How are we, as TV viewers, meant to reconcile what we see on the show with what the DOJ has spelled out in its report? Does it make you uncomfortable? That the show functions as de facto marketing for the CPD? That the network and everyone involved with the show is making big money from it? And even if it does bother you, what then? I don't necessarily think the show should be yanked off the air or radically revamped. Almost all cop shows are guilty of these fictions. Still, I'm struggling. Something doesn't sit right.I will cop to enjoying the entire NBC Chicago lineup, Fire, P.D., Med, and I'll likely add Law to the mix once that airs. (The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok will by then be refitting until the fall.) The eternal verities frequently come up in Chicago Fire, and the way the protagonists in the P.D. grapple with their frequently troubled lives (perhaps comfortable people don't go to the Police Academy or Firefighter Academy?) and keep their sanity and get the job done, plus the odd object lesson. That Northern Illinois's Joe Minoso has one of the more interesting firefighter roles is a plus.
Reality, though, also makes for compelling drama.
The show isn't built to tackle nuance or reality, anyway. And by that I mean: The legitimate challenges and concerns of being a Chicago police officer along with the equally legitimate dysfunction, bias and lack of accountability that exists in the department as outlined by the DOJ.The point of a procedural show is to produce a happy ending, preferably in 46 minutes. Critics of law enforcement as practiced get that.
The show is meant as an escape. And we need shows that offer a distraction from real world anxieties. There is value in that. But it's not so easy to swallow on "Chicago P.D." now that the elephant in the room — of widespread problems with the system itself — is now singing and dancing and introducing itself to everyone, courtesy of that DOJ report.
Ken Dowler, a criminologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, has studied the effect police dramas have on audiences and says he's found two lines of thought. One is something called cultivation theory "which means basically, when you get constant exposure to something, it's going to lead you to believe that's the way it is … and if you look at propaganda research, if you keep throwing the message out there, over and over again and simplifying it, people are going to eventually believe it."
On the other hand, he said: "Watching a television show, you see what you want to see. So the theory is that cop shows have a very limited impact, because people already have preconceived notions. People that choose to watch these shows probably already have a favorable view of the police, whereas somebody who has firsthand experience with police corruption or brutality, they're probably not going to watch the show — or if they do, they're not going to have the same view watching it."
I asked Chicago activist Ja'Mal Green, who has been outspoken about police misconduct and brutality, how this all sits with him. "I'm a very big fan of 'Chicago P.D.,'" he said. "I've watched probably every episode. I don't expect it to show exactly how police are because it's for entertainment. They really show the best parts of the Chicago Police Department to the world and when I watch, I'll be like, 'OK, that's not real.' Because of course, I'm out here fighting against the reality! But I don't jump off and be like, 'I hate this show!' because it doesn't show the real Chicago PD. I know it's still just TV. And I don't think people look at it as a documentary or something where they're really getting information, so I don't think it is hurtful for the majority of viewers.Lately, Mr Beghe has been doing the voice-overs for WMAQ's Consumer Complaint operation. Not that the scammers have to be roughed up in the interrogation room, the threat of an interview for all of Greater Chicago to see is generally sufficient.
"It could give the message that the Chicago Police Department is just amazing," he said after a moment, "catching killers every episode, solving every case, respectful and caring. Of course it's a false reality. It's not real. This is not how the Chicago Police Department is. But hopefully people that watch it just see it as television."
Bella Bahhs is also a Chicago-based activist and she has a different perspective: "I'm familiar with the show," she told me, "but I do not watch it because it is a false representation of the Chicago Police Department. There's so much work to be done, that I can not even deal with the media's role in perpetuating these images. I'm an activism organizer so I'm really on the ground and a show like this does make the work harder because the media keeps portraying police as heroes in our community."
The cops on the NBC series are certainly flawed. And the show does acknowledge that all is not perfect within the CPD. Too often, though, it comes off as lip service. When we do see unlawful use of force, it almost always comes at the hands of the tough guy sergeant (played by Jason Beghe, who is very good in the role; he's as watchable as you would want).
Perhaps, though, the critics of Business as Usual in Chicago would see policing as acted on television as a first step toward a proper police force.