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 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.