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.

Chicago P.D. Season 6 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 5 – Season 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 – 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
0 No N/A
E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018 1 Yes Halstead
E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018
1 Yes Ruzek
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
1 No Patrol cop
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
Episode notes
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?
What happens
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.

[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.

Chicago P.D. Season 5 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 4 – Season 5 – Season 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 – 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
1 Yes Voight
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)
Upton 2 5 (2)

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
Episode notes
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?
What happens
E1 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
No N/A
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
No N/A
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
No N/A
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.

[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.

Chicago P.D. Season 4 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 3 – Season 4 – Season 5 – Season 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 – 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 fourth 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 four police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves three of season four’s twenty-three episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing seven people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season four 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 “The Silos” 21 Sep 2016
0 No N/A
E2 “Made A Wrong Turn” 28 Sep 2016 1 Yes Halstead
E3 “All Cylinders Firing” 5 Oct 2016
0 No N/A
E4 “Big Friends, Big Enemies” 12 Oct 2016 0 No N/A
E5 “A War Zone” 26 Oct 2016 0 No N/A
E6 “Some Friend” 9 Nov 2016 0 No N/A
E7 “300,000 Likes” 16 Nov 2016 0 No N/A
E8 “A Shot Heard Round the World” 16 Nov 2016 1 Yes Alinsky
E9 “Don’t Bury This Case” 28 Nov 2016 0 No N/A
E10 “Don’t Read the News” 4 Jan 2017 0 No N/A
E11 “You Wish” 11 Jan 2017 1 No Rent-a-cop
E12 “Sanctuary” 18 Jan 2017 0 No N/A
E13 “I Remember Her Now” 8 Feb 2017
0 No N/A
E14 “Seven Indictments” 15 Feb 2017 0 No N/A
E15 “Favor, Affection, Malice or Ill-Will” 22 Feb 2017 2 Yes Atwater (1), Rixton (1)
E16 “Emotional Proximity” 1 Mar 2017 0 No N/A
E17 “Remember the Devil” 22 Mar 2017 0 No N/A
E18 “Little Bit of Light” 29 Mar 2017 0 No N/A
E19 “Last Minute Resistance” 5 Apr 2017 1 No Guy suicides surrounded by police
E20 “Grasping for Salvation” 26 Apr 2017 0 No N/A
E21 “Fagin” 3 May 2017 1 No Lindsay
E22 “Army of One” 10 May 2017 0 No N/A
E23 “Fork In The Road” 17 May 2017 0 No N/A

The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 26% of the season four episodes killing seven people along the way, a low number compared to prior season. 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 8 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3)
Alinsky 4 1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
Halstead 9 1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1)
Ruzek 3 1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1)
Dawson 7 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2)
Burgess 2 1 (1), 2 (1)
Atwater 3 2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1)
Lindsay 6 3 (5), 4 (1)

The only main cast character to not kill somebody in the first four seasons is Platt and Rixton, depsite being on the show only six episodes as a guest star, has time to kill someone.

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 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 fourth season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season fourth pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of who the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “The Silos” 21 Sep 2016
White
E2 “Made A Wrong Turn” 28 Sep 2016 Black Black people deal drugs, kidnap and rape white women
E3 “All Cylinders Firing” 5 Oct 2016
White
E4 “Big Friends, Big Enemies” 12 Oct 2016 Latinx Latinxs and Black people are gang members
E5 “A War Zone” 26 Oct 2016 Asian Asians are drug smugglers
E6 “Some Friend” 9 Nov 2016 Black, white Black people are pimps
E7 “300,000 Likes” 16 Nov 2016 White
E8 “A Shot Heard Round the World” 16 Nov 2016 White Black people are gang members
E9 “Don’t Bury This Case” 28 Nov 2016 White
E10 “Don’t Read the News” 4 Jan 2017 Black Black criminality as punishment for white racists
E11 “You Wish” 11 Jan 2017 White
E12 “Sanctuary” 18 Jan 2017 White Black people are gang members
E13 “I Remember Her Now” 8 Feb 2017
White
E14 “Seven Indictments” 15 Feb 2017 White Black people and latinx are gang members
E15 “Favor, Affection, Malice or Ill-Will” 22 Feb 2017 Latinx, white
Black people and latinx are gang members
E16 “Emotional Proximity” 1 Mar 2017 White
E17 “Remember the Devil” 22 Mar 2017 White
E18 “Little Bit of Light” 29 Mar 2017 White
E19 “Last Minute Resistance” 5 Apr 2017 White
E20 “Grasping for Salvation” 26 Apr 2017 White Black cop is crooked
E21 “Fagin” 3 May 2017 Black Black children are gang members
E22 “Army of One” 10 May 2017 White
E23 “Fork In The Road” 17 May 2017 White

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 three season four episodes. In each, the reference or entire story is about 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 four.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in ten season four episodes. In all Black people are associated with criminality, usually gangs. In one episode, “Made a Wrong Turn”, Black neighborhoods are dangerous geographies and Black people are gang members except one who kidnaps and rapes white women from the suburbs. Another episode, “Grasping for Salvation’,  introduces Denny Woods, one of Voight’s former partners who is a crooked cop that frames people. The episode asks us to believe that Voight – the cop who tortures and frames people modeled after Jon Burge – is the one who frees Black men framed up by the police. A further episode, “Don’t Read the News”, has Voight threatening a man who specializes in violence against Black people with being jailed next to Black people. This proposes Black criminality and white innocence so inherent that even a white person who specifically preys on Black people will fall prey to Black people criminalized for any number of reasons, a version of the familiar cop show trope where the police use mass incarceration of Black people as ‘just desserts’ for the white nationalists they occasionally jail alongside them.

The episode “Fagin” has Voight hunting a Black man previously shot by the police causing a permanent disability and who received a large financial settlement. The man, designed after Charles Dickens’ anti-semitic caricature Fagin from Oliver Twist as per the episode title, runs a crew of Black children as violent bank robbers which, in the context of Black Captivity and Chicago P.D.‘s field of meaning of Black criminality, is supposed to be a plausible story.

The only season three reference to Asian people has them as drug smugglers akin to Triads the same as earlier seasons.

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 four. “Grasping for Salvation” begins a multi-story, multi-season arc that introducing Denny Woods as a perpetual thorn in the side of Voight and his Intelligence Division. 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 “The Silos” 21 Sep 2016
No N/A
E2 “Made A Wrong Turn” 28 Sep 2016 Yes Voight threatens to electrocute a man in a bathtub and have a dog attack a homeless man with a dog while he laughs. He knocks a man off a chair, steals his laptop while Alinsky threatens him as he lies in pain
E3 “All Cylinders Firing” 5 Oct 2016
Yes Platt tortures a man
E4 “Big Friends, Big Enemies” 12 Oct 2016 Yes Voight chokes and beats a handcuffed man
E5 “A War Zone” 26 Oct 2016 Yes Voight beats a man
E6 “Some Friend” 9 Nov 2016 Yes Voight threatens to shoot a man to extract information. Alinsky threatens a man with a bat to extract information
E7 “300,000 Likes” 16 Nov 2016 No N/A
E8 “A Shot Heard Round the World” 16 Nov 2016 No N/A
E9 “Don’t Bury This Case” 28 Nov 2016 Yes Voight beats a detained man and slams someone’s head against a car to extract info. He & Alinsky kidnap and gag a woman to coerce cooperation
E10 “Don’t Read the News” 4 Jan 2017 No N/A
E11 “You Wish” 11 Jan 2017 No N/A
E12 “Sanctuary” 18 Jan 2017 Yes Voight tortures a man to coerce a confession and again after the confession
E13 “I Remember Her Now” 8 Feb 2017
No N/A
E14 “Seven Indictments” 15 Feb 2017 No N/A
E15 “Favor, Affection, Malice or Ill-Will” 22 Feb 2017 Yes
Voight throws a guy over  a counter to extract information. Halstead beats a man with a flashlight. Voight grabs a man by his broken nose to extract information
E16 “Emotional Proximity” 1 Mar 2017 Yes Voight chokes, slams into a wall and threatens to kill someone to extract information. He later beats a man to coerce a confession.
E17 “Remember the Devil” 22 Mar 2017 Yes Voight stabs a woman to extract information
E18 “Little Bit of Light” 29 Mar 2017 No N/A
E19 “Last Minute Resistance” 5 Apr 2017 Yes Voight chokes a man and exiles him under penalty of death
E20 “Grasping for Salvation” 26 Apr 2017 Yes Voight beats a man to coerce a confession
E21 “Fagin” 3 May 2017 No N/A
E22 “Army of One” 10 May 2017 Yes Lindsay pistol whips and threatens to kill someone to extract info
E23 “Fork In The Road” 17 May 2017 Yes Alinsky and Halstead deny a man medical treatment to extract information

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in fourteen out of twenty-three season four episodes (61%). Season four 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 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 over half of season three 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 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

In “I Remember Her Now”, Voight and crew look into an institution where young girls are being assaulted by at least one male guard after one girl dies. It is not the violent guards who put the girls at risk but another young girl who is turning out her peers. Here the violence sex workers face is not from the institutions that marginalize, criminalize and institutionalize violence against them, but from other sex workers. It’s another example of how institutions that marginalize people cannot reflect upon the dangers they present to the populations they criminalize and marginalize.

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season four. 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.

Chicago P.D. Season 2 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 1 – Season 2 – Season 3Season 4

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 – 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
1 Yes Dawson
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)
Atwater 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
White
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
No
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.

[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.

Chicago P.D. Season 1 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 1 – Season 2Season 3Season 4 

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 – 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 first 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 one police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves six of season one’s fifteen episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing nine people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season one 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 the season two episode “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 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014 0 No N/A
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014 1 No Dawson
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014 1 Yes Ruzek
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014 1 Yes Dawson
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014 1 No Voight
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014 1 Yes Alinsky
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014 1 Yes Voight
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014 0 No N/A
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014 0 No N/A
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014 1 Yes Halstead
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014 1 No Voight
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014 1 Yes Burgess

The Chicago police department kill someone they criminalize in over 40% of the season one 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.

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 in several early episodes. 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 first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014
Non-Black latinx Non-Black Colombians are narcos, Black ppl are gang members
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014
Non-Black latinx
Non-Black Colombians are narcos
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014
White
Black people are gang members
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014
Black, white Black people are gang members
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014
White
Mexicans are narcos
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014
White
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014
White
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014
Chinese Chinese are Triads
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014
Non-Black latinx Black ppl and non-Black latinxs are gang members
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014
White
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014
White
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians are narcos
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014
South Asian Syrians are hospital bombing suspects
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians are narcos
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians 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 seven 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 one.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in six episodes. In only one, “Wrong Side of the Bars”, is the Black character not articulated to gangs. Most are an early season story arc where Voight coerces Black drug dealers to snitch for him. Gangs/drug dealers are Black people’s field of meaning in season one.

The only season one episode with Muslims is about a bombing and the only one with with non-main cast Asians is about the Triads. This sample is too small to define the field of meaning.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Chicago P.D. regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. 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. Season one has two main Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. The first, Dawson v.s El Pulpo, starts in the first episode and ends in the season’s penultimate episode with the unit arresting Pulpo while Dawson is in the hospital. The second main arc is Voight vs. Internal Affairs, a slow burning story that continues throughout the series with the occasional flare-up.

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 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014
Yes Voight beats someone to extract information
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014
No
N/A
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014
Yes
Voight and Alinsky kidnap and beat a Black man
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014
Yes
Lindsay locks a dopesick sex worker in a cage to extract information
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014
Yes
Voight beats two men with a pool cue and puts his pistol in a man’s mouth to extract information
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014
Yes Voight cuts someone with a knife to extract information
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014
No N/A
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014
No N/A
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014
Yes Voight beats a man with a crowbar and threatens to have him raped
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014
Yes Voight shoots a man in the leg just because
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014
Yes Voight and Alinsky put a man’s hand in a garbage disposal to extract information
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014
Yes Voight tortures a man in a hospital boiler room
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014
No N/A
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014
Yes Voight beats and, with Alinsky, chokes a man with chains while preparing to drown him
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014
No N/A

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of fifteen season one episodes (67%). It starts in the first episode when the show introduces “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 resemblence 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-thirds of season one 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

Chicago P.D. does not have many sex worker themes in season one. The character Nadia is a sex worker snitch active in a few episodes and is “saved” from sex work and addiction by Dawson and Linsay after Linsay tortures her by locking her in The Cage while she’s dopesick. Sex workers as coerced snitches has a long history in cop shows and Chicago P.D.‘s criminalization of sex work will have to wait until I post several seasons of data to have enough points to define it in detail or do a character review of Nadia through all her episodes before her character is killed.

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season one. 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.

FBI Season One 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.

FBI is a police procedural running on CBS since 2018 with an ensemble structure centered around two leads. It tells fictional stories of the FBI focused around partners Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym) and Omar “OA” Zidan (Zeeko Zaki) as they try to incarcerate or kill the people they or the state criminalize.(1) It has single episode story lines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in. FBI shares a lot with Criminal MindsNCIS and CSI in how it uses database searches and panoptic surveillance as an unnamed, pseudoneutral character that lends other characters omniscience (Criminal Minds also has an actually omniscient character in Spencer Reid). Season one has two recurring story arcs that affect multiple plot lines: Maggie discovers that someone murdered her husband and she tries to track down the killers, and Jubal interacts with other characters in substance abuse recovery.

The two leads are more or less competent in producing formulaic characters. Missy Peregrym reproduces her vulnerable-yet-violent-cop character Andy McNally from Rookie Blue except this time it’s her dead husband haunting her instead of an alcoholic dad.(2) Zeeko Zaki is a grim-faced agent who draws hard lines in the sand about any legal transgression and is constantly overcome by his emotions. FBI is more character driven than producer Dick Wolf’s famed Law & Order series and about the same mix of character + procedure as his Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit. The only semi-novel aspect is Zaki from a representation perspective. There aren’t many Arab Muslim protagonists in US cop shows. The institutions are inherently reactionary so representation in them isn’t so interesting but is slightly novel. Like Wolf’s earlier shows, FBI is highly procedural if not always very realistic. It does resolve many story lines by killing the villain which is unlike Law & Order, but makes rare use of torture and ticking time bomb stories, both of which are more common on contemporary shows like Blue Bloods.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in FBI‘s first season’s stories. All of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. While FBI has no novel or outlier data categories, some things do happen more or less frequently in FBI than other cop shows so some table descriptions focus differently from other shows’ data already presented on this site. FBI‘s one significant outlier is that it spends no time in season one demonizing journalism. This is uncommon among cop shows.

Season one police killings

FBI at least partially resolves six of season one’s twenty-two episodes with the death of the person the feds are pursuing and the FBI kills five people they are pursuing in two others. The amount of people killed by any particular agent in season one is only slightly remarkable though both OA and Maggie in season one kill more people than most of the people they criminalize. More troubling is how FBI normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Pilot” 25 Sep 2018 0 No
N/A
E2 “Green Birds” 2 Oct 2018
1 Yes OA
E3 “Prey” 9 Oct 2018
0 No
N/A
E4 “Crossfire” 16 Oct 2018
1 Yes Unnamed FBI sniper
E5 “Doomsday” 23 Oct 2018
0 No N/A
E6 “Family Man” 30 Oct 2018
1 No Unnamed FBI SWAT
E7 “Cops and Robbers” 13 Nov 2018
0 No N/A
E8 “This Land Is Your Land” 20 Nov 2018
0 Sorta N/A
E9 “Compromised” 4 Dec 2018
0 Yes N/A
E10 “The Armorer’s Faith” 11 Dec 2018
5 No OA (1), British cops (1), other FBI (3)
E11 “Identity Crisis” 15 Jan 2019
0 No N/A
E12 “A New Dawn” 22 Jan 2019
0 No N/A
E13 “Partners in Crime” 12 Feb 2019
0 Yes Killed by kidnapee
E14 “Exposed” 19 Feb 2019
1 Sorta Maggie & OA shoot the same person
E15 “Scorched Earth” 26 Feb 2019
0 No N/A
E16 “Invisible” 12 Mar 2019
0 No
N/A
E17 “Apex” 26 Mar 2019
1 Yes Maggie
E18 “Most Wanted” 2 Apr 2019
0 No N/A
E19 “Conflict of Interest” 16 Apr 2019
2 Yes Maggie (1), Jubal (1)
E20 “What Lies Beneath” 30 Apr 2019 0 No N/A
E21 “Appearances” 7 May 2019
0 No N/A
E22 “Closure” 14 May 2019 0 Yes N/A

The FBI is involved involved in the deaths of people they pursue in about one-third of the season one episodes. FBI is not 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 already accepts these outcomes as palatable or else audiences would read it 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, FBI normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The relationship between the showrunners producing these stories and audiences receiving them as virtuous is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? FBI portrays the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity largely without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly beginning with the show’s pilot episode. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience that brings knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be spelled out when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when FBI represents FBI agents largely criminalizing white people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

FBI‘s first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The FBI in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops pursue
Episode notes
E1 “Pilot” 25 Sep 2018 White, Black, non-Black latinx
Richard Spencer stand-in tries to instigate gang war. OA introduced as ex-counter-terror
E2 “Green Birds” 2 Oct 2018
Arab Muslim, South Asian Muslim Muslim man seduces USian women to join ISIS
E3 “Prey” 9 Oct 2018
White (Eastern European migrants)
Eastern European sex traffickers
E4 “Crossfire” 16 Oct 2018
White, Black
White ex-soldier mentors Somali child as sniper
E5 “Doomsday” 23 Oct 2018
White
E6 “Family Man” 30 Oct 2018
White
FBI asks if non-white latinx maid is connected to a cartel
E7 “Cops and Robbers” 13 Nov 2018
White (3), Black (1)
 
E8 “This Land Is Your Land” 20 Nov 2018
White
 
E9 “Compromised” 4 Dec 2018
White, Black, latinx
Black man is gang leader, non-Black latinx is cartel
E10 “The Armorer’s Faith” 11 Dec 2018
White, white latinx
Latinxs are Los Zetas
E11 “Identity Crisis” 15 Jan 2019
White latinx
White latinx coke dealers are Sinaloa Cartel
E12 “A New Dawn” 22 Jan 2019
White, Black
Black anti-racists are randonly dangerous
E13 “Partners in Crime” 12 Feb 2019
White
 
E14 “Exposed” 19 Feb 2019
White
E15 “Scorched Earth” 26 Feb 2019
White  
E16 “Invisible” 12 Mar 2019
White, Asian
E17 “Apex” 26 Mar 2019
White
E18 “Most Wanted” 2 Apr 2019
White
E19 “Conflict of Interest” 16 Apr 2019
Black Black men are gang affiliated
E20 “What Lies Beneath” 30 Apr 2019
Arab Mulsim, Arab Jew
Muslim Brotherhood only named organization
E21 “Appearances” 7 May 2019
White (2), non-Black latinx, Black
Multiracial meth dealing biker gang
E22 “Closure” 14 May 2019
White, white latinx, non-Black latinx
Juarez Cartel story

FBI often works to have contrasting “good” characters every time it produces a racist character type. 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 FBI 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 FBI allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

FBI makes latinxs part of the plot in six episodes. In each the latinx characters, primarily white latinxs (though some might be positioned non-white in the US and Canada by non-latinx white settlers), are articulated to gang or narcotrafficking stories with MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas and the Juarez Cartel all making appearances. Gang and cartel life is FBI‘s full imaginary, the field of meaning, for latinxs from MS-13 in the season opener to the Juarez Cartel in the season finale.

FBI features Black characters as central to storylines in four episodes and as ancillary to a few others. In the pilot episode Black characters are gang members or otherwise articulated to the gang story. It’s the same with episode 14, “Conflicts of Interest”, about a Nigerian fentanyl gang. Anti-Black portrayals of Black people go beyond racist types, they (re)produce a Black Criminality through which we are to understand Blackness as a whole. In “A New Dawn” the FBI is called in to investigate the killing of some alt-right blowhard who was inciting violence against non-white students. The person who killed him is a white anti-racist working with a group of Black liberation activists. The episode narrates the group as being too extreme – as opposed to moderately anti-racist? – criminalizing Black opposition to white violence. The Black liberation activists are dangerous to random people necessitating a COINTELPRO-style attack against the group. Though the show doesn’t intend this, the episode affirms resistance to anti-Blackness as something to be punished and the white communities attacking Black people are the victims of the anti-racists. The episode rejects the dead alt-right dude’s politics while faithfully producing imaginary “reverse racism”. The episode even reproduces the right wing trope that Black activists aren’t motivated on their own, but by white liberals intervening, in this case a college professor.

Both season one episodes with Muslims as parts of plot lines involve terrorism. “Green Birds” has an ISIS member seducing young white girls to carry out attacks. The white girls are dupes and the ISIS member’s actual romantic partner is a Nigerian Muslim girl. In “What Lies Beneath” the FBI provides security for a visiting Egyptian official with a history of torture. The group targeting him is never named in the end and the only organization named is the Muslim Brotherhood. OA himself is introduced in the pilot with a supervisor telling him he’s “no longer undercover tracking terrorists,” experience referred to throughout the season. OA’s meaning  and professional capacity is still tied to terrorism. FBI has no concepts of Arabs or Muslims outside of the War on Terror’s islamophobic field of meaning.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

FBI barely uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. 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 be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Season one has only one Big Hero vs. Big Villain story. Bell has a personal quest to solve her husband’s murder in an arc spanning several episodes and concluding with the season one finale. The only thing keeping this from being a true Big Hero vs. Big Villain story is the hero and villain are unknown to each other.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

FBI only makes use of torture in a single season one episode, “What Lies Beneath”, where OA sticks his finger into a hospitalized person’s bullt wound in and attempt to extract information. This is rare by the standards of contemporary cop shows like Blue Bloods or NCIS but in line with Wolf’s earlier shows.

The Ticking Time Bomb

FBI in season one has two Ticking Time Bomb episodes, “A New Dawn” and “What Lies Beneath”. This is rare compared to contemporary shows and more like those in the 1990s.

Other cop show tropes

FBI invokes few other cop show tropes in season one. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to FBI frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) This isn’t a slight against Peregrym. Young Woman Cop In A Mainstream Procedural only allows so much expressive range.

Criminal Minds Season 2 Data Overview

Previous Criminal Minds data overviews: Season 1

This post collects data on how often various things happen during season two of the CBS police procedural and drama Criminal Minds. You can find a broader overview and context for the below data categories in the season one write-up linked above.

Season two police killings

Criminal Minds resolves ten of season two’s twenty-three episodes with the death of the person or persons they are pursuing. Derek Morgan killed three people by himself in season two and was one of three (along with Prentiss and Hotchner) to fatally shoot another. Morgan has killed five people over the first two seasons, Hotchner two (plus one non-fatal shooting), Greenaway two and Reid two. The only main cast members who have not killed people through two seasons are Jason Gideon, JJ and Penelope Garcia – the latter two of which are rarely or never in a position to have contact with the people the BAU pursues.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 1 Yes Suicide
E2 “P911” 27 Sep 2006 0 No N/A
E3 “The Perfect Storm” 4 Oct 2006 3 No Local cop
E4 “Psychodrama” 11 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E5 “Aftermath” 18 Oct 2006 1 Yes Greenaway
E6 “The Boogeyman” 25 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E7 “North Mammon” 1 Nov 2006 1 No N/A
E8 “Empty Planet” 8 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E9 “The Last Word” 15 Nov 2006 5 No N/A
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 10 Yes 2 by Morgan / 2 by SWAT team
E11 “Sex, Birth, Death” 29 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E12 “Profiler, Profiled” 13 Dec 2007 1 No N/A
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 3 No N/A
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 6 N/A N/A
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 3 Yes Reid
E16 “Fear and Loathing” 14 Feb 2007 4 No N/A
E17 “Distress” 21 Feb 2007 4 Yes Unnamed police sniper
E18 “Jones” 28 Feb 2007 3 No N/A
E19 “Ashes and Dust” 21 Mar 2007 9 Yes N/A
E20 “Honor Among Thieves” 11 Apr 2007 3 Yes Russian mob
E21 “Open Season” 2 May 2007 7 Yes 1 by Morgan / 1 by intended victim
E22 “Legacy” 9 May 2007 2 Yes Morgan, Prentiss & Hotchner
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 3 Yes Suicide

Criminal Minds in season two pursues all white people except for episodes: “Fear and Loathing” – Black male, “Profiler, Profiled” – Black male, and “Lessons Learned” – several Arab and Black Muslim men. Season two stills portrays Black Captivity largely without Black people. It is explicit about it in episodes like “Profiler, Profiled” where it takes tremendous intervention in order to steer Black youth from criminality and where we first dive into Morgan’s background and meet a large group of violent Black men that comprise both his peers and authority figures. “Distress” too does this where Hotchner imagines exceptional difficulty finding someone in Houston’s Fifth Ward. “We’re looking for a homicidal serial criminal in an neighborhood populated by criminals. The challenge will be separating him from the rest.” But as noted in the season one overview, Criminal Minds finds Black criminality as much in audience grammar as in explicit dialogue.

“Aftermath” is an outlier in the police shootings category as Greenaway murders someone and Hotchner and a couple of others do not approve. Importantly, neither Gideon nor Hotchner pursues accountability for Greenaway despite knowing the murder was unjustified.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds season two focuses a little less on journalism – in canon this means accountability – being a malicious force but it is still present in nearly every episode.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others styled more after a superhero with a personal rogue’s gallery.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 Whole BAU Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Dies via suicide bombing
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 Gideon Jind Allah Gideon must outwit to avoid mass casualties
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 Gideon Frank Frank has super elaborate plans
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Hankel kidnaps Reid
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Reid kills Hankel
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 Gideon Frank Frank kills people close to Gideon

Six of season two’s twenty-three episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “Profiler, Profiled”, could be included too and “Lesson’s Learned” could be excluded..

The season opening episode concludes a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc from season one. Randall Garner compiled extensive personal dossiers on the entire BAU through conversations with Reid’s mother while they both lived in the same psychiatric facility. Leaving aside the silliness and the ableist premise of hyperviolent crazy supervillains, Garner frames one BAU agent (Greenaway) while seducing another (Garcia) and creating mythologies around the rest. This is a story of individual personalities in contest, not agents of systemic violence pursuing their violent ends. The system is absent and the episode serves only to start Elle Greenaway on her way out of the BAU.

Episode thirteen introduces Frank for the first part of a nonsequential two episode story where he faces off against Gideon. As with Greenaway in “The Fisher King”, Gideon’s battle with Frank lays the groundwork for his exit from the BAU early in season three. Frank in “No Way Out pt.2” kills Gideon’s love interest and someone Gideon helped save during “The Fisher King pt.2”. In Reid’s two episode story arc against Tobias Hankell, Hankell kidnaps Reid and one of Hankell’s three personalities gets Reid addicted to dilaudid. Both Frank vs. Gideon and Hankell vs. Reid position BAU members as the targets and victims of the people the very people they pursue.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Episode name Torturer Does it succeed?
E2 “P911”
Morgan Yes
E4 “Psychodrama” Hotchner Yes
E10 “Lessons Learned”
CIA No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season two. Morgan slams someone’s head against a car while the man is surrounded by armed FBI agents in “P911”. Hotchner arranges do have pain medication denied to someone he shot in “Psychodrama”. In both examples the goal of the torture is simply pain. Neither Morgan nor Hotchner is trying to extract information so their torture is successful in that they cause the pain they sought. In the third example the CIA is torturing Jind Allah and Gideon stops them not because he is opposed, but to position himself as an alternative in a Good Cop/Bad Cop performance. Gideon even requests the torture briefly continue. The CIA’s torture happens to be unsuccessful but it is not a significant ethical problem in canon.

Season two ableist storytelling

Season two only amplifies Criminal Minds‘ ableist premise described in season one’s write up and there’s little to add here although Gideon briefly moves towards eugenics in describing Frank as having a biological inclination towards killing. Some episodes pathologize people in severe psychological crisis like “Distress” (US ex-soldier with PTSD from murdering Somalis lives inside a murderous flashback), “Psychodrama” (Bank robber in drug induced psychosis forces others to engage in incestuous and oedipal violence) and the Tobias Hankell episodes (Man with disassociative identities kids naps Reid).

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds season two uses a ticking time bomb in every episode but “Aftermath”, “The Last Word”, “Profiler, Profiled” and “No Way Out pt.2” with a couple of others that are borderline. It still remains in season two a story crutch to develop urgency and justify the large numbers of police shootings and torture and to create a sense of urgency where the storytelling otherwise wouldn’t demand such investment.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds season two has the first episodes to have significant Black characters beyond Derek Morgan. In one of the two, “Profiler, Profiled”, the storyline is tied to drugs and gangs as is common to cop shows. The other “Fear and Loathing” features a slight variant to another anti-Black cop show staple: the Loud and Wrong Civil Rights Activist. A third episode, “Lessons Learned”, has no Black characters beyond Morgan with dialogue but does mention they converted to Islam in jail making their narrative appearance Black criminality.

Season two introduces more prominently sex workers as targets of misogynist violence in three episodes, “The Last Word“, “Sex, Birth, Death” and “Legacy”. None of these have characters with significant agency nor is whorephobia or any misogynist violence even explored as a cause for the harm. In all episodes the FBI does not reflect on how being targeted by police makes sex workers more vulnerable to misogynist violence. Because Criminal Minds relies so little on street interviews it rarely reproduces the familiar Sex Worker Omniscient Snitch or Transwomen Sex Workers as Punchlines imaginaries so popular in Law & Order and other cop shows.

Season two brings Criminal Minds a second episode with a significant Muslim character, “Lessons Learned”. Like the only first season episode, this one is about terrorism. Through season two Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without the stories being about terrorism.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

Criminal Minds Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Influential but not directly cited 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, Angela Davis and others. Anything good below stems from their work. Please support their works whether or not you find this useful. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – is appreciated and welcome.

Season 2

Criminal Minds is a police procedural that ran on CBS from 2005 to 2020 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) as they try to incarcerate or kill people, usually with a strong focus on serial attacks, while also having various personal dramas.(1) It has single episode storylines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in and spawned three spin-offs, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, Criminal Minds (Korean adaptation) and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect tropes seen in other cop shows too. I will also post their data. Others are more unique or useful only with lots of other context. For example it’s not always clear how many people die in an episode. I use my best guess in cases where someone is shot or otherwise injured and no outcome is declared and whether to include people already dead prior to an episode’s start – the BAU is usually called in after a series of attacks have already occurred – as part of the body count. The total episode body count isn’t a very insightful data point so I’m not worried about its imprecision. For each table I try to offer some context in the annotations that follow. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others. For example, Criminal Minds in season one does not use the threat of prison rape as an interrogation tool so it is not listed below whereas in some other shows it is common.

 Season one police killings

Eight of season one’s twenty-two episodes are resolved with the death of the suspect and the suspect(s) die in three others. The amount of people killed by any particular BAU agent in season one is only slightly remarkable – assuming we already suspended disbelief about the existence of a department of gun-toting, ass-kicking, minor celebrity bureaucratic psychologists. The totals over the whole series show that most members of the BAU – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than the majority of their profiled serial killers. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Criminal Minds normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 2 Yes Greenaway
E2 “Compulsion” 29 Sep 2005 3 No N/A
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 2 No (2) N/A
E4 “Plain Sight” 12 Oct 2005 2 No N/A
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 1 No N/A
E6 “L.D.S.K.” 2 Nov 2005 2 Yes Reid
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 4 No N/A
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 3 No N/A
E9 “Derailed” 23 Nov 2005 1 Yes Civilian train passenger
E10 “The Popular Kids” 30 Nov 2005 2 No N/A
E11 “Blood Hungry” 14 Dec 2005 2 No N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006 1 No N/A
E13 “Poison” 18 Jan 2006 2 No (3) N/A
E14 “Riding the Lightning” 25 Jan 2006 3 Yes Executed by the state of Florida
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 Mar 2006 1 No N/A
E16 “The Tribe” 8 Mar 2006 13 No (4) 1 by Hotchner

1 by guest star

E17 “A Real Rain” 22 Mar 2006 4 Yes Unnamed NYPD sniper
E18 “Somebody’s Watching” 29 Mar 2006 3 No N/A
E19 “Machismo” 12 Apr 2006 3 Yes Group of vigilante women
E20 “Charm and Harm” 19 Apr 2006 3 Yes Morgan
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 3 Yes Unnamed CIA personnel
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 3 No N/A

The BAU or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they pursue in just under half the episodes, a nearly 50% fatality rate for those targeted. Criminal Minds is not responsible for 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 illegible and read as the sadistic horror it is. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Criminal Minds 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.

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Criminal Minds‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The BAU in season one pursues only white people but for one non-Black, non-indigenous latinx man (“Machismo”). There is also one Arab Muslim man who is partnered with a white person but not targeted by the BAU (“Secrets and Lies”), though he is detained at the end. Criminal Minds produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the seventh episode “The Fox”. 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 Criminal Minds represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds shares with all cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. The series has one character, Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), whose job is media liaison. Most cop shows do not have such a character. Collecting data for those shows about how they represent journalism makes sense as I can track where they attack journalism. But Criminal Minds has a whole character whose job it is to manipulate, deceive, put in their place and express contempt for the media. Journalists are a hostile force in Criminal Minds. I can’t track it in the same way as other data points because it’s fundamental to the show and in every season one episode. There are some outliers like in “L.D.S.K.” where JJ threatens a journalist with indefinite detention “under the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act” if he does not reveal his source or in “Unfinished Business” where JJ – offered as a sympathetic character – is continually interrupted by journalists in a hostile manner that flusters her. More common is where JJ releases false information via press releases or the team works to withhold information. In the former instance the press is a tool for the carceral state to manipulate. In the latter, an irresponsible threat to public safety. Most other cop shows show disdain for the media through painting them as unfair to cop who murder which is different than most of what Criminal Minds does. But no other cop show I know of takes time in every episode to critique the media, not even Blue Bloods which does it an awful lot.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. 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 be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s storylines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Criminal Minds does not do this. 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 BAU pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 Gideon Richard Slessman Partial use. Slessman studies and mocks Gideon
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 Gideon Adrian Bale
Gideon’s redemption story
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 Gideon, later the whole BAU Karl Arnold, “The Fox”
Arnold reappears later in the series
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 March 2006 Guest character Max Ryan Walter Kern A one-that-got-away redemption story
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 Gideon
Bruno Hawks
Gideon redeems a fallen comrade
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 Whole BAU
Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Brings in personal details of each BAU member

Six of season one’s twenty-two episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “The Fox”, introduces Karl Arnold who will return in season five episode “Outfoxed” where he parlays with the BAU about someone they’re pursuing and delivers information to Hotchner in his Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc with The Reaper.

The table’s first two examples introduce the BAU’s lead profiler Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin). We meet Gideon in episode one as a university professor and learn he stepped away from the BAU after losing several colleagues in a bombing in Boston carried out by Adrian Bale (Tim Kelleher). One person the BAU pursues in episode one has one of Gideon’s books and tells Gideon, “I’m a fan of yours” while taunting him about the consequences of Adrian Bale’s bombing. This doesn’t establish fully a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story on its own because Gideon had no idea this person existed. Yet it does firmly establish Adrian Bale as a personally important antagonist to Gideon. When Gideon outwits Bale in episode three this completes his redemption arc from traumatized ex-BAU member to being once again the lead profiler. These episodes are more expository than procedural in this respect.

Episode fifteen expands the Big Hero group beyond the active BAU and introduces Max Ryan (Geoff Pierson), a retired BAU profiler who was a mentor of sorts to Gideon and Hotchner and holds a legend status for younger members of the BAU. Someone Ryan pursued but did not find resurfaces and Ryan and the BAU have to pursue him again. In expanding Big Hero vs. Big Villain beyond the active BAU, Criminal Minds establishes that it is personal for the profilers. They are not dispensers of monopolized violence. This, along with the various conflicts the BAU has with higher-ups in the FBI, separates them from their systemic positions.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Criminal Minds regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in two respects in these stories. Either the story heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic. While in later seasons Criminal Minds questions torture’s general efficacy, it does not question its ethics. Criminal Minds is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows 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 Torturer
Does it succeed?
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 Greenaway
Yes
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 None but is suggested by others
N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006
Gideon No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season one. Elle Greenaway in “Broken Mirror” stomps on someone’s testicles in order to successfully acquire the location of someone kidnapped. Shortly after Reid asks Hotchner how Greenaway got the information and Hotchner jokes that the man will be sore. Here Criminal Minds shows torture as ethical, effective and humorous. FBI agents from another department in “Natural Born Killer” suggest torturing someone to acquire information. The BAU does not reject torture at all but offers that, because the person arrested was so horribly abused as a child, it will not be effective in this instance. The episode offers no concerns about its effectiveness otherwise nor its ethics. Jason Gideon in “What Fresh Hell” interrogates someone the BAU arrested by holding a loaded and cocked pistol to his head. Here torture does not work yet it is not questioned from an ethical perspective, only about legal risk and if it reflects poorly upon Gideon’s mental state.

Season one ableist storytelling

Much like its portrayal of the media, Criminal Minds doesn’t require a separate table on ableism in its storytelling due to its ubiquity. Criminal Minds would be better titled “Criminalized Minds”. Nearly every episode pathologizes harmful behavior as mental illness or malfunction of some sort. Just under half of season one’s episodes have all or predominantly women victims. Yet Criminal Minds does not portray this as patriarchal violence or, in any meaningful way, misogynistic. Instead it pathologizes violent misogynists as mentally ill and removes patriarchal violence entirely from the narratives. If, for example, a white male California professor harasses and gaslights exclusively Black feminists and, after having a public meltdown, notes he has severe mental illness that explains this behavior to a degree, we must accept his misogynoir as a pathology coincidental to systemic misogynoir. Yet there is no such pathology. Even if certain neuroatypicalities can explain some harmful behavior, it cannot explain why that professor only attacked Black women.(5) That is simply misogyny and anti-Blackness. So it is with Criminal Minds.

The BAU spends much of each episode identifying deviances in the people it pursues. They look for “triggers” and other identifying markers that will help them figure out what is wrong with their targets. There are very few episodes throughout the whole series that do not base their stories on pathologizing neuroatypicality. To make a table listing which episodes are ableist in premise or contain ableist elements is redundant to simply listing the episodes. The only way to do this in any coherent way would be to list those episodes where someone has a named mental illness such as with the twitchy, loud schizophrenic man in “Derailed”. To do this would establish an uncritical ability hierarchy that I have no interest in and cannot imagine useful. When I post data for Law & Order, CSI and others I will have separate tables for ableist stories and instances.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds relies on ticking time bomb premises in order to build a sense of urgency. The BAU doesn’t arrest people at home while they’re doing something mundane. Instead each episode is a pressing crisis which is somewhat unusual for a show so procedural heavy (though this is fairly common in NCIS and a few others). Only “Derailed”, “The Popular Kids” and “Somebody’s Watching” in season one do not have an immediate, time-sensitive crisis that saves somebody’s life.(6)

If this was just lazy storytelling it would be forgivable. But cops shows (re)produce discourse. Ticking time bombs means there is often ‘no time for that!’ and the BAU has to take exceptional measures to end crises, such as executing the people they pursue. Another cop show, 24, has such a strong discursive effect that far right U.S. Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia invoked its ticking time bomb justifications for torture.

“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.
“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges.

This is an exceptional example of cop shows having a strong discursive effect but it is less an outlier than it might first seem. In 2006 an U.S. army general met with 24‘s producers to ask them to tone down the torture. He said, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?” and suggested “they should do a show where torture backfires.” There is an immediate crisis that torture either solves or is intended to solve in each of Criminal Minds‘ season one episodes where cops torture or suggest it.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds is a minor outlier to other cop shows in some respects. It excludes almost entirely Black people from season one so it cannot articulate them to stories of criminalized drugs or gangs like so many other shows do. Nor does the show offer consistent pairings of latinx people and narcotrafficking in season one. And since the show offers a Muslim character only once in season one, it isn’t clear based upon that single data point from this that Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without a terrorism theme, an islamophobic trope discussed at length by Evelyn Alsultany in Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. Criminal Minds does do this but it will only be evident here when I post the data for the whole series.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to Criminal Minds frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) But suspect dies by suicide when cornered by the BAU

(3) But suspect dies by suicide in FBI custody

(4) Cult leader is not killed but BAU kills two cult members

(5) If the detail didn’t give it away, this happened in real life. No need to share the schmuck’s name as he’s already largely gone from public life.

(6) “The Fisher King pt.1” also has no ticking time bomb but that is only because it is a two part story arc that concludes in season two. At that point there is a ticking time bomb.

A Punch Line. A White Supremacist Contortion.

This article examines U.S. public awareness of mass incarceration of Black people through the stories told on police procedural television programs. Though not quoting directly when focusing on mass incarceration and White supremacy I am informed by lectures and writings on prisons and racism by Angela Davis, George Jackson and Mariame Kaba. Please see their works for in depth analysis of prisons and White supremacy and Kaba’s Project NIA (or related efforts across the continent) for ways to take action to end the injustice described in this essay.

The punch line is a common exercise in storytelling beyond comedy. Punch lines are occasionally educational but much more often they depend on what the audience already knows. For this reason they are at least as telling of the audience as they are of the storyteller. This essay examines a particular punch line common to cop shows, with a focus on a 1987 episode of Hunter, that of the comeuppance of neo-Nazis by the police when the neo-Nazis are to be incarcerated in the U.S. prison system and thus, alongside people of color. Further, this essay also looks at what this punch line says about public awareness of and support for the mass incarceration of Black people and how normative White supremacist discourse contorts it into a purported anti-racism.

Bad tv

Bad tv

The Hunter episode “Bad Company” (Season 3, Episode 11 – 10 January 1987) begins with a group of white men and women robbing a Los Angeles gun store and killing the store owner. Police arrive in short order and a shoot-out between the cops and robbers ensues. Two of the robbers are injured, one killed and the other slightly wounded. The wounded party is Angela (Lar Park-Lincoln) who is transferred into the custody of Detective Sergeants McCall (Stepfanie Kramer) and Hunter (Fred Dryer) upon release from the hospital. We soon find out Angela is the daughter of Brother Hobarts (Dean Stockwell), the head of the National Aryan Order, a White nationalist militia on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Hunter and McCall transport Angela to another location. En route they engage her on her ideology, telling her she is off base as they attempt to turn her snitch. She replies, accurately but against normative liberal White supremacist discourse, that White nationalism is “what America is all about.” She continues while elucidating a fairly mainstream – if a little cartoonish so as to indicate viewers shouldn’t identify with with Angela too strongly – racist narrative “The right of decent Americans to defend their way of life against freeloaders and subversives and the mud races. I mean it’s nothing personal guys, but you’re on the wrong side.”

Villians all

Angela explains to McCall and Hunter why her version of White supremacy is better than theirs.

 

Hunter and McCall are captured by the National Aryan Order during the trip when the group rescues Angela from police custody. Up to this point Angela is still loyal to the Aryan National Order. McCall and Hunter do not manage to recruit her until one group member murders her love interest (who is also a neo-Nazi). Now betrayed, albeit not ideologically, Angela helps the cops escape and the group is eventually joined by other police who proceed to stop Brother Hobarts and crew from carrying out a planned attack. Hunter confronts Brother Hobarts, who is by this time in bracelets, and delivers the punchline “you Brother Hobarts are going to prison. Half the men you meet there belong to those mud races you were talking about. They’re gonna like you.”

Fuck the police

Hunter gives Brother Hobarts his comeuppance by using racism to fight racism. Wait, what?

This is a somewhat common punch line in cop shows. The Law & Order episode “Prejudice” (Season 12, Episode 10 – 12 December 2001) ends with the incarceration of a racist white man. As the prosecutors prepare leave the office at the episode’s end, District Attorney Nora Lewin (Diane West) says, “Wonder if Burroughs will still have a problem with minorities when he gets to prison and finds out he is one.” In the CSI episode “World’s End” (Season 10, Episode 19 – 22 April 2010), Nick Stokes (George Eads) says to a white supremacist suspect he is interrogating, “But you know what, I’m gonna do you a favor, since you like to whoop so much ass. I’m gonna have the warden put you in with some African-Americans, so they can give you an up close and person lesson on race relations.” There are several other examples.

The Racial Caste System As Anti-Racism

These punch lines mean to show the police and the mass incarceration of Black and other people of color as possible tools against racism rather than as baselines of systemic White supremacy. These punch lines are only given meaning by an audience who will understand them as the comeuppance of racists rather than as an affirmation of the racist order of things. For this to work without souring an audience that largely believes it isn’t racist or, at least, not about prisons and crime, Black criminality must be understood to as a matter of fact rather than as a matter of racial caste formation or, in other words, Black folk must be understood as criminals rather than mass incarceration being understood as the criminalization of Black people. Were it the other way around the shows would be (probably) canceled as the audience would (probably) receive the punch line as cruel cynicism rather than anti-racist comeuppance. (I use probably in parentheses because with White supremacy you can never be too sure that something horrifying actually will be taken as going too far even when problematized.)

For example the pilot episode of 21 Jump Street aired four months after the Hunter episode discussed above. It’s opening scene features a wealthy white family of four seated around the dining room table for a meal when two young Black men with shotguns break through the glass of the patio doors and lay siege to the family. This introductory scene of one of the most successful cops shows is anchored with Black criminality. The 21 Jump Street pilot offered nothing novel but affirmed what was already common knowledge; that Black people were dangerous criminals, the conclusion of which is that the prisons must be full of such criminals.

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

The crudest neo-Nazi articulations fall far enough outside of White supremacist normativity for the mainstream public, especially though not quite exclusively the mainstream white public, to reject them. So long as mass incarceration of Black and other people of color is not understood as a racial caste system the public receives punch lines like those above as Black criminality being just desserts for neo-Nazis who get locked up.

An Inversion Version

What this essay describes is one example of White supremacy’s incredible discursive flexibility. The Hunter, Law & Order and CSI episodes described above contribute to normative discourse a perfect inversion of the racial caste system. Mass incarceration of people of color is a baseline of White supremacy. Yet the punch line to these stories is one where said systemic baseline is re-imagined as an anti-racist tool against individual white supremacists while the enforcers of the baseline (the police and prosecutors) relish in their enlightened anti-racism to a produce a feel good moment for the audience. The contortion is horrifyingly impressive.

These punch lines demonstrate another thing. This essay focused on the Hunter episode for a reason; it aired in 1987. United States liberals – largely unfamiliar with the radical Black tradition that produced critical prison analysis decades ago – are ‘discovering’ mass incarceration as a phenomenon of a racial caste system since the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander’s tome The New Jim Crow. But the Hunter audience over two decades before that book had to understand that the United States fills its jails in a wildly disproportionate manner with Black folks, otherwise the punch line doesn’t work.

Point being, White America knows and been knowing, it’s just not considered a problem. Mass consciousness is not critical consciousness when embedded in normative oppression. That the broad contours of an oppressive system are common knowledge might, however, offer opportunities for organizing. The same knowledge in a framework rejecting Black criminality, mass incarceration and White supremacy produces a very different discourse. To assist with efforts to produce a liberatory discourse please visit the “Resources” page on the Project NIA website.