“I told you, it was those two black kids,” a white suspect tells a police sergeant, attempting to deflect blame during a heated interrogation about a woman’s murder on last week’s episode of “Chicago P.D.”
“OK, I’ve been a cop for a lot of years,” comes the sergeant’s reply (he’s white, as well), barely controlling his rage. “There’s one thing I hate — I mean, I hate it when people blame ‘the black kid.’ I get it all the time. I’ll tell you something — please believe me when I tell you — it’s not going to happen today. You’re going to tell me the truth about what happened.”
Let’s contrast that scene with the Department of Justice report titled “Investigation of the Chicago Police Department.” It was released two weeks ago and details a disturbing and systemwide pattern of poor training and abuses:
Young black residents told us they are commonly stopped and suspected of engaging in criminal activity, or of being gang members, based solely on their appearance. As one resident told us, “they see you with (certain types of clothing) and they think you are a criminal. Wear dreads and you get stopped.” … Residents with whom we spoke were very concerned about the presumption of gang affiliation, not only because of the assumptions it made about people, but because it also provides a false narrative that can follow these individuals in future interactions with the police and the criminal justice system. Latino residents of these communities voiced similar concerns. As one Latino resident stated, “there is guilt by association.” Latinos stated that there is a tendency for officers to “lump everyone together.”
How are we, as TV viewers, meant to reconcile what we see on the show with what the DOJ has spelled out in its report? Does it make you uncomfortable? That the show functions as de facto marketing for the CPD? That the network and everyone involved with the show is making big money from it? And even if it does bother you, what then? I don’t necessarily think the show should be yanked off the air or radically revamped. Almost all cop shows are guilty of these fictions. Still, I’m struggling. Something doesn’t sit right.
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“Chicago P.D.” — not to be confused with the actual Chicago PD despite, you know, the same exact name — is in its fourth year on NBC. It’s part of a larger franchise of Chicago-set dramas from executive producer Dick Wolf and a consistent ratings draw for the network, averaging 6 to 7 million viewers a week. Its portrayal of the Chicago Police Department — focusing on a small, close-knit intelligence unit — is an idealized version of how policing works. A group of detectives and one sergeant dig into a new case each week, furrowing their brows and staring at a whiteboard of victim and possible suspect photos, chasing down leads — often culminating in foot and car chases — and by the end of the hour, the bad guy has been caught.
Compare that with a headline from one of the Tribune’s many stories about the DOJ report: “Landmark investigation says police conduct harms residents, endangers officers.” The report includes anecdotes such as: the hitting and tasering of a minor child for having a cellphone in violation of school rules; shooting at (and sometimes killing) unarmed fleeing suspects; hitting a woman who was on her knees and handcuffed, telling her, “I’ll put you in a UPS box and send you back to where the f— you came from”; of creating “experiences (that) offend and humiliate people and diminish residents’ willingness to work with law enforcement.” As detailed further in the report:
Black youth told us that they are routinely called “n—–,” “animal,” or “pieces of s—” by CPD officers. A 19-year-old black male reported that CPD officers called him a “monkey.” Such statements were confirmed by CPD officers. One officer we interviewed told us that he personally has heard co-workers and supervisors refer to black individuals as monkeys, animals, savages, and “pieces of s—.”
Many in Chicago, particularly people of color, have been vocal about these issues for years. Wolf, “Chicago P.D.” showrunner Matt Olmstead and the LA-based writers who work on the show are most likely aware of all of this.
(For what it’s worth, “Chicago Justice” star Philip Winchester has suggested that the latest Dick Wolf spinoff, set to premiere March 5, will aim for realism: “There are huge things happening in Chicago that are happening all over our country and all over our world and we need to address them.”)
Through a spokesman for NBC, Wolf and Co. declined to comment for this story. And why should they? There are no good answers. I’m not sure anyone outside of Chicago even cares — if you read the recaps (and comments) on sites such as Hidden Remote where the show is reviewed each week, the focus isn’t on the way they do their jobs but the relationship drama among the characters. The policing? That’s just window dressing.
The show isn’t built to tackle nuance or reality, anyway. And by that I mean: The legitimate challenges and concerns of being a Chicago police officer along with the equally legitimate dysfunction, bias and lack of accountability that exists in the department as outlined by the DOJ.
The show is meant as an escape. And we need shows that offer a distraction from real world anxieties. There is value in that. But it’s not so easy to swallow on “Chicago P.D.” now that the elephant in the room — of widespread problems with the system itself — is now singing and dancing and introducing itself to everyone, courtesy of that DOJ report.
Ken Dowler, a criminologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, has studied the effect police dramas have on audiences and says he’s found two lines of thought. One is something called cultivation theory “which means basically, when you get constant exposure to something, it’s going to lead you to believe that’s the way it is … and if you look at propaganda research, if you keep throwing the message out there, over and over again and simplifying it, people are going to eventually believe it.”
On the other hand, he said: “Watching a television show, you see what you want to see. So the theory is that cop shows have a very limited impact, because people already have preconceived notions. People that choose to watch these shows probably already have a favorable view of the police, whereas somebody who has firsthand experience with police corruption or brutality, they’re probably not going to watch the show — or if they do, they’re not going to have the same view watching it.”
So, should it matter that the narratives laid out in the DOJ report paint a completely different picture than the one seen on “Chicago P.D.”?
“I think considering all the problems that have been highlighted (by the DOJ), I think it can be — I mean, it’s entertainment, I know that — but it can be insensitive. And insulting. Because from a propaganda point of view, it’s trying to make it look like it’s real. That’s the problem. It’s relatively easy to fool people into believing something is true when it’s actually not.”
“Chicago P.D.” does strive for a realistic look. Another Chicago-based cop show is coming down the pike next month on Fox, called “APB” (which I will review ahead of its premiere) and in some respects, it comes across as far more honest about what it’s doing because it never looks entirely real — it looks kind of fantastical. It’s not trying to capture the gritty, just-grinding-it-out aesthetic of “Chicago P.D.”
I asked Chicago activist Ja’Mal Green, who has been outspoken about police misconduct and brutality, how this all sits with him. “I’m a very big fan of ‘Chicago P.D.,'” he said. “I’ve watched probably every episode. I don’t expect it to show exactly how police are because it’s for entertainment. They really show the best parts of the Chicago Police Department to the world and when I watch, I’ll be like, ‘OK, that’s not real.’ Because of course, I’m out here fighting against the reality! But I don’t jump off and be like, ‘I hate this show!’ because it doesn’t show the real Chicago PD. I know it’s still just TV. And I don’t think people look at it as a documentary or something where they’re really getting information, so I don’t think it is hurtful for the majority of viewers.
“It could give the message that the Chicago Police Department is just amazing,” he said after a moment, “catching killers every episode, solving every case, respectful and caring. Of course it’s a false reality. It’s not real. This is not how the Chicago Police Department is. But hopefully people that watch it just see it as television.”
Bella Bahhs is also a Chicago-based activist and she has a different perspective: “I’m familiar with the show,” she told me, “but I do not watch it because it is a false representation of the Chicago Police Department. There’s so much work to be done, that I can not even deal with the media’s role in perpetuating these images. I’m an activism organizer so I’m really on the ground and a show like this does make the work harder because the media keeps portraying police as heroes in our community.”
The cops on the NBC series are certainly flawed. And the show does acknowledge that all is not perfect within the CPD. Too often, though, it comes off as lip service. When we do see unlawful use of force, it almost always comes at the hands of the tough guy sergeant (played by Jason Beghe, who is very good in the role; he’s as watchable as you would want). Race never seems to be a factor where his misconduct is concerned. Everyone is fair game, as long as they’re deemed guilty before even reaching a courtroom.
And so, back to last week’s episode: Disgusted by the details of the suspect’s confession and the way he relishes in the brutal crime he’s committed, Beghe’s sergeant repeatedly yanks, presses down on and twists the guy’s dislocated shoulder simply to inflict pain. In the worldview of the show, the ends justify the means. When a person is abused, he or she always deserves it. It’s served up as a thrilling moment of justice.
Here’s Dowler, the criminologist: “Does a show like this help the police department? Probably, because it gets people thinking positively about the Chicago PD. It’s a brand. It’s called ‘Chicago P.D.’ That gives itself an air of legitimacy.” A claim of veracity, one might argue.
“It’s hard,” Dowler said, “because if you’re criticizing police, you’re not necessarily criticizing first responders or individual officers. The system is the problem. And these shows can suggest and reinforce the ideology that any problems that arise are isolated.”
Maybe, he suggested, it would be a “good step for a show to really reflect the reality of what’s going on. To get people to think more critically about the institution of policing. But is America ready to watch a show like that?”
He had this to add when I asked about shrugging our shoulders and simply approaching “Chicago P.D.” as entertainment: “It is entertainment,” he said, “but entertainment can be used to elect a president.”
Tribune investigations of Chicago police highlight similar themes as DOJ report
Department of Justice report on Chicago police names problems. Now it’s time to tame them.
Justice report rips Chicago police for excessive force, lax discipline, bad training