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 fifth 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 five police killings
Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves eight of season five’s twenty-two episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing twenty-four people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season five 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 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
||3||No||Halstead (1), Ruzek (1), Atwater (1)
|E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017||1||No||Halstead|
|E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
|E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017||0||No||N/A|
|E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017||1||No||Voight|
|E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017||1||No||Cop suicides to avoid charges|
|E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017||1||No||Dawson|
|E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017||0||No||Halstead|
|E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017||1||No||Killed by a judge|
|E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018||0||No||N/A|
|E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018||1||No||Burgess|
|E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018||2||Yes||Dawson (1), Atwater (1)|
|E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
||5||Yes||Dawson (1), Atwater (1), Visiting cop (3)
|E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018||2||Yes||Voight (1), Halstead (1)
|E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018||0||Yes||Dawson (1), Lindsay (1)|
|E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018||0||No||N/A|
|E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018||0||No||N/A|
|E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018||1||No||Upton|
|E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018||0||No||N/A|
|E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018||2||Yes||Halstead, Ruzek & Upton combine on 2
|E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018||1||Yes||Ruzek (1)|
|E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018||1||Yes||Voight|
The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 68% of the season five 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 kills two people in season five by proxy, once contracting it out to a gang and the second to a prison warden. And Burgess’ season five killing is done when she coerces a Black woman under threat of imprisonment to walk around a notoriously anti-Black neighborhood and ask non-Black dealers and gang members for information. The woman is killed as her partner suggested she would be. All the other season five killings are direct shootings.
Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters
|Character||Number of people they’ve executed
||(How many) in each season|
|Voight||12||1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3), 5 (4)
|Alinsky||4||1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
|Halstead||13||1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1), 5 (4)
|Ruzek||6||1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 5 (3)
|Dawson||10||1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2), 5 (3)
|Burgess||3||1 (1), 2 (1), 5 (1)
|Atwater||3||2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1)
|Lindsay||6||3 (5), 4 (1)
The only significant recurring character to not kill somebody in the first five 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 fifth season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season five pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.
|Episode name/date|| Racialization of who the cops criminalize
|E1 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017||Arab/Muslim||Story about terrorism|
|E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
||Latinx||Latinx are cartels, gang members|
|E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017||White||N/A|
|E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017||Black||Black people are drug dealers|
|E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017||Latinx, white||N/A|
|E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017||White (migrant)||N/A|
|E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017||White||N/A|
|E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018||White||Latinxs are drug dealers|
|E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018||Latinx||Latinxs are drug dealers, Black people are addicts|
|E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018||Black, latinx||Black people are gang members, latinxs are drug dealers
|E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
||Latinx||Latinxs are gang members|
|E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018||Latinx||Latinxs are gang members|
|E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018||White||N/A|
|E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018||Black||Black people are gang members|
|E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018||White||Latinxs are drug dealers|
|E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018||Black||Latinxs are drug dealers, Black people are addicts|
|E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018||White||N/As|
|E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018||Black, white||Black people are drug dealers|
|E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018||Latinx||Latinxs 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 eleven season five episodes. In nine, the reference includes narcotrafficantes or gangs. Only in “Care Under Fire” and “Saved” do storylines with latinx references not read as a criminalized types. Their field of meaning in season five, as with all prior seasons, is drug dealer/gang member/narco.
Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in nine season five 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 five, each playing into a well defined imagery of Black criminality.
Season five concludes the story arc of Voigt vs. Denny Green. The conclusion provides a crystal clear delineation of of Black Criminality and white innocence as Chicago P.D.‘s field of meaning. In “Payback”, Alinsky frames a man on a drug charge to avoid prosecution for his role in a murder Voigt did in season three. Voight knows Alinsky framed the person and does not intervene. Earlier in the season in “Fallen”, Voight helps frame a Black man to cover for a corrupt white cop who suicided so the cop’s family will get his pension. The season ends with Voight setting up Green for trying to prosecute him and explaining to him that his transgressions were for the good of the city while Green’s are harmful and criminal. This parallels another storyline in “Fallen” where the criminality of a working class Black drug dealer is normal while that of a wealthy suburban white dealer is anomalous.
The only other season five episode that racializes a non-white population is “The Thing About Hereos” where Muslims are terrorists, consistent with all prior season portrayals. Upton mocks a detained man in the episode showing him pictures of his dead wife, earlier killed by her partner Halstead. She tells him, “Don’t be sad, she died for the cause” while smirking to Alinsky who smirks back.
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 five. “Homecoming” concludes a multi-story, multi-season arc conflict between Hank Voigt and his old partner Denny Green with Voigt setting Green up before Green can set up Voigt. 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 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
|E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017||Yes||Voight beats a man and puts a gun to his head|
|E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
|E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017||Yes||Ruzek beats a man for talking back|
|E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017||Yes||Voight beats a man and threatens to have another man raped to death in prison|
|E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017||No||N/A|
|E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017||Yes||Halstead beats a random dude|
|E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017||No||N/A|
|E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017||No||N/A|
|E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018||No||N/A|
|E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018||Yes||Voight threatens to and then begins to kill someone in a hospital but is interrupted|
|E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018||Yes||Voight and Alinsky threaten to kill someone in The Cage
|E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
|E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018||No||N/A|
|E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018||No||N/A|
|E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018||No||N/A|
|E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018||No||N/A|
|E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018||Yes||Upton beats an immobilized guy|
|E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018||Yes||Ruzek strangles a detained guy|
|E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018||Yes||Voight pistolwhips and later beats a handcuffed guy|
|E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018||No||N/A|
|E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018||Yes||Voight: chokes 1 guy, beats 2 other and threatens to kill 1 to extract information. Burgess beats a woman and threatens to deport her mom to extract info|
Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of twenty-two season five episodes (45%). Season five 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 five 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.
Season five misogyny
Chicago P.D. is rife with “normal” misogyny. In rare instances it comes under carceral feminist critique. Season five has a couple of longer story arcs where two cast members are portrayed as complex men going through some shit instead of violent misogynists. “Rabbit Hole” concludes a three episode story arc where Halstead continually rapes a woman, deceiving her as to his real identity as a cop and thus violating the terms upon which she gave consent. The woman is facing jail time in the end and Halstead is worried about losing his job for violating protocol (but not his freedom because cops are allowed by law to rape in this manner). Upton approaches the woman who is locked up and tells her she will help her stay out of jail if she doesn’t tell the other police what Halstead did. In “Chasing Monsters” Dawson ends the episode by killing his romantic partner. In the episode context his romantic partner is a visiting Salvadoran cop whose child was killed by an MS-13 stand-in gang and she is in Chicago on a revenge mission disguised as a police exchange (these are the stories that the show passes off as “gritty” and “realistic”…). She kills her target and Dawson kills her. The story is bizarre and silly but a much more plausible idea that Dawson killed his romantic partner is horrifyingly plausible. Police have domestic violence rates as much as 40% than the civilian population and cops regularly kill, and get away with killing, their romantic partners. Yet the only time the show covers a cop being violent towards his romantic partner it’s Dawson in a tragic hero moment. And in “Politics” sex workers are not people, but objects to be incarcerated or saved. Sex work is peripheral to Chicago P.D. storylines but in the rare instances sex work is discussed it is almost exclusively on these terms.
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 five. 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.