Twenty Years Ago, the Shield Captured the Brokenness of American Policing
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Author: Joe Mayall
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Americans love cop shows. In fact, about 20 percent of all scripted network TV shows are about law enforcement. And while most of these programs follow the same tired premise of honorable characters doing their best to catch the bad guys while balancing the stressors of family life, there is one cop show that stands out from the rest.

Originally aired in 2002, FX’s The Shield turned the boilerplate cop show on its head. Unlike the prestige television show The Wire, a more pensive and high-brow offering that premiered the same year on HBO, The Shield followed the format of shows like Law & Order and NCIS — except instead of unquestioningly valorizing police work, it centered on Detective Vic Mackey and his corrupt, anti-gang “Strike Team” as they rampaged through the streets of Los Angeles. What made The Shield different from its contemporaries was its explicit focus on the dark side of policing. Throughout the show, Mackey breaks every law on the books, including but not limited to drug dealing, torture, planting evidence, illegal searches and seizures, and murder.

Though twenty years old, the Emmy-winning series shines a light on two facets of modern America that still plague the country today: our punitive and ineffective policing model, and the authoritarian hysteria of the “war on terror.”

Problems With Policing

The Shield was inspired by the illicit actions creator Shawn Ryan saw while shadowing the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for his much rosier cop show, Nash Bridges. “What I saw [during the ride-alongs] was much darker,” Ryan told Entertainment Weekly in 2017.

Ryan’s pilot script was based on the Rampart scandal, which the Los Angeles Times called “the worst corruption scandal in L.A.P.D. history.” In September of 1999, Officer Rafael Pérez was caught stealing a million dollars of cocaine from an evidence locker. He agreed to a plea deal and began to reveal widespread corruption throughout the department. When the dust settled, Pérez had fingered close to seventy police officers in crimes such as bogus arrests, false confessions, perjured testimony, the planting of evidence, and more. According to Pérez, these practices were most frequent among the city’s anti-gang units, the inspiration for Mackey’s Strike Team.

Members of the Strike Team torture suspects, plant evidence, deal drugs, are openly racist, have sex with suspects, and steal with absolute impunity. The Shield’s title card — the theme song “Just Another Day” playing over an image of a fractured police badge — leaves little room for interpretation. The show’s perspective is that violent and often extralegal control of Los Angeles’s minority and poor neighborhoods is routine for the officers of the LAPD. The show’s second episode, titled “Our Gang,” poses a side-by-side comparison of the funerals of a gang member and a police officer, drawing explicit parallels between the lawbreaking groups.

In addition to portraying flagrant disregard for civil liberties and procedural justice, The Shield illustrates the inherent inability of American policing to solve the problems it claims to — indeed, how the cops often make things worse. In one of the most memorable scenes of the show, the new police captain gives a speech to her officers, stating: “We can’t solve poverty, we can’t solve addiction. But we can distinguish between the criminals and the citizens.” Such words echo the viewpoint of activists critical of policing, who have long claimed that armed police are unable to solve the actual underlying problems that cause crime.

Not long after this speech, The Shield shows officers seizing cars and houses from suspected (but unconvicted) criminals to fund the hiring of more cops and the purchase of military-grade weaponry for Mackey’s Strike Team. When a black officer protests that taking a single mother’s house will put her and her children onto the street where they are destined for a life of crime in order to survive, the captain dismisses him, saying, “I don’t care what skin color you are. But you’re either blue or you’re out.”

The War on Terror

The Shield also captures the widespread fear of the post-9/11 years, and demonstrated how it was weaponized by the state both at home and abroad. Though it is exclusively set in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a later season, the Strike Team gains a member nicknamed “Army,” who teaches the others abusive tactics he learned “going door to door in Baghdad.”

The pilot episode shows Mackey torturing a suspect in an interrogation room under the watch of his captain. It only escalates from there, as he burns, beats, and threatens to send suspects to prisons where they will be raped and killed by other inmates. He even has a secret remote torture site where victims are suspended from chains, an image strikingly similar to those seen in the American torture camps at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

On this point, however, The Shield errs. The portrayal is stomach-turning, but the problem is that in the world of the show — unlike in real life, where confessions extracted under torture are often false — it actually works. Like many other American films and series of the time, it seems to suggest to America that torture, while perhaps immoral, is at least a viable method for “getting the bad guys,” whether they’re low-level drug dealers or high-level al-Qaeda operatives.

Nevertheless, The Shield captures the hysteria of the war on terror period, showing how rational thinking and proportionate responses were dismissed in favor of groupthink and maximal force. In one episode, a minor gang member claims affiliation with al-Qaeda, bringing the Department of Homeland Security on to the case, demonstrating the broad reach of the post-9/11 anti-terror apparatus.

Again, however, the show reveals its limitations. In the final seasons, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) makes an appearance as the cutting-edge face of federal law enforcement, offering an alternative to the brutal tactics of the LAPD. One wonders whether the writers would have shaped that storyline the same way today, after mass protests against ICE have convinced many that it’s not a necessary agency, but is instead a heavy-handed expression of American xenophobia and anti-immigrant paranoia.

It’s not clear that Ryan himself really understands the implications of The Shield. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Ryan claimed that “98 percent of the time Mackey is doing the right thing.” This will come as a surprise to anyone who watches the show, as 98 percent of every episode consists of Mackey’s Strike Team breaking the law. In other interviews, it seems that Ryan was setting out to dramatize the warts on an otherwise noble project to “protect and serve.”

But whatever its creator’s own intentions, The Shield vividly captured the depravity and brokenness of American policing. In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests of 2020, it looks less like a case for tossing bad apples than a condemnation of the entire enterprise.


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Joe Mayall is a writer from Denver, Colorado. His work can be found at

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