Showrunner Rick Eid and star LaRoyce Hawkins discuss police reform, how the team handles scrutiny and aftermath of Atwater's standoff.
Before Chicago P.D. and other Dick Wolf-produced dramas, like OneChicago's Med and Fire, Law & Order: SVU and the FBIs, resumed production on their new seasons, there was a tone meeting -- led by SVU's Ice-T -- with members of the casts and producers about how to honestly and truthfully depict a sensitive time amid a pandemic, protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice. For P.D., with the attention of cop portrayals on television higher than ever, executive producer Rick Eid vowed that those concerns will be "honestly and realistically" addressed in season 8.
In Wednesday's premiere, titled "Fighting Ghosts," the team's years of, ahem, unconventional policing practices are put under the microscope when a new overseer, played by Nicole Ari Parker, comes into town and watches their every move following a call for police reform. As someone who often operates within his own questionable morals and values, Voight (Jason Beghe) understandably questions whether he's cut out for this new reality.
"We're definitely doing our best to show how real people navigate these circumstances, whether it's COVID or the social unrest, every character is telling their own personal truth," LaRoyce Hawkins, who plays Patrol Officer Kevin Atwater, tells ET over Zoom. "As we watch Atwater and his truth unfold, he has a pretty dynamic assignment ahead to not just be a cop and an officer that we trust but also a Black man and staying true to his culture and to what he understands the truth to be."
"I've grown a lot just learning from Atwater's decisions and what I hope that the audience will take from this whole situation is we're just doing our best to be examples of strength and examples of honesty," he continues. "I think the pandemic has taught us all how to be a little vulnerable and how to deal with the vulnerabilities in a way that we have to see it through. So, Atwater is definitely on the front line of everything that deals with that -- of telling his truth, holding onto it and it's pretty much the last thing he has. If you take that away from him, I don't think he has anything left. He's doing his best to just hold onto it and whatever happens, happens. It's going to be an interesting journey."
As the season opens, in the aftermath of the tense police standoff in the last season finale, Atwater is targeted by a group of cops who have desires of hurting him for standing against the blue wall. "You can definitely expect him to do his best to navigate this war. It's a war going on now for Atwater's character," Hawkins teases. "If you know anything about Atwater, we're going to watch him be as courageous as possible but you can't call it courage if you aren't a little scared. The process for me has helped me to try and find those nuances that allow us to go on a very authentic journey for him. Expect Atwater to be nervous, expect Atwater to be unsure. You can expect him to unravel a little bit but you can also expect the best."
Ahead of Wednesday's return, ET sent off a few questions to Eid about how P.D. will approach telling cop stories after a summer of social unrest, why the pandemic isn't a big factor in the season and where key romantic relationships go from here.
ET: The world has changed significantly in the months since the show last aired. What was most challenging about reframing the new season with the pandemic at the forefront?
Rick Eid: There have been lots of challenges. First and foremost, the pandemic has made filming extraordinarily challenging. Luckily, we have a great team in Chicago and they’ve been able to keep the show up and running, while ensuring the safety of the cast and crew. The social and political climate has also changed dramatically. There has also been lots of discussion about police reform. These ongoing conversations have made writing the show more challenging, but at the same time, more interesting and dramatic.
Because you were forced to shut down in the middle of production last season, how much did you deviate from the original plan in the first episodes?
The plan deviated a lot. The world has changed so dramatically in such a short period of time, we had to throw out old ideas and start over.
How does incorporating COVID shift the dynamics within P.D.?
COVID exists in our alternate Chicago P.D. reality, but we’re not emphasizing it. We think the fans would prefer to suspend some disbelief and enjoy the drama, rather than have us dwell on the pandemic.
In the wake of protests on police brutality and racial injustice, portrayals of cops on TV have been put under a microscope. How are you addressing these concerns in season 8?
We’re trying to address the concerns as honestly and realistically as we can. The idea of reform and racial equality will be recurring themes throughout the season.
Will Voight and the intelligence unit be under more scrutiny this season for their unconventional practices?
Yes. There will be more scrutiny and their methods of policing will need to evolve.
How does the presence of new Deputy Superintendent Samantha Miller (Nicole Ari Parker) shift how P.D. operates?
We’re really excited about this new character. She will be the face of reform and will require that Voight and his team adhere to 2020 practices and regulations. The world is changing. That means Intelligence must change, too.
What are you eager to explore with Halstead and Upton finally pursuing a romantic relationship?
The complexities of working together, while dating. This is especially challenging when you’re cops, working to apprehend extremely dangerous criminals.
How does Ruzek and Burgess losing their baby last season change where they stand with their relationship?
Losing the baby had a major impact on both of them, but their relationship will continue to evolve and deepen.
What can you tease for Atwater following the intense police standoff?
Atwater’s courageous decision to take on the blue wall, and speak out against racist cops, will be front and center for the first two episodes.
Is the door open for Rojas to pop back in down the line? Will P.D. address her departure right off the bat?
The door is always open for Rojas to return. We don’t address her absence in the first episode.
Talk about the new normal on set. How much has the day-to-day on set changed with new safety protocols in place? What aren’t you able to do this season creatively that you took for granted?
Everything has changed on set. It’s too complicated to get into all the specific changes, but the long and the short of it is: We’re doing everything we can to make sure the cast and crew remain safe. The various protocols make it harder for us to shoot “big” scenes with lots of extras. Other than that, it’s almost business as usual.
Lastly, how would you describe this season in a few words?
It’s a season of dramatic change and reflection.
Chicago P.D. returns Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
To stay up to date on breaking TV news, sign up for ET's daily newsletter.
'Chicago P.D.' Finale First Look: Atwater Pulls Off a Major Bust With Help From a Troubling Ally (Exclusive)