by Bill Hartley
The Shield, which ran for seven series as long ago as 2002-8, is deeper than the standard police drama. It explores the nature of corruption, together with the leadership meant to prevent it happening. It is this combination which makes it a cut above the rest, allowing us to see the structural weaknesses in an organisation. Interestingly, whilst it won several awards at the time, it has since been overshadowed by The Wire which on release attracted far less positive critical attention.
The Shield is based on a real life police scandal. Back in the 1990s, Los Angeles police set out to combat a rise in gang crime. They set up Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, better known as ‘CRASH’, an acronym which was a hostage to fortune. What followed became known as the Rampart Scandal. Seventy officers were investigated for robberies, murder, drug dealing and other crimes. As someone observed, ‘far from dealing with gang crime the LAPD succeeded in creating the most dangerous gang in the city’. It was to cost the city $125 million in damages. Against this background, nothing seems exaggerated about the activities of Vic Mackey and his ‘Strike Team’ in The Shield.
With outstanding characterisation, The Shield poses probing questions about corruption, exploring the term in a range of facets. Vic, the one obvious leader, has succeeded in building a tight knit band of brothers and getting them to accept his warped ethics, where the end justifies the means and often includes a cut of the proceeds. As the series progresses, the viewer realises that whilst Vic’s corruption is clear and unambiguous there are subtler versions to be found.
Set in in the fictional suburb of Farmington, Los Angeles, a district riven with ethnic gang violence for control of the drugs trade, the police response is to set up an experimental precinct operating out of a former church building. The first commander we meet is David, the Latino precinct captain who is politically ambitious. Ostensibly, he is one of the good guys and eager to bring down Vic. However, Vic gets arrests and when it suits David he is willing to enter into an alliance with him. David’s leadership is largely presentational, as if he is already more concerned with how voters may perceive him. In one scene he is reduced to a silent onlooker whilst Vic, virtually ignoring him, makes strategy on the hoof and departs with his team to put this into action.
David’s replacement after he achieves electoral success sees Monica Rawling, played by the excellent Glen Close, as the new captain. Unlike her predecessor, she demonstrates clear leadership and has a plan to achieve success on the streets. Her strategy involves seizing gang assets. There is nothing subtle about her approach and unlike David she is not interested in the political implications. In one episode, an otherwise decent black man, whose only deviation into crime is supplying a few friends with cannabis, has his home seized. David, in his new role as a city councilman, subtly undermines her efforts, because he senses a negative impact on the voters. Along the way we meet Assistant Chief Phillips, a man with a row of medal ribbons on his uniform. Rather than supporting the captain and perhaps helping shape a more nuanced approach, he prefers the safety of the side lines. Eventually, when political implications start to dominate, Phillips helps to purge her. This is an organisation with a siege mentality. On the streets the cops prioritise looking after their own. Further up the chain of command they look after themselves.
The subtleties of corruption extend to what might sometimes be described as breaches of professional standards. Dutch, arguably the best detective in the precinct, is socially awkward around women. His ability to conduct profiling and brilliant interrogations doesn’t help when meeting members of the opposite sex. However, he is willing to abuse his position by seducing the vulnerable widow of a murder victim. New patrolman Julian is gay. His sexuality is in conflict with his religious beliefs. Julian sticks with the teachings of his church. In the squad room his colleagues have suspicions about his sexuality and to suppress these, Julian ambushes and viciously assaults his chief tormentor, in order to ‘prove’ his masculine credentials.
With the demise of Monica the leader role needs to be filled and the most obvious candidate is Claudette a detective with unimpeachable integrity. Ironically, it is this which stops her getting the job. She exposes a state prosecutor with a drug habit, leading to questions about the woman’s handling of past cases. Claudette is warned by senior management that this will have an adverse effect on her chances and indeed on her reputation at the precinct. Bravely she ignores this and is duly denied the role. With the best candidate passed over headquarters reaches down and appoints another detective, the cowardly and lazy Steve Billings. He too is tainted by corruption which involves supplying vending machines to the precinct building. The appointment of Billings means that Vic and his team go largely unsupervised and their criminal activities increase.
Although Vic once enjoyed some protection at headquarters, management eventually acts. Enter the smiling but sinister Lieutenant Kavanaugh from Internal Affairs. His role is perhaps the most intriguing in the cast. Ostensibly, Kavanaugh represents the good guys. Yet from the outset he displays a peculiar ambiguity, playing mind games with the people he meets. Kavanaugh’s investigation extends to ingratiating himself with Vic’s wife. Gradually though it becomes personal and we see that Kavanaugh is also prepared to act illegally if it means securing an arrest. The two are worthy adversaries but Vic discovers Kavanaugh’s weakness. Outsmarted and discredited he eventually ends up in jail. By this time it is impossible to separate the immorality of Vic from his would be nemesis.
Claudette finally gets the captain’s job. We learn that she is seriously ill and each day at work is an exhausting struggle. Even so, she is able to handle the pressure, despite senior management making matters worse by threatening to withdraw funding. The LAPD is portrayed less as a cohesive crime fighting organisation and more as one run by fence sitters, who focus on what policy or prejudice is currently fashionable and respond accordingly. They offer no leadership to the likes of Claudette.
Finally the whole critical mass of Vic’s criminality threatens to overwhelm him and with the noose tightening he makes a deal with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a federal organisation which in real life has faced allegations of sexual harassment and unlawful arrest. In The Shield they are anxious to prevent a Mexican Cartel from flooding Farmington with drugs and rendering its gang activity irrelevant in comparison. Vic is able to assist and gains immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile Vic’s family has vanished into witness protection; two of the Strike Team are dead, a third in jail paying for Vic’s crimes. His though is the worst of punishments. Given a three year contract with ICE he is told to wear a suit and is consigned to bureaucratic purgatory in an office cubicle. It is an ending worthy of a dishonoured character in a Joseph Conrad novel.
The Shield begins with a blatantly corrupt police officer, and then drills down into the organisation he works for. Along the way, we discover that criminal and immoral behaviour has many forms. This flourishes due to self-serving management. In The Shield, the police get the people they deserve.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service