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.

Punished to Perfection

SPOILER ALERTS for the “Ride the Lightning” episode of Criminal Minds and V for Vendetta comics and film. Many thanks to Zoé Samudzi for early feedback on the idea. Mariame Kaba, Critical Resistance, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black liberation and abolitionist organizers have long described and critiqued the same ideas and credit for anything insightful in what follows is due to them even if not directly cited, although they should not be blamed for any misuses of their ideas. Please support their work. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other is always welcomed.

 

The fourteenth episode in season one of the CBS police procedural Criminal Minds, “Riding the Lightning”, follows the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) as they interview Sarah Jean Dawes and Jacob Dawes, a white serial killer couple scheduled the following day for execution in Florida after being found guilty of killing twelve young women plus their infant son Riley. The interviews reveal that Sarah Jean was uninvolved in the killings and was a herself victim of Jacob’s abuse yet the BAU, despite finding Riley alive, doesn’t intervene against her murder by the state. The episode creates a sympathetic saint through martyrdom while punishing someone towards their perfection and it is not alone in its carceral saintmaking. It is representative of very common narratives and assumptions that brutalizing people improves them.

“Riding the Lightning” opens with BAU agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) having a teary, appreciative smile on his face while listening to a live performance of Bach’s “Cello Suite No.1, Prelude”. It transitions into the interior of an FBI vehicle where BAU agents Gideon, Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and JJ (A.J. Cook) are discussing the killing carried out by married couple Sarah Jean Dawes (Jeanetta Arnette) and Jacob Dawes (Michael Massee) while the rest of the unit similarly discusses in another vehicle. A team led by Gideon interviews Sarah Jean while Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) leads Jacob’s interview.

We meet Sarah Jean when Gideon visits her cell where she is painting. Sarah Jean exudes a weary serenity, wisdom and peace that has Gideon questioning whether she killed Riley and, later, whether Riley is even dead. Jacob is her opposite. He revels in sexual violence, enjoys taunting the BAU and lasciviciously celebrates his misogynistic history.

The episode follows the BAU’s divergent interviews with Jacob and Sarah Jean. Sarah Jean is contemplative, nurturing and wise while Jacob is vicious, creepy and mocking. Through probing interviews directly against the boundaries Sarah Jean tries to enforce, the BAU figures out by using very implausible psychology that, not only did she not kill her son Riley at Jacob’s directive, but she didn’t kill him at all and the boy is alive, adopted by a rich family. Meanwhile Hotchner engages in a regressive masculinity contest with Jacob.

The episode climaxes with the BAU frantically searching for and finding the proof that Riley is alive while Jacob is executed. At the moment right before Jacob’s face is hidden from the murder viewing room, Hotchner slaps a picture of a now teenaged Riley up to the glass telling him, “You lose!” Jacob is at last not gleefully lecherous, providing for the audience a comeuppance for…someone seconds away from being executed? Morgan and Elle find Riley but Gideon orders them to back off after deciding to heed Sarah Jean’s wishes and letting the state kill her, ostensibly to prevent Riley from being contaminated by his association with his parents. Sarah Jean requests that Gideon witness her murder which he does while the warden, tears in his eyes knowing she didn’t kill her son, over a sad melody, sees to her death.

Even by the standards of pro-death penalty US cop stories, the FBI, warden, and condemned teaming up together to execute a sympathetic character consciously against the evidence is a little remarkable. Jacob’s murder, because of Hotch’s actions, intends audience pleasure. Sarah Jean’s murder/suicide bonds those not killed together, witnessing while manufacturing her martyrdom and beatification. It is their act of jointly killing her that makes them heroic and her willing walk to the electric chair that makes her a saint. It is the act of punishing her that brings her to the ethical sublime. Despite the terrible writing – Criminal Minds is always mediocre from the perspective of canon consistency and psychology but rarely is it as corny as “Riding the Lightning” – the episode is one of the more moving ones. The “heroic” death of a sympathetic character is deeply affecting. All state murder is horror yet Criminal Minds finds a way to not only make it heroic, but virtuous even in the context of executing someone who didn’t do the thing for which they’re being executed.

V for Valorus Victimizing

In both the 1982 comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and 2005 film directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta offers another version of punishing someone to righteousness. The comics and film have some differences – for example in the comics Evey is a sex worker and in the film a tv production assistant – but in both Evey Hammond is imprisoned and tortured to heroism. “Riding the Lightning” takes place inside the Criminal Minds version of a Florida concentration camp (euphemised in US discourse as a deracialized “prison”) while Evey’s torture at the hands of V takes place in a mock concentration camp of V’s creation in a post-apocalyptic fascist London.

In both the comics (issues 6 and 7) and film, V imprisons Evey in a dark, cold cell, starves her, beats her, drowns her, gaslights her, verbally denigrates her and threatens her with execution. While jailed, he slips her written letters through a hole in the wall from another purported inmate, Valerie, telling her story of how she was captured, tortured and experimented on for being lesbian, and the beautiful parts of her life and loves prior to her time in the concentration camp. These letters shore up Evey’s resolve to not give up “the last inch” of herself even as V seeks to torture her into doing exactly that. In both versions Evey refuses to snitch at the point of death, at which point V exposes the ruse.

In both versions Evey initially responds reasonably, with rage and horror directed not at the fascist system of torture and prisons, but in V’s reproduction of it. Yet she quickly comes to embrace this as a lesson in freedom. V has tortured her in and into service to the greater good. What makes this so effective in the stories are Valerie’s letters. Concentration camp narratives are nearly always devastating and the version written by Moore and reproduced in the film is gutting. It is this affect that allows for V’s actions to be interpreted as reasonable. Without Valerie’s narration, V’s violence against Evey would seem as baldly cruel as it actually is.

This, like the Criminal Minds episode above, reproduces fascism in order to serve the greater good. In both versions reproducing fascism is simply making more of it even as both versions imagine themselves as doing so to produce justice and confront repressive violence (misogynistic killings in the Criminal Minds, state authoritarianism in V for Vendetta). They do not intend to be the same politically. Criminal Minds aspires to validate the carceral state while V for Vendetta aspires to anarchist revolution. Yet they both imagine carcerality to potentially produce justice, to manufacture better people. In the case of Criminal Minds this extends to the jailers who are the story’s surviving heroes.

After the Holocaust…

Everyday discourse naming judges as “justices”, carcerality (Black Captivity) as “the justice system”, prisons and jails as “reformatories” and more all produce the ideas that prisons serve some kind of good. So it isn’t really surprising that popular culture, even dissident narratives like V for Vendetta, reproduces this. But lots of leftist or progressive narratives also do. Anyone who has done work towards Palestinian liberation for much time has heard at least once “I can’t believe Jews could do this after the Holocaust” or some version thereof. Leaving aside the ahistorical, wrongheaded and confused timeline and conflation of “Jews” with “Israeli settler state”, this idea has the same premise as “Riding the Lightning” and V for Vendetta in brutalizing people to righteousness.

That it is surprising that a state calling itself Jewish can perpetrate the dispossession of Palestine and Palestinians in spite of the Holocaust assumes that the Nazi’s concentration camps produced something other than conformity, horror and death (and has a bizarre romanticization of ethnonationalism!). Jews – and other Nazi victims – were just people before the Holocaust. Survivors came out also as just people, if horrendously traumatized. Concentration camps cannot produce righteousness in the material world any more than they can in Criminal Minds or V for Vendetta. The same logic would ask, “How could Palestinian merchants as victims of Zionism – including mass incarceration – in Palestine exploit Black people in the US?” Israeli prisons no more make angels of Palestinians – individually or collectively – than Nazi concentration camps make angels of Jews. That is not what concentration camps are designed to do and it is true horror that they are imagined to do so.

Do you feel remorse?

The above three examples deal with three concentration camps, one real and two imagined (though one purports to reproduce a real US concentration camp). In the material world functioning of US concentration camps parole boards ask detainees summoned to plead for their freedom questions, often something like, “Do you feel your sentence fits the crime you committed?”, “Do you feel remorse for your crime?” and “What would you do different if you found yourself in a similar situation again?” In other words, “How did your time in the concentration camp make you a better person?” Black Captivity’s concentration camps are expected by parole boards to produce contemplative, remorseful people when what prisons produce is primarily violence, isolation and boredom. And if you don’t answer the questions in a way that suits the board, you can be redenied your freedom (to the very limited degree that parole is any kind of freedom). The assumptions of Criminal Minds, V for Vendetta and some progressive activists are the same as parole boards.

This is a way carceral normativity is (re)produced in normative popular culture, surprisingly large swaths of counterhegemonic discourse and by prison functionings themselves. It is the imaginary “rehabilitative” quality of concentration camps when no amount of individual transformation could ever be expected to avoid systemically produced incarceration in the first place. This is, to use Mariame Kaba’s twitter handle, “prison culture”. Thanks for reading.