The Police-Women’s Bureau).

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But this veneer of familiarity—and the claim of direct access—is self-serving. Break in the Case trumpets the prowess of law enforcement, specifically New York City law enforcement, at a time when deep, and deserved, distrust of police is ever more present in coverage of the department.

 

BREAK IN THE CASE’S ARRIVAL comes at a critical juncture for the way Americans think about law enforcement. Serial’s instant popularity in October 2014 paved the way for the current true-crime moment, arriving just two months after a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager. The shooting sparked widespread protests, which led to greater public awareness about the injustice of police shootings.

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That awareness benefited Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig and produced by WBEZ. The podcast probed the possible wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school girlfriend, uncovering witnesses never interviewed by police, suggesting the unreliability of a key defense witness, and exposing inaccurate cellphone records claiming to link Syed to the crime. After thirteen episodes released “week by week,” Serial reached an open-ended conclusion: that, at a minimum, Syed deserved a new trial. His conviction was subsequently vacated by an appeals court, a decision that was then reversed en banc and appealed to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

American Public Media’s In the Dark went even further in exposing the failures of law enforcement. Minnesota authorities missed many opportunities to apprehend the man responsible for the 1989 abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling, the show’s first season demonstrated. Season two, examining the six trials of Curtis Flowers for a quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi, demolished the shoddy cases against him and exposed prosecutorial racial bias so blatant it led to the Supreme Court overturning Flowers’s conviction a sixth time.

A wider net yields even more progressive true-crime journalism: work explicitly seeking to sow doubt in American culture’s predominantly trusting relationship with the police. One prime example is 74 Seconds, a 2017 podcast from Minnesota Public Radio, which chronicled the death of Philando Castile and the acquittal of officer Jeronimo Yanez—a demonstration of the justice system’s inability to handle police killings. Both Rachel Monroe’s excellent meta-true-crime book Savage Appetites (2019) and Alice Bolin’s essay collection Dead Girls (2018) examine the tropes of true crime—victim, killer, detective, advocate—skeptically, threading a needle of our own desires and complicity in this industrial complex.

These programs and books have a commitment to journalism in common, even when a story may not favor law enforcement. That commitment, however, is expensive and time-consuming and generally yields a low return on investment. It’s easier and cheaper to jettison accuracy for entertainment, scrupulous and wide-ranging sourcing for embellishment, and the adversarial approach for a friendlier one.

As of this writing, the Indiana-based podcast Crime Junkie, created and cohosted by Ashley Flowers (no relation to Curtis), is firmly established in the uppermost echelon of Apple’s podcast charts. It remains there despite months of controversy around accusations of plagiarism and, more egregiously, what is apparently an exclusive arrangement with the Indiana State Police for Flowers’s just-launched spin-off podcast, Red Ball, about the Burger Chef murders in 1978.

District Investigative Commander 1st Sgt. Bill Dalton gave Flowers exclusive access to investigative files pertaining to the forty-one-year-old cold case, according to Adam Wren in Indianapolis Monthly (disclosure: I was quoted in this piece). The deal not only irked other reporters seeking information, it likely violated the state’s open-records laws. “It doesn’t look good, guys,” Luke Britt, Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, told the Indiana State Police in July, as Wren reported. “If you give access to one person, you have to give it to everyone.”

The blame falls solely upon Dalton for flouting records rules and giving Flowers access she should never have been allowed. But it’s moot as far as the podcast is concerned: Flowers has those files and that access, and other reporters do not. Her goal with Red Ball is an even wider audience than Crime Junkie’s—with a catch. “There’s been a lot of talk in the television world about how we could turn this show into a series, once it’s out and, fingers crossed, the police is happy [sic],” Flowers told Deadline.

Ensuring the happiness of law enforcement while shaping narrative, whether in podcasts or other media, overlooks a bigger, messier, more complicated picture. The police have a story they want audiences to hear. Is it the story those audiences should be hearing?

 

I COULDN’T HELP BUT LISTEN to Break in the Case with a line from the first season of In the Dark in mind: that there’s no such thing as a perfect crime, only a botched investigation. The search for “Baby Hope” and her true identity, as chronicled in Break in the Case, never allows listeners to entertain this idea. It can’t, because of who is telling the story. But the story is naturally more complicated than what the NYPD presents in the five-episode arc.

The setting of Break in the Case is 1991. In 1990, New York City’s annual murder rate reached an apex of 2,245, inundating the Thirty-Fourth Precinct, responsible for investigating this unidentified child’s murder after her remains were discovered in a cooler near the Henry Hudson Parkway. Even though detectives like Jerry Georgio and Joseph Reznick worked exclusively on the murder at different points, it took the combination of new sketches, timely tip line phone calls, and skillful questioning to identify “Baby Hope” as Anjelica Castillo—a four-year-old girl never reported missing by her family—and to arrest a suspect in her murder in 2013.

As Break in the Case tells it, that suspect, Conrado Juarez, was clearly responsible, and his death from pancreatic cancer in 2018 averted a trial that would have proved his guilt. But Juarez, until his death, claimed his confession was coerced. His defense echoed that of Pedro Hernandez, charged with the 1979 abduction and murder of six-year-old Etan Patz, whose first trial ended in a hung jury and who is appealing his life imprisonment, imposed after a second trial convicted him.

It’s likely that an independent journalistic outlet would have reached the same conclusions about Anjelica Castillo’s murder as did Break in the Case. The evidence against Juarez was damning, albeit circumstantial. But because the listener’s perspective is entirely controlled by law enforcement, it is impossible to view this podcast as anything but a public relations exercise, and one designed to elicit maximum sympathy for the police.

Even an in-house podcast can’t override general NYPD policy that ongoing investigations must be afforded maximum privacy. But Conlon does segue into brief discussions of two other open child abduction cases: the 1985 disappearance of Equilla Hodrick, and the 1987 snatching of newborn Marlene Santana. He professes shock at his own ignorance of them. I, on the other hand, am all too familiar with these stories, and wish to know more about why the investigations into them stalled. But it would not be in keeping with the NYPD’s public relations effort to answer those questions. Mistakes are not part of this narrative.

No matter how ambitious or well-meaning Break in the Case is, the same police department that produces it seems determined to show itself at its worst. It says far more about the state of the NYPD that it would spend time cracking down on subway fare evaders, largely poor and homeless people of color, at a time when the murder solve rate keeps declining, or waste money on paramilitary equipment when the crime rate is at a record low. Patting itself on the back in the form of a podcast seems unlikely to change public perception of the NYPD’s systemic wrongdoing. Only real change and commitment to community-based policing—changes that seem like pipe dreams—can accomplish that.

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Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and the editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit & Obsession, forthcoming from Ecco in July 2020.

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