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What Criminal Minds Gets Wrong About Catching Criminals

In a world where there are always multiple cop shows on TV at any given time, it's difficult for those shows to set themselves apart. One way they do that is by focusing on one specific niche of the crime-solving universe — the more obscure the better. On Criminal Minds, it's the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Before Criminal Minds, the BAU was mostly an unknown department in the FBI. It assists local law enforcement by building psychological profiles of the perpetrators of unsolved crimes. These perps are called "unknown subjects," or "unsubs" in series parlance.

Criminal Minds premiered in 2005 and ran for 15 seasons before it came to an end in 2020. Over more than 300 episodes, the show has provided plenty of drama, both onscreen and off. The episodes mostly follow the same format: A crime is committed somewhere in the US, the BAU profilers investigate and find a suspect, and then they take the suspect down. It's a pretty tidy formula, and a perfect scaffolding for a high-stakes police procedural. As savvy viewers might have already suspected, however, the real BAU doesn't work in quite the same way.

The Criminal Minds gang spends way less time in the office than they should

In reality, members of the BAU rarely leave their offices in Quantico, Virginia. While BAU members are full-fledged FBI agents, they rarely do fieldwork or make arrests. True Crime Magazine estimated that BAU criminal profilers spend about 90% of their time in the office and only 10% in the field. When they do go out in the field, it's not to apprehend a suspect, and they're never in danger.

On the other hand, one reason cop shows work is because they follow a very simple formula: Hero pursues bad guy, and hero catches bad guy. If Criminal Minds had stuck to reality, the audience would have never seen the heroes actually catch the bad guys themselves. Instead, that honor would have gone to a different random cop every week, whom the audience would never see again. It's rare to have a dramatic cop show where the cops never arrest anyone, and after 15 seasons and over 300 episodes, it looks like Criminal Minds made the right bet.