By Chris Stewart
BBC One’s new police drama ‘Blue Lights’, set in Belfast, has been renewed for a second season. The series follows three probationary response officers as they begin their careers in the PSNI.
What differentiates this show from other police dramas is its attempts to navigate the political dynamics of Northern Ireland. It avoids the case-of-the-week format of other cop shows in favour of a longer story centring around a paramilitary drug-gang led by the fictional McIntyre family.
Much of the series focuses on the parasitical role played by paramilitaries in working class communities. In one particularly harrowing moment, a father is forced to take his son out to a prearranged kneecapping. One of the better written characters is a mother who is desperately trying to stop her son from being sucked into the drug gang. ‘Blue Lights’ is at its best in these moments when it is bringing such brutal realities to light.
As the series unfolds, so too does the collusion between the British state and the drug gang itself. This is an interesting point of tension that, in the end, sadly does not live up to its potential. In general, while the setting of ‘Blue Lights’ can sometimes make for interesting television, at other times the show fails to deal adequately with the reality of the subject matter it attempts to touch on.
The series shows that many working class communities have zero trust for the PSNI, but the main characters are presented as heroic figures who are ultimately confused as to why this is the case.
The show presents a sanitised version of the PSNI and covers up the real role the force plays in the North. In reality, many working class and young people do not trust the PSNI due to their own experiences. Statistics from the Detail point toward 13 young people a day being stopped and searched on average. Harassment by the PSNI or the likes of stop-and-search creates distrust and suspicion. In working-class catholic communities, the memory of RUC brutality still casts a shadow over the PSNI. In working-class protestant areas there is a growing mistrust of the PSNI due to a sense of biased policing against their community.
At a time when misconduct in the PSNI has been in the spotlight, the series fails to deal with this. In 2022 130 police officers were investigated for misconduct, including many examples of sectarian policing, sexual harassment and domestic violence.
One episode shows an example of racial profiling, resulting in the stop and search of a black school student. However this is presented as merely the doing of one “bad apple” police officer.
In reality, the problem is far more systemic, ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be stopped and searched. In general, the PSNI use stop and search to target working class people, especially young people, with thousands of children being victims of this in 2022.
‘Blue Lights’ is well made and often entertaining, but it ultimately fails to present a real picture of the PSNI and how it operates.