The Shield: Police Corruption and What it Teaches us
The Shield, an American drama series premiering March 12, 2002, is notoriously known for its reoccurring theme of police corruption and misconduct. This is a popular series focusing on a group of detectives from the LAPD called the Strike Team, which is essentially portrayed as an anti-gang division. The Strike Team is lead by detective Vic Mackey, a crude man that promotes his unethical and deviant police problem-solving tactics which include excessive force, lying, and stealing, among others, with the intention of protecting his team, prosecuting criminals, and maintaining order on the streets. Even focusing on the first episode only, there are several examples of Vic demonstrating police deviance and misconduct that are presented and dealt with in a way that infers it is not out of the norm.
Vic is first introduced chasing a suspect alongside other officers. Once cornered, the suspect surrenders prompting a punch in the stomach from Vic for “making [him] run”, displaying clear police brutality. The next time we see him he’s lying to his department about an offender’s complaint against him of excessive force (in this case, involving a pair of pliers). His denial was followed by him stating that his team will back him up as well. Later on while looking for information, Vic runs into a well-known prostitute with who he exchanges a bag of drugs (recently confiscated from a dealer) for information. A major theme within this team, especially promoted by Vic, is that, to quote him, “Team comes first. We take care of each other” , and “We’d kill to protect each other.” This code strays away from the ideal fundamental principals that the officers of British Columbia operate, such as democracy & the rule of law, safeguarding the public trust, justice and equality (British Columbia Code of Ethics, 2011).
Vic later, as a last resort, joins the interrogation team and has a one-on-one sit down with a suspected pedophile in hopes of revealing of a little girl, Jenny Reborg. Following his statement “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop”, Vic struck him in the throat and begins beating him with a phone book. Vic successfully obtained his confession via his old school, and clearly illegal, interrogation tactics. Whilst watching Vic beat the suspect through the window, one of the female detectives speaks on the topic of police use of excessive force: “What people want these days is to make it to their car without getting mugged…finding out a murderer is caught…if all that means that some cop roughed up some n****r or sp*c in the ghetto, well as far as most people are concerned, it’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. How do you figure on changing that?” None of his team members observing through the one-way mirror spoke out about the incident.
The last few minutes of the episode ends with the strike team doing a raid of a suspected drug dealers house; this raid included detective Terry Rowley who was new to the department and a rookie to raid assignments. After shooting the drug dealer in the bathroom who was flushing his stash, there was no longer any perceived danger. Vic turns around and shoots his collegue Terry Crowley in the face. He was pronounced dead at 2:13pm. When confronted about the incident, Vic and his team are adamant that it was the drug dealer who shot detective Crowley in the face. It is revealed later that the detective was added to the team to “take Vic Mackey down”. The fact that none of Vic’s team members spoke out about this incident or any before it, enforces their code of “Team comes first. We take care of each other” and normalizes this behaviour. This only further encourages these kinds of actions; silence is the voice of complicity.
The police deviance and corruption typologies that Vic Mackey best exemplifies based on his actions in this first episode are those of the “meat-eaters” and the “Dirty Harrys” / “Noble Causers”, with a slight undertone of “Cowboys”. The “meat-eaters” fall under the Knapp Commission typology and they actively seek opportunities in which they can exchange their power for some kind of benefit (Punch, 2009). In Vic’s case, he displayed characteristics of a meat-eater when he exchanged drugs for information with the prostitute. “Dirty Harrys” / “Noble Causers” on the other hand, are officers that use deviant and unethical tactics in order to obtain their desired outcome (Punch, 2009). Vic proved to be a Dirty Harry when he unethically assaulted the pedophile suspect aiming for a confession. The “cowboys” are known for their high levels of aggression and propensity to act tough, lack discipline, and be action-focused (Punch, 2009), which Vic assumed the role of in the beginning of the show when he punched the suspect in the stomach for causing a chase.
This fictional portrayal of law enforcement officers focuses on their corruption and deviance, and places them in the antagonist position. This representation does not emanate positive, trust-worthy vibes to its audience. Its audience is majorly regular, non-police affiliated individuals who, after watching media portrayals such as this, do not walk away feeling a healthy and more trustworthy bond with law enforcement. Instead, because their only peak into what police conduct looks like has been through the lens of fictional media. There is a lot of negative stimuli being presented through the media pertaining to police corruption and deviance, the public sees a lot of it, and for those that have very little pre-existing knowledge or information , they may be influenced and that allows the potential for their perception towards law enforcement to change. The line between entertainment and reality becomes blurred.
Vic’s blatant displays of police deviance through abuse of authority, unethical practices, and use of excessive force illustrates model officer-deviant behaviour. These corruption-oriented, emphasized, and normalized media representations of law enforcement may have a potential impact on the audiences’ perception of positive and trustworthy qualities pertaining to police officer conduct. That potential blur between fiction and non-fiction holds the possibility of bruised perceptions and subsequent trust with the police.
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Punch, M. (2009.). What is Corruption? In Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing (pp. 18-52). Portland: Willian Pub.
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