How realistic is The Shield?

What really happened.
June 15 2004 3:33 PM

Cops & Robbers

How realistic is The Shield's portrayal of life on the force?

Scene from The Shield
The Shield: Barney Milleresque

My blue-suited colleagues like to say that the only television show that came close to portraying what it's really like on the force was Barney Miller. One could delve more deeply into the reasons for this: the racial diversity of the cast, perhaps, and the show's pervading cynicism. Unlike in most cop shows, even those that are fairly realistic in their lack of exaggerated action— Law & Order: Vehicle Maintenance Squad, for instance—a cop's life is thankfully characterized by far fewer shootouts and far more wisecracks. (I will confess a fondness for Miami Vice as a sort of cop-porn, but its lack of reality was the draw. I remember being assigned a decrepit lime-green Honda CRX Del Sol convertible as an undercover narcotics detective and realizing right then that it was probably as close to a Ferrari as I was going to get.) But for the past couple of years, cops I know have been getting excited about another cop show— The Shield (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., F/X), now in its third season.

I am not breaking any ground in my appreciation of the show, but in my eyes, what makes the show so good is that it depicts certain elements of the experience of being a cop that have never been captured, or at least captured so well. The Shield was inspired by a true and shameful episode in the annals of law enforcement: In 2000, a pocket of corruption was found within the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. (Members of an elite anti-gang unit had planted evidence on suspects, stolen money and narcotics, sold narcotics, brutalized prisoners, and committed homicides that they covered up with perjury and by planting guns on their victims.) But it's not the based-on-real-events premise that gives the show its true-to-life feel, and it isn't police consultants on the writing staff—creator Shawn Ryan doesn't use them. What makes The Shield so realistic is its complex and nuanced characters: All of the cops on the show—from the brilliant but socially inept homicide detective Dutch Wagenbach to the main character, the corrupt yet sympathetic anti-gang unit detective Vic Mackey—continually grapple with what it means to be a cop.

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One of the great—and nerve-wracking—things about being a cop is the many hats you get to wear (or rather, have to wear). I've certainly met a few cops in my time who don't feel any uncertainty about their mission. But for most of the men and women in law enforcement whom I have come to know well, there is a self-consciousness about roles, a sense that we are, at least some of the time, acting—and the occasional doubts whether we have picked the right part to play. Of course, this feeling is underscored by the fact that a police officer in America is aware of plenty of iconic possibilities from television and the movies—there are times it feels appropriate to be Joe Friday; or Andy Sipowicz; or the calm, balanced Barney Miller. (As far as I know, there is never a time to be Tony Baretta—too much cross-dressing, and he had a cockatoo for a partner.) My fiancée has remarked that when I talk to my co-workers, I stop being so polite and my New York accent comes out. Is this the way I think a detective is supposed to speak? Truthfully, I am not sure. In court, I try to do the opposite and appear as articulate as possible. (On The Shield, even the perpetrators are aware of cop-show precedents; theyhave been watching NYPD Blue and know the routine. When Mackey walks in to the interview room, one suspect asks him, "Are you the good cop or the bad cop?")

Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis, who won an Emmy for the role in 2002) is the show's most developed character. Mackey plants drugs on suspects, redirects narcotics shipments to his favored dealers, brutalizes prisoners, steals money, and commits homicides. Early on in the series, the crusading Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) describes Mackey as "Al Capone with a badge." And yet Mackey somehow remains sympathetic, perhaps because of his self-doubt. His powerlessness as he discovers his son's autism, for instance, seems so foreign—to him and to viewers. Mackey is a leader in the station house, taking young cops under his wing; he is courtly to the women on the show (including but not limited to his wife), protective of wayward crack-whores and their children, and yet also a criminal mastermind. He is most appealing, and the show is at its most compelling, when he becomes aware of his own duplicity. To Mackey, being a cop means taking everything and everyone he can get his hands on, and yet it also means performing acts of extraordinary selflessness and bravery—sometimes all in the same show.

Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), yet another multidimensional character, is Mackey's opposite in nearly every way. Principled, disciplined, and dour, Claudette is frequently thwarted by Mackey's plots and by the political machinations of their commander. She continually grapples with the reality that her way—the "right" way—is often inefficient and sometimes futile. She is saddled with the awkward Wagenbach, a man who can't help but alienate everyone he meets, as her partner. Their interrogations are some of the most realistic moments of the show. Their occasional frustration at not knowing how to approach a suspect or at taking the wrong approach and blowing the chance for a confession rings true for anyone who has been in similar shoes.

Then there's Mackey's sidekick, southern boy Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), who is not just a loose cannon, but a thuggish, racist dimwit. Not surprisingly, he too manages some to arouse the viewer's sympathy. Watching him realize that he is, in fact, a heel is heartbreaking; he tells Mackey that what he loves about his new yuppie girlfriend is that she is the first woman he has dated who is better than he is. Like Shane, the other two members of the "Strike Team," Curtis Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), are very much taken with Mackey; like Mackey, both know that they have crossed the line to become "bad" cops, and we can see how much this awareness troubles them. After committing a variety of crimes, including getting several people killed to cover up their theft of millions of dollars, Lemansky mutters, "I didn't want to take the money in the first place," like a kid who is about to be reprimanded for breaking something.

Shawn Ryan has successfully created a cast of compelling characters who happen to be cops. Among them are criminals, politicians, nerds, geniuses, family men, and dangerous jerks. The cops with whom I went to the academy, with whom I worked on patrol and then as a detective, weren't born cops. They weren't as colorful as the cops on The Shield, and they weren't as nefarious, but they also were not all identical to each other, as television cops so often are. One characteristic they do share is that they all frequently act like they think cops are supposed to act.

That cops do some acting is not surprising, but The Shield accurately reveals that a lot of that acting is as much for each other as for the public. Some years ago, as a detective recently transferred from Narcotics to a Precinct squad, I was called to the scene of what was likely to be a homicide—the victim looked like he was not going to survive the stabbing. No other detectives were available, but my experience investigating cases that didn't involve narcotics was negligible. I was immediately besieged with obscure questions by the uniform patrol officers who were present, anxious to process the crime scene and maybe get a chance to chase the bad guy. I grunted and glowered, as if to say, "Why are you bothering me with this trivial stuff?" It seemed to work; everyone, from the patrolmen on the scene to the duty captain, all gave me breathing room as if to say, "We better let this guy work undisturbed." Fortunately, my more experienced colleagues soon arrived and gently guided me. Even better, the victim pulled through and identified his attacker. Occasional success notwithstanding, I don't mean to try to pass myself off as any kind of actor. Years earlier, new in Narcotics, I approached a drug dealer and told him what I wanted. He asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was a drummer in a rock band. He asked if that was when I finished with my shift at the police station.

Lucas Miller is an NYPD detective.