“he must have caught a stray bullet”: Police Brutality in The Walking Dead / Austin Anderson

Photo by Geoff Livingston. CC BY-SA 2.0.

During the closing arguments of the Derek Chauvin trial, lead defense counsel Eric Nelson used the phrase “reasonable police officer” 91 times. Nelson’s intent was clear—convince the jury that Derek Chauvin acted like any other similarly situated police officer when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to murder him. If you have followed the failure of police accountability, Nelson’s tactic was entirely unsurprising. Police officers rarely face criminal consequences for using excessive or lethal force against civilians.1 While the police use a variety of measures to avoid accountability, the “reasonable police officer” standard has become an incredibly salient force in establishing a presumption of police innocence because it has been codified by the Supreme Court and found widespread cultural purchase with the public. Eric Nelson was unsuccessful in his attempt to establish Derek Chauvin’s innocence, but those three words— “reasonable police officer”—have repeatedly allowed law enforcement to avoid legal accountability for their deadly actions. More importantly, this myth of the “reasonable police officer” has worked in tandem with the judicial system’s refusal to listen to Black witnesses, which proliferates racial injustice in yet another example of the pervasive anti-Blackness in American culture and the judicial system.

Police presence is a ubiquitous part of daily American life. We see them when we drive our cars, when we go to school, when we drop our kids at elementary school, when we go to sporting events, and, of course, we see them in everyaspect of popular culture. In 2016, Washington Post popular culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg released a five-part series examining the influence of law enforcement on media entitled “Dragnets, Dirty Harrys And Dying Hard”, showing how police departments and officials have actively used popular culture to control media narratives about the police. For example, one of the first police procedurals Dragnet was born out of a partnership between the show’s star and creator Jack Webb and the LAPD with Webb, according to Rosenberg, “accepting stringent censorship from the police department in exchange for story ideas, logistical help and a patina of truth.” Over the past 100 years, law enforcement officials have taken an active role in shaping police-focused media, and these narratives often suggest every police officer is right and reasonable. Even when the police are not directly involved in a media property, this long tradition influences the depiction of men and women in uniform, and Constance Grady argues, “cop shows taught us to valorize the police.” It comes as no surprise that many of these pro-police narratives were written and created by white artists.2 While Black and brown Americans have been brutalized by the police since the institution’s inception, many white Americans have relatively few encounters with law enforcement. Black drivers are 20% more likely to be stopped by the police than white Americans. Black Americans are 5 times more likely than white Americans to be arrested, and they are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police. If the only way that many white Americans interact with the police is through media influenced by the police, then that media becomes an increasingly powerful force in shaping narratives about law enforcement. More importantly, white Americans have largely chosen to defer to these positive media representations of the police instead of listening to Black and Brown Americans’ testimony of police injustice. A clear example of this deferral is Robert Kirkman’s massively successful The Walking Dead comic series.

Though best known for being the inspiration of the long-running and award-winning AMC television adaptation of the same name, The Walking Dead comics were wildly successful during their original run from Oct. 8, 2003 to Jul. 3, 2019. The Walking Dead Volume 1 Days Gone Bye, which collects the first 6 issues of the comics drawn and shaded by Tony Moore, was the best-selling graphic novel of the 2010s.3 Despite being one of the most successful comics of the twenty-first century, literary critics have largely ignored Kirkman’s magnum opus. The handful of critics who do investigate the series have almost entirely overlooked the use of policing and police imagery in the comics. This is all the more striking when we consider Rick Grimes—the heliocentric protagonist of which the world orbits—is a former police officer who deliberately and consciously uses his policing past to vault to a leadership position in a variety of communities. By interrogating Kirkman’s depiction of policing, it becomes clear that The Walking Dead negotiates the racially rooted trust and suspicion of the police in American culture and, more importantly, reveals how pro-police narratives told through the white gaze actively ignore testimony from Black citizens victimized by the police.

Figure 1: Opening page of The Walking Dead Vol 1 by Kirkman and Moore

The series’ most interesting presentation of policing is during prisoner storyline that takes up issues 13–19. By this point in the series, Kirkman has established Rick Grimes as the exemplar of the “reasonable police officer.” The series begins with a police shootout in which Rick—looking cut from the same cloth as the iconic superheroes from the Golden Age of Comics with his square-jawed white masculinity—is injured while calmly and decisively attempting to stop a deranged and violent escaped convict (figure 1).4 From the series’ first page, then, Kirkman positions Rick as decisive and authoritative. Over the first 12 issues, we watch Rick lead a group of haggard survivors through an apocalyptic zombie wasteland using his quick wit and brute strength—all the while artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard ensure that Rick’s gun, badge, or an article of clothing labelled police is fully visible.

Kirkman’s heroic presentation of his protagonist police officer reiterates the cultural and legal history of the “reasonable police officer” myth. This myth began in the 1960s5 with the professionalism movement, which attempted to bestow dignity on various professions—the police included.6 According to legal scholar Anna Lvovsky, “beginning in the 1950s, judges came to rely on the promise of police expertise to expand police authority in multiple areas of the law” and, by the 1960s, the courts “increasingly recognized police officers as authorities rivaling doctors or scientists” (1999; 2020). Most troubling, as Lvovsky describes, the courts began to recognize police officers’ supposed insight to “behavioral patterns used to infer criminal intent,” and numerous jurisdictions adopted the ‘reasonable, cautious and prudent police officer’ standard” (2021; 2027). Despite Black Americans repeatedly calling attention to racial injustice and police brutality,7 the idea of police as dignified experts was solidified among the white public during the race riots of the 1960s as various political leaders such as Richard Nixon begun to utilize “law and order” rhetoric to sow racial division for their own political gains. All the while, pro-police media properties were becoming increasingly popular in American culture. Deference to the police was entrenched by the Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio, issued on June 10, 1968. The Supreme Court held that police encounters known as stop-and-frisks where members of the public are stopped for questioning and searched without probable cause, “do not necessarily violate the Fourth Amendment.” The justices urged lower courts to defer to inferences drawn by police, “in light of their experience”, and the “reasonable police officer” standard was subsequently fully codified in the courts and the court of public opinion.

The only pre-apocalyptic moment Kirkman offers us is this one-page police shootout, which so clearly rehashes this “reasonable police officer” cultural myth. When the zombie apocalypse arrives, however, Kirkman’s promises that society will fundamentally shift. Inscribed on the back cover of every volume of the trade paperbacks are the words: “In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.” In his introduction to the series, Kirkman writes, “I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them.” And, to a certain extent, things do change. This is especially apparent during the aforementioned prisoner storyline where, as an example, Rick and the other survivors are ecstatic to live inside a seemingly abandoned prison because it is a highly fortified and thus desirable location in this violent post-apocalyptic world. These ‘lawful’ characters’ desire to be imprisoned is part of Kirkman’s commitment to CHANGE. As we will see, this storyline does contest certain cultural assumptions, but Kirkman also fails to challenge the “reasonable police officer” myth, which is a disappointing deferral to cultural myths rooted in white supremacy.

Upon entering the prison, we find it is not abandoned. There are four formerly incarcerated men still living inside, and each man introduces himself while listing their reason for incarceration: Dexter (convicted of murder); Axel (convicted of armed robbery); Andrew (convicted of drugs); and Thomas Richards (claims to be convicted of tax fraud but his crime is likely something more sinister) (figure 2).

Figure 2: The Prisoners introduce themselves in The Walking Dead Vol 3 by Kirkman, Adlard, and Rathburn

Rick initially attempts to coexist with these formerly incarcerated men telling his wife Lori, “we’ve got no reason to treat them like criminals.” This attempt at cohabitation between the ‘lawful’ and ‘criminal’ characters, however, comes to a sudden halt when one of the survivors Hershel finds his twin twelve-year-old daughters Susie and Rachel decapitated inside the prison. Immediately, Dexter is accused of the murders and reincarcerated; no one even questions the other residents of the prison. The stated reason for Dexter’s reincarceration is because he is the only person in jail for murder, which Lori makes clear when she tells Dexter, “you’re the only one we know is capable of [murder].” But it is impossible not to see the racial undertones. When telling Rick about Dexter’s arrest, Dale describes him as “the big Black fella.” Dexter is a large and intimidating Black man, and he is almost a caricature of masculine Blackness. In his “Cowboys, Fathers, And Everyone Else,” Levi Pressnell examines race and masculinity in the various media properties of The Walking Dead, and he argues that “racialized identities are constructed within” the comics (46). Pressnell argues Tyreese, Dexter, and Andrew, the three Black male characters in the prisoner storyline, “all paint a vision of Black masculinity that is threatening, physical, and sexual” by investigating how their characterizations resemble “other popular constructions of Black masculinity and [play] into common stereotypes about Black men” (58; 55). While some of Kirkman’s later characters will feature a more nuanced portrayal of Black identity and masculinity, Dexter’s Black masculinity is rooted in a long racial cultural history.

Artists of all racial backgrounds have utilized racial and racist caricatures in comics and other visual mediums for various purposes. In her Content of our Caricature (2020), Rebecca Wanzo, exploring how Black cartoonists utilize racial caricatures as a “practice of freedom,” argues that , “[c]omplete liberation from a history of negative representation is impossible, thus the continued presence of negative representations is illustrative of Black experience, and the cartoonist shows various practices of negotiating their lingering presence” (35). We might think that The Walking Dead’s illustration of Dexter as a Black masculine racial stereotype is not part of the same liberatory “practice of freedom” that Wanzo sees with Black cartoonists, as both Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead’s illustrator from issue 7 onwards) are white men. They do seem, however, to be using caricature to make a social commentary about the group’s racial dynamics by showing Dexter’s easy reincarceration at the hands of a mostly white group. This becomes increasingly clear when the characters learn that Thomas, the white man supposedly in prison for tax fraud, murdered the twin girls. Initially, Thomas was able to fully assimilate himself into the larger group, in a way that Dexter and Andrew never were. Rick even praises Thomas for “helping the women move all their belongings into the cells.” Thomas is repeatedly shown fraternizing with the larger group while Dexter and Andrew are typically shown off by themselves. Unburdened by racial caricature, Thomas was able to use the cultural image of a man like Dexter—someone with a Black, masculine, and criminal persona—to displace the attention away from himself and commit his heinous crimes. While Thomas is eventually caught and executed, Dexter was still the first person accused of a violent crime due to his perceived similarities to negative images of Black men in American society.

After being wrongful incarcerated and receiving no apology or recompense, Dexter devises a plan to remove Rick and his followers from the prison. Dexter points a gun at Rick and tells him, “Get the fuck out of my house.” During this confrontation, a massive group of walkers attack, and everyone fights off the undead together. Rick even prevents Dexter from getting bit, but Dexter responds, “don’t mean shit.” As the living begin to defeat the dead, Adlard zooms in on Rick’s eyes for two panels as we watch Rick make a decision. When we turn the page, Rick shoots Dexter in the head. Tyreese is the only person who sees what actually happened as Rick blames Dexter’s death on friendly fire saying, “he must have caught a stray bullet.” Despite Kirkman’s repeated commitment to CHANGE, he still thrust upon us the all-too-familiar scene of a Black man dying at the hands of the police.

Figure 3: Rick murders Dexter in The Walking Dead Vol 4 by Kirkman, Adlard, and Rathburn

The police imagery here is abundantly clear. In the panel where Rick murders Dexter, Adlard uses depth to highlight three points—Rick’s face, his gun, and his badge. The reader’s eye will naturally glide through these points, reminding the reader Rick is a former police officer. But it is Tyreese’s reaction that is the most interesting image on the page. Adlard and Kirkman prioritize Tyreese by putting his face on the center, and he looks horrified as he watches Rick murder Dexter. The post-outbreak society is full of quotidian violence, and Tyreese has already seen several people murdered. Tyreese himself has murdered at least two humans up to this point in the series. His pained reaction is obviously not because of the loss of human life. Rather, this moment is a reminder of the ever-present threat of quotidian police violence against Black people in the pre-outbreak society. I would suggest that this is the moment when Tyreese first sees Rick as a police officer, and this moment begins to rupture Tyreese’s comradery with Rick. For the first time in the series, we are seeing Rick through the eyes of a Black man as opposed to the optimistic pro-police prism of the white gaze.

And yet Tyreese eventually does seemingly defer to Rick’s presumed natural authority. In their next conversation, Tyreese tells Rick:

“I think you did the right thing. The way things were looking that fool was going to attack us as soon as the roamers were cleared out, anyway. Who knows who he would have killed. Fuck him, y’know.”

He offers Rick that same “us vs. them” rhetoric that police officers have routinely used to defend themselves after instances of police brutality. He is accepting that Rick is, in Marc Buxton’s words, “the thin blue line protecting a group of haggard survivors in the post-zombie apocalypse.”

From a narrative-perspective, it is perhaps understandable that we have watched Kirkman’s white characters so readily defer to Rick given the pervasiveness of the “reasonable police officer” myth among the white American public, particularly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the series was first released and confidence in the police was at an all-time high.8 What is surprising, however, is that Kirkman would force this “reasonable police officer” myth upon his Black character Tyreese when the “reasonable police officer” myth never increased Black Americans’ faith in the police. It is ahistorical to assume Tyreese, a Black man from Atlanta, would so naturally and easily embrace Rick’s pro-police mythos. Kirkman’s narrative choice is instructive because it highlights the continual refusal to listen to testimony from Black people. By forcing this myth on Tyreese, the Black testimony was not allowed to break through a white myth. By sustaining this white American pro-police narrative in the midst of the zombie apocalypse and forcing this pro-police language into the mouth of his Black character, Kirkman shows the indefatigability of whiteness by offering a narrative that protects whiteness and the police instead of using the speculative lens to offer something more radical. Despite his commitment to “CHANGE,” Kirkman sustains his trust in Rick, law enforcement, and whiteness. While Kirkman can use his speculative lens to challenge a wide variety of culture assumptions, this white writer cannot fathom an undisputed Black witness.

While my criticisms of Kirkman’s deferral to pro-police whiteness are warranted, it is fair to argue that Tyreese is not fully buying into the “reasonable police officer” myth in the same way that the white characters have earlier in the series. Consider Tyreese’s position. He is the sole Black man still alive in this group, and he has just witnessed the group’s appointed leader murder another Black man. On paper, he is the sole witness to this murder, and Tyreese should have the ability to hold Rick accountable. But the right to witness implies power, which Tyreese does not have. In her “The Color of Truth: Race and the Assessment of Credibility,” Sheri Lynn Johnson charts the failure of the American judicial system to listen to Black witnesses. During the Civil Rights Era, Johnson writes, “prosecutors argued that African Americans were inherently untrustworthy as witnesses,” and she charts this continued trend from early American history to today (274). Johnson concludes her legal review with the powerful statement: “the only color of legal truth is (still) white” (346). This culture of white supremacy in legal witnessing informs our reading of Tyreese. Whether intentional by Kirkman or not, perhaps Tyreese is not deferring to Rick because of his allegiance to a pro-police myth but for his own self-preservation.

The “reasonable police officer” cultural myth is instituted within a legal system of white supremacy to justify violent police action and contest witness testimony from Black victims of police brutality. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a useful entry point to this reality because the series both accepts this myth and refuses to allow Tyreese’s testimony to counter Rick’s heroic stature, which mirrors America’s racialized relationship with the police. Trust in the police is currently at a historic low, and some elected officials are taking “defund the police” seriouslyNPR’s Becky Sullivan recently reported that “Lawmakers in all 50 states put forward more than 2,000 bills related to policing in the last year.” Meanwhile, pro-cop media is finally being scrutinized. But it’s worth asking, “why now?” Black people have been calling for police reform for a very long time, but, in the face of the Black witness, many white people choose to ignore their testimony. The change in attitudes towards the police is clearly because of digital archival practices that are bringing instances of police brutality to the broader public. Now that videos of police brutality are widespread, white American culture is finally beginning to rectify the myth of the “reasonable police officer.” It took mass digital archival practices to convince a large number of white people that Black people weren’t lying about police brutality. Tyreese didn’t have a cellphone to record Rick’s brutality, and it is safe to assume that the other character’s in the comics would have never believed Tyreese’s testimony against the ‘lawful’ white police officer Rick. In our own world, many violent police encounters are never recorded by a witness. Without video evidence, will a white audience believe a Black witness? Our history says no, and we don’t need a zombie apocalypse to know that.

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  1. According to data collected by Philip Matthew Stinson, only about 1% of police officers are arrested after an officer-involved shooting.
  2. In January 2020, Color of Change Hollywood found that 81% of showrunners across crime series on television were white men.
  3. The remaining issues were drawn by Charlie Adlard and shaded by Cliff Rathburn.
  4. His calm decisiveness is especially notable when consider that most police officers will never fire their gun in the line of duty.
  5. Prior to the 1950s, the police were not considered a particularly respected profession. For example, as Anna Lvovsky has discussed, a survey of occupational prestige conducted in 1947 found that the police ranked 55th out of 90 entries, which was below tenant farmers and insurance agents (2012).
  6. This movement had wide-spread cultural is also credited as the reason the public no longer refers to sanitation workers as “garbagemen”, among others.
  7. The most visible example may be when, in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress appealed to the United Nations for help with the atrocities against Black Americans. The UN ignored the petition.
  8. Since 1994, the percentage of American adults who say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police has hovered around 55%. There is one exception, and that is the years right after 9/11 when confidence in the police went up to 64%, the highest percentage on record. This is part of a broader trend where Americans become increasingly confident in public institutions in times of crisis. All the while, Black Americans’ confidence in the police has consistently ranked 25-35% lower than white Americans.