Chicago P.D. Season 7 Data Overview

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.

Season 1Season 2Season 3Season 4Season 5Season 6 – Season 7

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.[1] 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 – intentional or not – 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 sometimes use or mimic handheld cameras for a more kinetic feel.

Chicago P.D. is competently acted for the most part and decently 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 seventh 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 seven police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves nine of season seven’s twenty episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing twenty-three people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season seven 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 “Doubt” 25 Sep 2019
1 No Cop who just resigned
E2 “Assets” 2 Oct 2019 1 No Rojas
E3 “Familia” 9 Oct 2019
0 Yes N/A
E4 “Infection, Part III” 16 Oct 2019 1 Yes Voight
E5 “Brother’s Keeper” 23 Oct 2019 0 No N/A
E6 “False Positive” 30 Oct 2019 2 Yes Voight (1), Halstead (1)
E7 “Informant” 6 Nov 2019 0 No N/A
E8 “No Regrets” 13 Nov 2019 1 Yes Patrol cop
E9 “Absolution” 20 Nov 2019 2 Yes Burgess (1), Halstead (1)
E10 “Mercy” 8 Jan 2020 1 No Upton
E11 “43rd and Normal” 15 Jan 2020 1 No Ruzek
E12 “The Devil You Know” 22 Jan 2020 4 Yes Atwater (1), Upton (1), other cops (2)
E13 “I Was Here” 5 Feb 2020
3 Yes Halstead (1), Burgess (1), Upton (1)
E14 “Center Mass” 12 Feb 2020 0 No N/A
E15 “Burden of Truth” 26 Feb 2020 3 Yes Halstead (1), Upton (1), Roman (1)
E16 “Intimate Violence” 4 Mar 2020 0 No N/A
E17 “Before the Fall” 18 Mar 2020 1 No Detailed cop
E18 “Lines” 25 Mar 2020
0 No N/A
E19 “Buried Secrets” 8 Apr 2020 1 Yes Halstead
E20 “Silence of the Night” 15 Apr 2020
1 No Off duty cop

The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 70% of season seven 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.

Upton and Halstead each farm out an execution as does, effectively, another cop who outed a snitch in “Before the Fall”. The remaining police killings are more direct executions. Only in “Silence of the Night” does the show, for the first time in seven seasons, finally present police murdering someone as truly wrong. The show has presented other police executions as complicated, imperfect or unfortunate, but never unjust.

Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters

Character Number of people they’ve executed
(How many) in each season
Voight 16 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3), 5 (4), 6 (2), 7 (2)
Alinsky 4 1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
Halstead 21 1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1), 5 (4), 6 (3), 7 (5)
Ruzek 10 1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 5 (3), 6 (3), 7 (1)
Dawson 11 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2), 5 (3), 6 (1)
Burgess 6 1 (1), 2 (1), 5 (1), 6 (1), 7 (2)
Atwater 5 2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1), 6 (1), 7 (1)
Lindsay 6 3 (5), 4 (1)
Upton 8 5 (2), 6 (2), 7 (4)
Rojas 2 7 (2)

The only significant recurring character to not kill somebody in the first seven seasons is Platt.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end does the show deploy the monopolized, legitimatized violence? 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 gang member snitches. 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 seventh season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season seven pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of who the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “Doubt” 25 Sep 2019
White Black people are gang members
E2 “Assets” 2 Oct 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E3 “Familia” 9 Oct 2019
Latinx Black people are car thieves
E4 “Infection, Part III” 16 Oct 2019 White Episode about terrorism w/o Islam mention
E5 “Brother’s Keeper” 23 Oct 2019 White N/A
E6 “False Positive” 30 Oct 2019 Black Black people are gang members
E7 “Informant” 6 Nov 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E8 “No Regrets” 13 Nov 2019 White Latinxs are drug dealers
E9 “Absolution” 20 Nov 2019 Latinx Latinxs and Black people are drug dealers
E10 “Mercy” 8 Jan 2020 Black Black people are gang members
E11 “43rd and Normal” 15 Jan 2020 White Killers are white supremacists but this aspect is immediately dismissed
E12 “The Devil You Know” 22 Jan 2020 White, Black
Black people are gang members
E13 “I Was Here” 5 Feb 2020
White N/A
E14 “Center Mass” 12 Feb 2020 Latinx Latinxs are drug dealers
E15 “Burden of Truth” 26 Feb 2020 Black Black people are drug dealers
E16 “Intimate Violence” 4 Mar 2020 White N/A
E17 “Before the Fall” 18 Mar 2020 Black Black people are gang members
E18 “Lines” 25 Mar 2020
Latinx Latinxs & Black people are gang members
E19 “Buried Secrets” 8 Apr 2020 White N/A
E20 “Silence of the Night” 15 Apr 2020
Black, white Black people are drug dealers

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 latinx people as part of the plot in four season seven episodes. In all, the reference includes narcotraficantes or gangs. Their field of meaning in season seven, as with all prior seasons, is drug dealer/gang member/narco.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in twelve season seven episodes. In each, the Black characters are articulated to drug or gang stories. Gangs and drug dealing are Black people’s field of meaning in season seven, each playing into a well defined imagery of Black criminality. The season finale attempts to narrate an unjust, racist police shooting, as well as set-up a conflict between Voight’s Intelligence Division and and other cops next season. Atwater is paired on an undercover job with the racist cop who murdered a Black man Atwater was already in the process of criminalizing the prior season that Atwater then covered up. He murders another Black man and this one Atwater, at the very of the episode, chooses not to cover up. The show isn’t ambiguous about whether this murder was unjust. Yet even in this pseudocritique – after the main cast has already killed dozens – the killer pursued someone who was meeting drug dealers. Meaning even “innocence” is embedded in Black criminality. According to the show, they simply killed the wrong Black man of the three in the space at the time.

The show works hard to frame white innocence in “43rd and Normal” where white supremacists destroy two businesses and kill someone while shouting anti-semitic slurs. Their racist motivations are gone after the initial mention. Their loud racialization is made quiet leaving only white normativity in its place which is always innocent. The person they attack initially happens to be Muslim, not Jewish, which makes this the first mention of Muslims or Islam in the entire series that is not about terrorism.

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 seven. Season seven has a multi-episode arc conflict between Voigt, Upton and Darius Walker that ends with Upton farming out a hit on Walker. 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/brutality?
What happens
E1 “Doubt” 25 Sep 2019
No N/A
E2 “Assets” 2 Oct 2019 No N/A
E3 “Familia” 9 Oct 2019
No N/A
E4 “Infection, Part III” 16 Oct 2019 No N/A
E5 “Brother’s Keeper” 23 Oct 2019 Yes Ruzek beats a man to extract info
E6 “False Positive” 30 Oct 2019 No N/A
E7 “Informant” 6 Nov 2019 No N/A
E8 “No Regrets” 13 Nov 2019 No N/A
E9 “Absolution” 20 Nov 2019 Yes Voight beats a man he already shot to extract info
E10 “Mercy” 8 Jan 2020 Yes Voight and Atwater torture a guy with a broken arm to extract info
E11 “43rd and Normal” 15 Jan 2020 No N/A
E12 “The Devil You Know” 22 Jan 2020 No N/A
E13 “I Was Here” 5 Feb 2020
No N/A
E14 “Center Mass” 12 Feb 2020 No N/A
E15 “Burden of Truth” 26 Feb 2020 No N/A
E16 “Intimate Violence” 4 Mar 2020 No N/A
E17 “Before the Fall” 18 Mar 2020 No N/A
E18 “Lines” 25 Mar 2020
No N/A
E19 “Buried Secrets” 8 Apr 2020 No N/A
E20 “Silence of the Night” 15 Apr 2020
Yes Cop beats detained man. Voight puts finger inside bullet wound to get info

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in four out of twenty season seven episodes (20%). Season seven 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 or tortured so much as doing away with prisons and policing altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of 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 nearly half of season six 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 usual police apologia that brutal cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the murdering, torturing cops are actually the good apples.

Other cop show tropes

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season seven. Further seasons will illuminate more themes. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

[1] 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.