The Chicago Justice episode Uncertainly Principle is more relevant now

CHICAGO JUSTICE -- "Uncertainty Principle" Episode 107 -- Pictured: (l-r) Richard Brooks as Paul Robinette, LaRoyce Hawkins as Kevin Atwater -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)
CHICAGO JUSTICE -- "Uncertainty Principle" Episode 107 -- Pictured: (l-r) Richard Brooks as Paul Robinette, LaRoyce Hawkins as Kevin Atwater -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC) /

Chicago Justice addressed both police brutality and racism in Uncertainly Principle.

The Chicago Justice installment “Uncertainty Principle” was thought-provoking and poignant when it originally aired in 2017—and now, as the United States struggles with issues of police conduct and racial inequality, it’s even more relevant.

In the episode, Justin Wilkes dies in police custody from an injury to the chest that punctured his aorta. When video footage surfaces of Kevin Atwater (LaRoyce Hawkins) slamming Justin into the side of a car during his arrest, Atwater becomes the prime suspect in his murder.

What unfolds is a skillfully plotted minefield full of issues, including the topics of racism and police misconduct that are once again at the forefront of America.

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And while a TV episode isn’t going to seriously solve those concerns, it’s worth watching Chicago Justice again because of the show’s ability to have a thorough discussion that includes all sides of a complex conversation. “Uncertainty Principle” had a perspective that hadn’t been seen before, and is still needing to be seen today.

Chicago Justice takes on police brutality

Police brutality is a primary theme of “Uncertainty Principle,” as Atwater is seen having to tackle Justin Wilkes to end a foot chase, and slamming Wilkes into the car while trying to arrest him.

It’s also left unclear whether or not Atwater properly restrained the suspect with a seat belt before transporting him to the 21st District; Anna Valdez (Monica Barbaro) makes reference to the “rough ride” some cops give unruly suspects, and Kevin himself admits to Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda) that he can’t remember if he put the seat belt on Wilkes or not.

While he’s bothered by the death, though, Atwater isn’t apologetic about his tactics. When he gets a visit from Antonio later in the episode, he tells his former co-worker: “Maybe I did rough up Wilkes a little bit more than I should have…How many times have you grabbed a bad guy a little tighter than you should have? Hit him harder than you should have? I mean, this is what we do.”

Antonio doesn’t seem bothered either, replying that “What we did—what we do—we do it for the right reasons.” It’s an argument he repeats to Peter Stone (Philip Winchester) later, saying that if Atwater had asked Wilkes to come to the district with him, Wilkes could have pulled out a gun and killed Atwater instead.

And then there’s Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), who utters the most insensitive line of the whole episode: “If Kev killed that son of a bitch, that son of a bitch needed killing.”

Presumably what Voight means is that Atwater wouldn’t use deadly force unless absolutely necessary, but it comes off completely tone-deaf. He clearly doesn’t care, while Atwater is using the “everyone else does it” card and Antonio is between the two, trying to justify the situation.

While there are circumstances that do call for the use of force, this isn’t one of them and Chicago Justice doesn’t shrink from Atwater’s responsibilities. He recognizes that he was rough with the suspect and that he didn’t follow proper procedure. He just doesn’t see the problem, because in his world—the Intelligence Unit—that behavior is normalized. In his eyes, he’s the scapegoat for everybody.

What’s important here is that the show doesn’t just say “cops are bad,” either. Stone actually tries to indict everyone who seemingly contributed to Wilkes’ death, including the paramedics who detoured while taking him to the hospital and the ER doctors who didn’t consider him important. Everyone bears a little bit of responsibility, but the reason Atwater takes the fall is because he’s the only one the people of Chicago choose to hold responsible at a grand jury.

“I had plenty of other targets,” a frustrated Stone says, to which State’s Attorney Mark Jefferies (Carl Weathers) replies, “But the people of Cook County indicted only one of them.”

Racism and the court of public opinion

Race also plays a significant part in “Uncertainty Principle,” though not in the cliche way that’s typical of other TV crime dramas. The police officer and the victim are both African-American, as is Atwater’s defense attorney Paul Robinette (guest star Richard Brooks). In fact, there’s a bit of an about-face here, as Robinette—who once appeared on Law & Order arguing systemic racism—says that he’s now developed a specialty “defending cops.”

Instead, Atwater faces a similar dilemma to the one Robinette had in the Law & Order episode “Conspiracy” in 1992: Is he a police officer who’s a black man, or a black man who happens to be a police officer? He sums up the reaction to his arrest in the aforementioned exchange with Antonio, pointing out both the racial element and the inherent anti-police sentiment.

“I got a badge. I’m guilty, case closed,” he points out, before adding, “I watched a black woman testify against me in court today and look at me like I’m turning my back on my people. A people who’ve been shut out of restaurants, schools, shot with fire hoses, lynched.”

That long history of racism leads to Atwater being prejudged as one of “them” and the charges against him only make it worse, resulting in death threats against him and his family. The episode not only addresses race as a factor in arrests, but what it means to be a police officer of color, and how the public regards them, too.

Ultimately, Atwater’s name is cleared when a toxicology report proves that it was another person in the district lockup who caused Justin Wilkes’ fatal injury. But he’s not really in the clear, because as both Robinette and Stone acknowledge, the mere accusation of being a murderer—and the perception that comes with it—is capable of destroying his reputation. It’s something that he will always have to carry with him.

Institutional failures, and collective responsibility

The one area where “Uncertainty Principle” comes up short is its ending, because it’s constrained by the One Chicago universe. Someone else has to be guilty, because Atwater has to be around on Chicago PD. So the episode circles back around to the other arrestee, Kevin’s plea agreement gets vacated, and everything ends well.

But it’s willing to expose some serious institutional flaws. Not only does Atwater admit that he used excessive force and failed to follow procedure, but Antonio has a massive bias that crosses the line from understandable to unprofessional when he’s talking to both Atwater and Voight about the case. Antonio’s duty is to the victim, not his colleagues in Intelligence, and the show has Stone point that out.

Plus, as Stone initially tries to argue, there’s contributory negligence on the part of both the EMT’s and the doctors involved. The EMT’s have somewhat mitigating circumstances, having received a call to rescue a child who fell in a lake—a time-sensitive situation—but they still didn’t get Wilkes to the hospital in time. And the hospital doctors just assumed he was drunk and had him sleep it off, when in reality he was bleeding to death.

The suspect, the paramedics and the doctors all bear some moral responsibility for Justin Wilkes’ death, even though only the former is held legally responsible. And while Atwater ends up being excluded from that fatal chain of events, he still has his own separate responsibility for actions he knows were wrong.

Plus, even the State’s Attorney’s Office is on the hook for almost sending the wrong person to prison; Stone’s mea culpa in the courtroom is one of the show’s most powerful moments, because he publicly owns up to the mistake. Chicago Justice did an excellent job of showing everything that contributes to a bad situation, and not simplifying it.

“Uncertainty Principle” was one of the reasons that Chicago Justice was so remarkable; it was genuine, honest, uncompromising storytelling that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the One Chicago franchise or on TV. And while this episode couldn’t cover the full breadth of current events, it’s a great piece of drama to look at now to see these important issues portrayed fairly and sincerely. Chicago Justice was always timely, and this episode is even more relevant today.

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