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 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 sixth 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 six police killings
Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves ten of season six’s twenty-two episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing fourteen people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season six 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 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018
|E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018||1||Yes||Halstead|
|E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018
|E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018||0||No||N/A|
|E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018||1||No||Voight/Ruzek/Halstead|
|E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018||1||Yes||Ruzek|
|E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018||1||Yes||Halstead|
|E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018||0||Yes||N/A|
|E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018||1||Yes||Dawson|
|E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019||1||No||Upton|
|E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019||0||No||N/A|
|E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019||1||Yes||Retired cop|
|E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019
|E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019||0||No||N/A|
|E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019||0||No||N/A|
|E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019||1||Yes||Cop from different division|
|E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019||1||Yes||Unnamed SWAT sniper|
|E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019
||1||Yes||Voight by proxy|
|E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019||0||No||N/A|
|E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019
||1||No||Atwater & Burgess|
|E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019||0||No||N/A|
|E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019||1||No||Resigning cop|
The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 64% of season six 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.
Voight farms out a hit and Atwater and Burgess fatally chase someone onto the El tracks where he dies. The other season six killings are police shootings.
Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters
|Character||Number of people they’ve executed
||(How many) in each season|
|Voight||14||1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3), 5 (4), 6 (2)
|Alinsky||4||1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
|Halstead||16||1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1), 5 (4), 6 (3)
|Ruzek||9||1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 5 (3), 6 (3)
|Dawson||11||1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2), 5 (3), 6 (1)
|Burgess||4||1 (1), 2 (1), 5 (1), 6 (1)
|Atwater||4||2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1), 6 (1)
|Lindsay||6||3 (5), 4 (1)
|Upton||4||5 (2), 6 (2)
The only significant recurring character to not kill somebody in the first six 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 sixth season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season six pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.
|Episode name/date|| Racialization of who the cops criminalize
|E1 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018||Latinx, Black||Latinxs and Black people are drug dealers|
|E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018||Latinx||Latinxs are narcos|
|E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018||Latinx||Latinxs are gang members|
|E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018||White|
|E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018||Latinx, white||Latinxs are narcos|
|E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018||White, Black||Black people are violent|
|E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018||White||Terrorism story about Muslims|
|E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018||White|
|E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019||White|
|E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019||White|
|E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019||White|
|E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019||White||Black people are drug dealers|
|E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019||White|
|E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019||Black||Black people are gang members. Latinxs are narcos|
|E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019||Black||Black people are gang members|
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 five season six episodes. In all, the reference includes narcotraficantes or gangs. Their field of meaning in season six, 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 six 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 six, each playing into a well defined imagery of Black criminality. The show posits not only Black criminality, but criminality exclusive to all other pursuits. Even shallow understandings of Chicago history know that gangs have been active in Chicago politics for over a century. Longtime Mayor Richard Daley got his political start in a white supremacist Irish gang, the Hamburg Athletic Club. Black Panther chapter leader Fred Hampton famously organized with the Blackstone Rangers and Black Gangster Disciples. Yet in “Trust”, Halstead views election signs in the closet of a Black man they’re criminalizing and asks, “What’s a gangbanger like Griffin doing with Vote for Helton materials?” The implication being that Griffin’s Blackness, synonymous with his criminality in the show/United States, necessarily means his political leanings .
In “Night in Chicago” Atwater is undercover deceiving a Black person he’s criminalizing. Belligerent white cops pull them over and begin to provoke and harrass Atwater and his intended victim. One of the white cops kills Atwater’s target. The show presents body-cam footage later intending to prove that Atwater’s target lunged towards rhe cop providing cause for the cop to kill him. Atwater, while strongly disagreeing with the cops pulling them over, agrees in the end that it was a “good shoot”. Alternately put, in the episode Chicago P.D. has racist white cops that it explicitly acknowledges to be racist who execute a Black man the show explicitly says they had no business encountering and, in the end, the show still calls it a “good shoot”. The whole thing stresses Atwater a bit and Voight tells him, “This is Chicago, it’s not easy to be an idealist.” This is in direct contradiction to the abolitionist forces in Chicago whose years of organizing forced discussions of police violence into the show’s stories in the first place. Idealist action towards Black liberation is why Voight uttered those words in the first place.
The only other season six episode that racializes a non-white population is “Trigger”, yet another story with Muslim characters about terrorism, consistent with every mention of Muslims in the first six seasons.
The show works hard to frame white innocence in “Sacrifice” where white people knock over phramacy deliveries in order to get medicine to save a white woman’s life. The cops find the people, portrayed sympathetically, and arrange in the end for the white woman to get the stolen drugs anyway. Their criminality is reluctant and only at the point of life and death unlike the show’s intentional, naturalized Black criminality.
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 six. Season six has a multi-episode arc conflict between Hank Voigt and police superintendent and mayoral candidate Brian Kelton that concludes with another cop murdering Kelton in the season finale. 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?
|E1 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018||No||N/A|
|E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018||Yes||Halstead and Voight threaten to snitchjacket a guy to the cartel and describe his pending torture to extract info|
|E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018||Yes||Voight chokes and beats a guy to extract info|
|E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018||No||N/A|
|E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018||No||N/A|
|E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018||No||N/A|
|E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018||Yes||DHS tortures people to extract info|
|E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018||No||N/A|
|E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018||Yes||Voight beats, chokes and threatens to fake a suicide of someone to extract info|
|E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019||No||N/A|
|E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019||No||N/A|
|E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019||No||N/A|
|E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019||No||N/A|
|E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019||Yes||Voight kicks a guy in the face to extract info. Ruzek threatens him at gunpoint then Voight threatens him with a hammer|
|E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019||No||N/A|
|E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019||YesN/A||Voight and Ruzek strangle someone to extract info|
|E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019||No||N/A|
|E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019||No||N/A|
|E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019||No||N/A|
|E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019||No||N/A|
|E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019||No||N/A|
|E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019||Yes||Voight and Ruzek beat a man to extract info|
Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in seven out of twenty-two season six episodes (32%). Season six 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 six. 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.