Chicago P.D. promotes untruths about urban police work

Gregg Easterbrook points out that the TV show Chicago P.D. takes numerous liberties in depicting urban police and crime:

NBC promotes Chicago P.D. by implying it shows the gritty, realistic truth of urban police work, much as the network promoted Hill Street Blues a generation ago. But Chicago P.D. isn’t vaguely realistic. The 15-episode first season depicted half-dozen machine-gun battles on Chicago streets. Gunfire is distressingly common in Chicago, but nothing like what the show presents. Mass murders, explosions and jailbreaks are presented as everyday events in the Windy City. A dozen cops have been gunned down in the series so far; that’s more than the total killed on-duty by gunfire in actual during the current decade. (Look on the left for Chicago; the right is the national figure.) Officers on Chicago P.D. obtain in minutes the sort of information that takes real law enforcement months to compile. A detective barks, “Get me a list of all gang-affiliated males in this neighborhood.” A moment later, she’s holding the info.

The antihero protagonist is said to have been in prison for corruption but released “by order of the police chief.” This really is not how the justice system works. Then a cop-killer also is released “by order of the police chief,” which sets up a plot arc in which the good guys seek vengeance. In the real Chicago — or any big city — a convicted cop-killer would never see sunlight again.

Okay, it’s television. But what’s disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects — a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, “He deserves whatever he gets.”…

NBC executives don’t want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don’t say to make the show realistic. Nothing about “Chicago P.D.” is realistic — except the scenery.

One excuse is that this is just TV. At the same time, shows like this perpetuate myths about urban crime and police. While crime is down in cities in recent decades, shows like this suggest worse things are happening: it’s not just gun violence but open use of machine guns, not just some crooked cops but consistently crooked cops in a crooked system, and prisoners are routinely tortured. There may be a little truth in all of these things but consistently showing them leads to incorrect perceptions which then affect people’s actions (voting, whether they visit the city, who they blame for social problems, etc.).

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