And Wednesday night’s episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on NBC aims to weed through the messy and emotional aftermath of one of these shootings — focusing on what happens after New York police officers, in desperate search for a rape suspect, shoot and kill an unarmed black college student who happens to match the description of the suspect. (It’s not the first time the series, which is in its 17th season, has pulled inspiration for a story line from the headlines.)
In advance of the episode’s airing, we talked with Warren Leight, the episode’s producer, about why now was the time to tackle the sensitive issue of police and race. This interviewed has been edited for length and clarity:
Why write an episode based around a police shooting, and why on “SVU”?
Something seems to be going on in the nation right now, and it seems that we’re looking at, at least anecdotally, an epidemic of cops shooting unarmed people, often unarmed black men, but not exclusively black men.
We’ve just seen a spate of incidents in which that has been the case, and we have a police show. One of the things that is frustrating to me is that too few shows are tackling the tough issues. There are way more shows about zombies than about what’s going on in our judicial system. Very few shows are allowed to get away with this right now.
Our mantra is that we shed light on the darker corners of society. Police shootings of unarmed people is something that needs to be discussed.
The episode references a lot of specific incidents – Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Staten Island – and even includes a Black Lives Matter reference. Were there any specific shootings or cases from which you drew direct influence for this episode?
In our better episodes we don’t just do a movie of the week, we take elements of what is going on in the real world and tell a story.
One of the things that has been fascinating to me is the role of the district attorney. In this episode we wanted to explore the pressure district attorneys are under, and what is the role of the DA going into the a grand jury process.
I don’t think we specifically mirrored any one case, it wasn’t a specific case, but the process has become … there is a rhythm to the process now: an unarmed man is shot, the police give their story, a bystander video contradicts that story, there are protests and anger, and then the DA takes it to a grand jury.
We wanted to write a story based on that rhythm.
One of the things we did is we talked to DA’s about the process of what happens after one of these shootings. To me that process was pretty interesting. What happens in the aftermath of the shooting.
And the district attorney in this episode seems to think there is a systemic issue — while the police keep telling him that it was a “good shoot” and “not Ferguson,” he insists that this shooting is part of a bigger problem in policing. Why have the episode’s main character take that stance?
Each individual situation, the micro events of each of these horrible tragedies might be exculpatory and you understand it. but when you step back and you see that there have been 700 police shootings, you say: “Whoa, there is something wrong.”
While we’re discussing the district attorney, one thing I thought was fascinating in this episode was how much pressure he was under. We see him meeting with the police officials and the union officials and the family of the dead man and the local pastors who are calling for protest. Why frame the storytelling that way?
There’s pressure. We get the sense that there’s pressure from inside the police department on the DA to not make this the test case. And you also get the sense that there’s pressure from the mayor’s office because, lets face it, there are always inter-departmental schisms in any bureaucracy. What the mayor wants, and what the politicians want, and what the police want, and what the police union wants, and what the family wants — that’s always going to be different.
There’s a line in there where someone says,” these are good cops” and (the DA) says “well great, now even good cops are shooting unarmed civilians.”
If you’re going to view the episode through anyone eyes, it may be through the eyes of the DA, who realizes that we’re at a tipping point.
One scene I particularly appreciate was one in which the district attorney notes that that there have been more than 700 fatal police shootings so far this year. As you know, that number comes from the database that The Washington Post has been keeping of fatal police shootings this year.
No matter what number you use, the fear is that it’s too much. At some point the district attorneys have to do a better job of prosecuting than they’ve done. They have to do a better job at drawing a line instead of excusing.
The catch-all phrase that all of the officers repeat in this is “I feared for my safety and the safety of my fellow officers” which is enough to get you off in almost all of these case. It just seems like, can we keep saying “it’s a tragedy” and “he shouldn’t have run?” And flip side of that by the way is that every day officers go out and are unclear if they’re coming home, and I think we make that point clear in the episode too.
We’re past the tipping point.
One thing that was particularly striking to me was the struggle many of the officers in the show – characters who, in this show, are often framed as morale compasses that point toward justice – with comprehending why people would be upset with this shooting.
For fans of this show, I think it’s very difficult for characters like Benson and Finn, this episode catches them in a really bad place. Our audience knows these guys have integrity, but they’re caught here. It was the episode in-house that inspired the most discussion and debate.
We’re trying to get people to think about what’s going on, and when is enough, enough, and what pressure cops are under. And it’s just not black and white. Everyone sees it through the prism of their experience, but you hope that they keep an open mind while they watch.