“With the black community, things are on edge when it relates to police brutality. You push too hard, go too far, and you got another Ferguson,” Sgt. Clemmons in The Chi’s “A Blind Eye“ episode.
In the first 144 days of 2019, 363 people were shot and killed by police officers. This is after 992 people were fatally shot by police officers in 2018, putting 2019 on pace to top it. News of a police shootings are so common in America that a fictional character like Sgt. Clemmons (J. Nicole Brooks) can conjure up thoughts of violent protests against police brutality by simply saying “another Ferguson.” The nation at large remembers those 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
This week’s episode of The Chi humanizes officers involved in police brutality. Not for sympathy, but for clarity. From the very beginning, we flashback to Kansas City, Missouri in 2013 when Chicago PD officer Cruz was an officer for the Kansas City police department. In those opening 15 seconds, before a single word is uttered, we see a black man behind the wheel of a car, lifeless, with blood leaking out of his head while Cruz rummages through the vehicle. Police brutality is so ingrained in the national consciousness that before we find out Cruz’s partner Robert Moreno (Elliot Villar) murdered the man, or anyone says a single word, the image of a police officer looking through a car instead of tending to the man shot is an almost instinctive signal that the dead man was a victim of police brutality.
The most revelatory scene comes eight minutes into the episode when Sgt. Clemmons reprimands detective Toussaint for her excessive use of force during the police search of one of the 63rd Street mob trap houses from episode five of this season. The pair verbally joust about the immutability of the rules that govern police and how adherence to those rules distinguishes them from gangs. Toussaint justifies police brutality by mentioning the 66 shootings that occurred in one weekend and the 52 shootings from the following weekend, supposedly referencing the bloody Chicago weekends in August 2018. It’s when the Clemmons advises Toussaint to handle her issues with gangs with a shrink and leave it out of her police work that the duality inherent in all police officers, and its disturbing consequences, are highlighted.
With or without the badge, Toussaint has biases that have manifested in her treatment of young black gang members. With or without the badge, Moreno still has a family he’d be willing to lie for to protect, even if it means covering up the murder of a black man. With or without the badge, Portland Police Department’s former Sergeant Gregg Lewis still thought instructing his officers to just shoot overly intoxicated black people was a joke, even though it was three days after 17-year-old Quanice Hayes had been murdered by the same police department while surrendering with his hands in the air. With or without the badge, police officers are still humans who can make mistakes, but also be directed by subconscious proclivities that can lead to someone’s death.
The truly heartbreaking aspect of The Chi’s humanizing of police involved in shooting civilians is how the officer involved corrupts their moral worldview in order to reconcile with the horrible decision they made with the fact they’re supposed to protect and serve. Using flashbacks, we see the parallels between Cruz’s former partner Moreno and current partner Toussaint. The latter forms this false image of Brandon being a knowing member of the 63rd Street mob, groomed by them since he was young to be a pillar of the community so no one can suspect his criminal activity, based solely on his tangential association with the gang and a few photographs. Earlier in the episode, Moreno justifies murdering the black man he did by insinuating that young black men will kill a police officer if the officer doesn’t act first, to which Cruz responds, “Don’t go there, man. This isn’t you.” Toussaint is the unflinching pragmatist in the face of taking a human life that police officers become after being involved in shooting of civilians. Moreno is our look into that same transformation from its inception.
It’s through this police brutality, and the KCPD’s reactions to it, that highlight the thin line of difference between police departments and gangs. Gangs can, at times, be police with less bureaucracy impeding action. If the 65th Street mob needs to make money to pay a debt, there is no form filled out; they simply put on ski masks and rob a rival gang. The same can be said for how gangs can act as civilian police forces, assisting the community in matters police do not. The vitriolic perception of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s by law enforcement groups like the FBI painted them in a similarly negative light as gangs today. That same Black Panther Party was providing social programs such as free breakfast, medical clinics, ambulance services and legal aid to impoverished black communities across the nation.
In an obvious callback to the opening scene of the episode, Cruz finds a white woman dead in the driver seat of a car with a gunshot wound in her head. We later find out it’s a woman from the same FamilyC Realty group that tried to convince Ms. Ethel to leave her home, before her she was ambushed in a home invasion in the season premiere. While we don’t know who killed her, the fact no one in the neighborhood heard or saw anything could be a salient example of the community fighting back where the cops won’t.