In Thursday night’s episode of “Law & Order,” Mehcad Brooks’ police detective character Jalen Shaw find himself inadvertently perpetuating the racism of the prison system when he learns, too late, that a young male suspect whose confession he’s obtained is actually innocent.
“This young man is waiting for his trial. He’s been at Rikers for 18 months, he’s being abused and assaulted on Rikers on a daily basis. So he decides to escape. We find out that he’s innocent, through a video that never surfaced later. And then the problem is, during his escape, the kid takes a hostage, and things go sideways,” Brooks says of the episode, titled “The System.”
“There’s a system in place that is filled with traps for people,” Brooks said of the episode. “Jalen became a lawyer and a cop to fight the system in particular, this setup for stealing Black people’s joy, perhaps their freedom and opportunities and aggrandizement. And he realizes that maybe he is a guardian of the system, rather than fighting it. So that tears him up.”
TheWrap: Does this make him reassess his approach to the job?
Mehcad Brooks: Yes, it does. He does everything he can to try to get this kid out, once he realizes what happened. It’s every good cop’s worst nightmare that they may have done a bad job, or they may have gotten a wrongful confession or a false confession. It definitely affects his confidence in his instincts moving forward.
Jaylen being a Black man who is a cop — not a cop who’s Black — he understands that there’s a system that was put in place centuries ago that every Black person has to fight against. Maybe you can escape it, maybe you can’t. But he definitely never wanted to be the guardian of that system.
So does this affect his relationship with Frank (Jeffrey Donovan) and their partnership?
This is something that’s traumatizing to Jalen. Because he understands what somebody going to prison does to a family. And if you’re the arresting officer, you got the confession. And you realized that the kid shouldn’t have been in the prison in the first place, I think that’s a traumatic situation in Jalen’s career and his life. So I think that Frank is a wonderful friend, partner, and in some ways mentor, and he can mentor Jalen on the job. “We all make mistakes.” “It’s okay to continue to trust your instincts,” that kind of thing. But there’s no mentorship for how does someone inadvertently become a guardian of a system that they’re trying to fight?
Are you encouraged that the show is examining the prison and legal system and how it works?
100%. I think it’s brave, I think it’s courageous, I think it’s real, I think it’s raw, I think it’s timely. It’s a conversation that America needs to have, that the system has been in play for so long. It’s not like it has to be consciously updated or operated by people who have evil intentions. This system can continue to go on unconsciously. It can go on through outdated policies, it can go on through good people just doing nothing. And our system doesn’t have to be updated to continue being detrimental to whole swaths of people.
We have to start having these conversations in America… there has to be some middle ground in which you can look at people’s lived experiences, and start to see them as true. And start to have compassion for that and say, “Well, what do we do? Where do we go from here?” We know things have been messed up.
And I think that ‘Law & Order’ is an institution on American television that’s able to reach people in their living rooms. And if we can spark the conversation that could help change these things, then we’ve done our jobs.
“Law & Order” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.