When I saw that NBC was preparing to launch a weekly scripted drama called Chicago PD, I figured I’d have to blog about it. Aside from taking place in my home city, it also seemed from the advertising to be yet another show about a cop-who-breaks-all-the-rules-to-get-justice, and as a civil libertarian who agrees with pretty much everything Radley Balko has to say about the Warrior Cop problem, I’ve kind of soured on that character, so I figured it would give me something to talk about.
Chicago PD does have that character in the form of Sergeant Hank Voight, who robs and beats a guy in the opening scene and tortures him to get information about someone who’s selling a bad batch of drugs that’s killed a few people. I gather that Voight’s character was established in the Chicago Fire series as the worst kind of cop: Brutal, corrupt, and well-connected downtown, all of which might explain how, despite his crimes, he’s now in charge of a police intelligence unit working out of the 21st District station.
(Real-life Chicago has 22 police districts, numbered 1 through 25, skipping the 13th, 21st, and 23rd districts.)
In some ways, putting a corrupt thuggish cop in an intelligence unit is a great story idea. Intelligence units don’t do normal police work, so their activities aren’t easily tracked by CompStat (or whatever management tools the department uses), and they often work in secret, all of which means they have little oversight. (The LAPD Organized Crime Intelligence Division famously crashed and burned when Detective Mike Rothmiller wrote a book exposing mismanagement and shady activities.) Chicago cops are always complaining about connected guys who get away with all kinds of crap — often in special teams that are hard to monitor — so a connected douchebag in charge of an intelligence unit seems like a plausible villain.
Except I’m pretty sure the show’s producers don’t want us to think of him as a villain. I think he’s supposed to be “complicated.” He’s a tough guy doing a tough job the only way it can be done. He may torture a guy for information to save lives, but he’s a solid cop who will always have the back of the cops in his unit.
In real life, assholes like this aren’t that selective. They tend to be assholes to everybody. They are nightmares to work for because they know they control your paycheck and career, so they can treat you like crap. If Voight is beating drug informants for information now, then he was probably beating 15-year-old black kids for mouthing off when he was working patrol. (Also, Voight torturing informants has a certain sick resonance here in Chicago where Detective Jon Burge used to torture people in custody.) They only time guys like this are nice to people is when they need something, at which point they become your best friend in the world. That’s how guys like Voight get connections downtown.
The fictional version of this character usually isn’t as terrible as the real thing, and that tends to work well dramatically. Andy Sipowicz was one of the most beloved characters on television despite his rage, and it gets easier as the shows get less realistic: Bullies like Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS come across as stern teachers, torturers like Jack Bauer on 24 are heroes because they’re doing it for God and country, and a pair of efficient assassins like Nikita Mears and Michael Bishop on Nikita evoke admiration and even sympathy. And wouldn’t you like to have a murderous vigilante billionaire like Oliver Queen from Arrow as your friend?
Once I get past the Voight character, Chicago PD is an OK show. Some of the clichés are a little thick — Voight turns out to have a softer side, his boss is a black guy who’s angry at him, a cop takes off his badge and gun before challenging a jerk to a fight, and there’s a car chase at the end — but it’s also full of action and a few surprises.
It’s also nice to see a bit of Chicago on the screen. They don’t show much of the famous stuff, but the houses look like Chicago houses and the alleys look like Chicago alleys — you wouldn’t think you could tell, but it feels a lot different than it would if they shot in Vancouver.
I’ll give it another shot.