Law and Order and the Lakewood Shootings

I’m finding myself quite intrigued by my reactions as I watched last night’s Law and Order, “Four Cops Shot,” which was based loosely on the Lakewood police shootings of last fall. When I saw last week’s promos for this episode, I had wondered about the possibility of it being a fictionalized take on the Lakewood shootings, but it was soon quite obvious that this was the case (and would have been even if KING5 hadn’t run a special “viewer advisory” banner over the first few minutes of the show).

Law and Order, like many of the modern crime shows, does occasionally supplement its totally fictional shows with shows “loosely based on” real events. There have been times in the past when we’ve enjoyed realizing that, hey, they’re doing this story, or that one. Of course, between the realities of compressing events that often take months into a single hour, and the particular demands of the format, these events are rarely, if ever, presented exactly as they happened, and sometimes, part of the fun is catching where the show is true to the source material, and where it veers away for the sake of television drama.

However, that game becomes a little less fun when the subject of the show in question is one that I’m actually familiar with. Suddenly, those moments when events change for the sake of the show — the “loose” parts of “loosely based upon” — seem more jarring, more unsettling.

(NOTE: From here on out, there will be spoilers for this episode.)

For the majority of the episode, they did a fairly good job of mirroring the events as they transpired last November. From the initial shooting of four off-duty officers (but no-one else in the eatery), to the city-wide manhunt for a wounded suspect, to the suspect’s getting assistance from friends and family, to the political fallout for a high-level politician who had earlier pardoned the suspect, everything moved along more or less as it had in the actual case. The first major change was the capture of the suspect, rather than his being shot and killed by an officer on the street, but this had been expected, as a live suspect is fairly necessary for the courtroom drama of the “Order” half of the show.

However, as the investigation proceeded and moved into the trial, some relatively major changes were made to the background of the suspect and the motivations for his actions — changes that, given how recently this happened, how well-known the four Lakewood officers were in their community, and how tender a subject this still is for many people, had both Prairie and me thinking that a number of locals are likely to be quite upset by how the story was presented.

I mentioned this on Twitter last night…

djwudi: “Wow. This Law & Order was staying fairly close with the broad strokes, but just took a sharp turn and gave the shooter a sympathetic motive.”

djwudi: “I’ve got the feeling a lot of locals are going to be upset about how Law & Order decided to fictionalize the Lakewood shootings.”

…and not long afterwards, found this:

politicallogic: “NBC Law & Order Outrage! Dramatizing Lakewood Police murders. Make Cops bad guys & portray murderer as a victim. Disgusting!”

So what did they do? In the real world, shooter Maurice Clemmons was bad news. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

Prior to his alleged involvement in the shooting, Clemmons had at least five felony convictions in Arkansas and at least eight felony charges in Washington.2 His first incarceration began in 1989, at age 17. Facing sentences totaling 108 years in prison, the burglary sentences were reduced in 2000 by Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee to 47 years, which made him immediately eligible for parole. He was released in 2000.

Clemmons was subsequently arrested on other charges and was jailed several times. In the months prior to the Lakewood shooting, he was in jail on charges of assaulting a police officer and raping a child.

In the days before the attack, Clemmons talked about his plan to shoot police officers:

On November 26, 2008, less than one week after Clemmons posted his bail bond, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the home of Clemmons’ aunt, Clemmons told several people he was angry about his Pierce County legal problems and that he planned to use a gun to murder police officers and others, including school children. He showed a gun to the people in the room and told them he had two others in his car and home. Clemmons said he planned to activate an alarm by removing a court-ordered ankle monitor, then he would shoot the police officers who responded to his house. In describing the planned murder, Clemmons said, “Knock, knock, knock, boom!” Darcus Allen, a convicted murderer who previously served in a Arkansas prison with Clemmons, was allegedly present for the conversation. On November 28, Clemmons showed two handguns to friends Eddie and Douglas Davis and told them he planned to shoot police officers with them; the exchange was witnessed by Clemmons’ half-brother Rickey Hinton, with whom he shared a house.

However, in the Law and Order episode, Kelvin Stokes is presented as a young man, who, though troubled and with a dangerous past, had been working with police as an informant in an attempt to make up for his previous crimes. In a much larger departure from actual events, it comes out that two of the officers killed by Stokes had been the pair working with him, and they had overstepped their authority, pressuring him through threats against himself and his mother to get him to turn in higher-profile targets. Stokes, in turn, who had been getting paid by the officers for his work as an informant, was asking for more money — which eventually became the trigger for the shooting.

So: in the real world, a violent criminal with a grudge against the police who intentionally targets four random officers. In the fictional world, a former thug trying to make good, pushed over the edge into violence by the pressure of two cops who, if not dirty, were certainly overstepping ethical lines.

Of course, the reality is that for Law and Order, the actual events wouldn’t have provided the drama necessary for the courtroom scenes. Had Stokes been shot on the street as Clemmons was, there would have been no courtroom scenes; had the cops been innocent, random victims with no ties to their killer, there wouldn’t have been the “will-they-or-won’t-they-convict” drama in the courtroom.

It seems quite clear to me that the changes made were made for the sake of the story and for the one-hour crime drama format, and I must admit that I don’t feel the “outrage” or “disgust” that politicallogic does on his Twitter account (though from the looks of it, we have extremely different political ideologies, so other differences of opinion aren’t entirely surprising). In the end, this is a fictional entertainment show, and it would be silly to expect it to slavishly follow the events as they actually happened.

I did, however, find my own surprise and initial discomfort with the changes quite interesting to consider, and I’m sure there are many who were more closely affiliated with the Lakewood officers and their families who would be far more discomfited by this episode — and now I can’t help but think a little more about all those other episodes “loosely based on” real events, wonder how close they came to the real story, and how the changes made for those stories affected the people who had to deal with the real events.