Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.
Chicago P.D. is a police drama produced by Wolf Entertainment running on NBC since 2014 with an ensemble cast structure centered around Hank Voight (Jason Beghe). The show tells fictional stories of the Chicago Police Department’s Intelligence Division as they try to incarcerate or kill people they criminalize. It has single episode story lines with regular longer arcs or recurring story elements mixed in. Chicago P.D. mixes elements of a police drama and procedural with the procedural aspects focusing on torture. Its program is lionizing John Burge – albeit not by name and likely unthought – where the Chicago police coerce confessions through torture in semi-official locations, “The Cage” in Chicago P.D.. The show portrays the killer cops as heroic and their violences practical through gritty dialogue, Beghe’s gravely voice and quick trigger, the cops’ connections to criminalized populations that frame them as criminally knowledgeable and grounded and the decision to use handheld cameras for a more kinetic feel.
Chicago P.D. is well acted for the most part and competently shot. It has mostly coherent storylines and good pacing which would make it well scripted were it not for so many character tropes and bad dialogue. Its main drawbacks are not technical, but ethical. Chicago P.D., even by the low standards of cop shows, stands out for how warmly it embraces murderous cops and torture. Its heroes are at times portrayed ambiguously but are, like its closest predecessor The Shield, still virtuous protagonists. The horrors they enact and all their violences are towards supposedly noble ends.
Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the second season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Chicago P.D. or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.
Season two police killings
Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves seven of season two’s twenty-three episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing sixteen people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season two is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Chicago P.D. main cast characters are serial killers. For example in “Called in Dead”, Alinsky (Elias Koteas) says that he’s killed seven people to that date (three in the show to that point, the others from before the show starts). They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Chicago P.D. normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.
|Episode name/date||Killed by police
||Episode resolved via suspect’s death||Criminalized person killed by|
|E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014||3||Yes||Halstead (1), Ruzek (1), Stillwell (1)|
|E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014||0||No||N/A|
|E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014||1||No||Alinsky|
|E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014||1||Yes||Dawson|
|E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014||0||No||N/A|
|E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014||0||No||N/A|
|E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014||1||No||During police chase|
|E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014||0||No||N/A|
|E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014||1||No||Alinsky|
|E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
|E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015||1||Yes||Civilian kills man detained by cops|
|E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015||1||Yes||Burgess|
|E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015||2||Yes||Dawson (1), Atwater (1)|
|E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015||3||Yes||Voight (2), Halstead (1)|
|E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015||0||No||N/A|
|E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015||1||No||Halstead|
|E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015||1||No||Guy suicides while detained by cops|
|E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015||0||No||N/A|
The Chicago police department kill someone they criminalize in 30% of the season two episodes. Chicago P.D. is not directly responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Chicago P.D. normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.
Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters
|Character||Number of people they’ve executed
||How many in each season|
|Voight||5||1 (3), 2 (2)|
|Alinsky||3||1 (2), 2 (1)|
|Halstead||4||1 (1), 2 (3)|
|Ruzek||2||1 (1), 2 (1)|
|Dawson||5||1 (3), 2 (2)|
|Burgess||2||1 (1), 2 (1)|
The only main cast characters to not kill somebody in the first two seasons are Platt, Lindsay (who kills two people in the next season’s opener…) and Roman.
Who do the cops pursue?
But to what end is the monopolized, legitimatized violence deployed? Chicago P.D. produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity often without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, often explicitly as when Voigt coerces snitches from his gang contacts. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Chicago P.D. represents cops criminalizing mostly non-Black people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.
Chicago P.D.‘s second season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season two pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.
|Episode name/date||Racialization of person/people the cops criminalize||Episode notes|
|E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014||White|
|E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014||White|
|E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014||White|
|E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014||White|
|E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014||White||Black character is a somewhat sympathetic grifter|
|E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014||White|
|E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014||White|
|E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014||Black, white||Black people are drug dealers|
|E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015||White|
|E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015||Non-Black latinx||Mexicans are narcos|
|E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015||White||Black people are generally criminalized|
|E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
|E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015||White|
|E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015||Black, Asian||Black people are gang members, Asians are smugglers
|E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015||White|
|E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015||White||Latinx diplomat is corrupt|
|E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015||Black, non-Black latinx||Black people are drug dealers, Mexicans are narcos|
|E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015||Asian||Chinese people are Triads/human traffickers|
|E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015||White|
|E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015||White||Non-Black latinxs are narcos
|E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015||White|
|E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015||White, latinx, Black||Non-Black latinxs are narcos|
In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:
The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.
Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Chicago P.D. ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Chicago P.D. allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?
Chicago P.D. mentions latinxs as part of the plot in five season two episodes. In each, the reference or entire story is about narcotrafficantes or gangs. There is not a single story arc to the contrary. This is Chicago P.D.‘s entire field of meaning for latinxs – specifically non-Black latinxs – in season two.
Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in seven season two episodes. In all but one, the Black characters are articulated to drug or gang stories and in the exception a young Black girl is a grifter (who is portrayed partially sympathetically) that still means criminality. Gangs/drug dealers are Black people’s field of meaning in season two.
The two season two episodes with Asian characters as part of the plot are about Triads or smugglers, like the season one episode. Between the three episodes Smuggler/Trafficker/Triad is Chicago P.D.‘s field of meaning for “Asian”.
Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling
Chicago P.D. regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain but only once in season two. “The Number of Rats” begins a multi-story, multi-season arc that crosses over another Wolf Entertainment-produced show, Law & Order: SVU. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can include a systemic framework as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Chicago P.D. does not do this in a meaningful way. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the CPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.
Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality
Chicago P.D. embraces police torturing people like no other show on television. The closest is Supernatural where the Winchester brothers frequently torture ‘demons’ towards various ends, usually to extract information. But torture isn’t central to their characters. It is for Voight in Chicago P.D. and, to a lesser extent, Alinsky. Chicago P.D. portrays torture as heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic, usually both. It is so common that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.
|Episode name/date||Is there torture/police brutality?||What happens?|
|E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014||No|
|E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014||No|
|E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014||Yes||Voight beats a man in The Cage to extract info|
|E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014||No|
|E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014||Yes||Voight tortures someone with pliers to get info and later puts a gun to someone’s head in a vacant lot to coerce cooperation|
|E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014||No|
|E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014||Yes||Voight beats a man in The Cage|
|E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014||No|
|E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014||No|
|E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015||No|
|E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015||Yes||Voight beats a man to extract information|
|E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015||No|
|E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
|E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015||Yes||Voight & Lindsay beat a gunshot victim and dump him into the snow. Voight beats another man, both cases to get info|
|E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015||No|
|E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015||No|
|E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015||Yes||Burgess tases a guy for wearing a helmet. Ruzek beats, chokes and threatens a man to solicit a confession|
|E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015||No|
|E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015||Yes||Alinsky threatens to put a man’s hand through a sewing machine to solicit a confession|
|E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015||Yes||Voight chokes a man in the SVU part of a crossover episode|
|E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015||Yes||Voight beats and chokes a man in The Cage
|E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015||No|
|E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015||Yes
||Voight burns a man with a torch to extract info
Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of twenty-three season two episodes (43%). Season two continues using “The Cage”, a location where the unit takes people to torture them. No character offers any meaningful dissent to these actions. Chicago P.D. portrays Voight torturing people as not only ethical, but effective. I aspire to abolition in this writing and am not concerned with “innocent” people being imprisoned so much as doing away with the prisons altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of any harm. With that said, Friedrich Spee noted in his 1631 text Cautio Criminalis that “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.” He continued, critiquing witchhunting advocates noting that “every one of their teachings concerning witches is based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.”
Real world Chicago police have long engaged in torture and Voight and his unit bear strong resemblance to Jon Burge, a highly decorated Chicago cop who coerced confessions by torturing, primarily, Black people his unit kidnapped off the street. Spee loudly critiqued torture as producing no useful information in the early 1600s and studies ever since have agreed with him. Given this, Chicago P.D. in two-fifths of season two episodes is naming witches “based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.” There is no reason to think anybody tortured by Voight’s unit or implicated by the tortured even did the thing they were accused of. Abolition says “Don’t hunt witches in the first place.” That is the important question. Even with that understanding, Chicago P.D. portrays the most harmful method of witchhunting in its firm support for torture and police brutality. Instead of the normal carceral apologia that killer cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the killer cops are actually the good apples.
Other cop show tropes
Voight or the second time in the series threatens someone with prison rape (in the Law & Order: SVU crossover episode connected to “The Number of Rats”. Sex work and sex workers (in the industry) remain peripheral to Chicago P.D. in season two. All mentions to date have either been as snitches or “trafficking” victims.
Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season two. Further seasons will illuminate more themes. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.
 I say “or kill” due to Chicago P.D. frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.