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Mehcad Brooks on how his 1st police brutality experience at age 7 influences his ‘Law & Order’ character

"Law & Order's" newest detective has been in therapy for the incidents, he says.
/ Source: TODAY

Trouble is coming for Detective Jalen Shaw on “Law & Order” this week. And it feels like the show’s newest detective just got here!

In “The System,” the fall finale that airs Dec. 8, Shaw’s going to have to face his conduct as a police officer after a murder suspect he arrested escapes custody, and he’s accused of coercing a false confession.

But as Mehcad Brooks, who plays Detective Shaw, tells, the heart-to-heart Shaw is going to have with himself over how to be a policeman reflects some of his own searching when he first took on the “L&O” role.

As he explains, it’s all part of a “healing journey” he’s been on for years.

“There’s definitely a healing journey I’m going through myself,” says Brooks, 42. “I had my first introduction to police brutality when I was 7 years old. It was a throughline through the rest of my life. … And it’s come to visit me a few times. At no time did I deserve it.”

The lived experiences he had in his personal life with police he says “were traumatic enough” for him “to have to go into therapy about them.”

I had my first introduction to police brutality when I was 7 years old. It was a throughline through the rest of my life. … And it’s come to visit me a few times. At no time did I deserve it.

Mehcad brooks

His goal, he says, was to avoid passing them on to any future children he might have or making them part of his personality. But seeing George Floyd’s murder captured on a cellphone camera in 2020 refocused that journey.

And the opportunity to play a Black cop on TV was “something very much in alignment” with Brooks' “morals and values and principles about the type of world” he wants to “create,” he says. “There are times when Shaw has the choice of being rough with a suspect. I choose not to do that. It can be more ‘fun’ to do it that way (as an actor), but I don’t because I understand what it feels like to have it done to you. And as Mehcad heals, it informs Shaw.”

Mehcad Brooks as Det. Jalen Shaw in "Law & Order."
Mehcad Brooks (Detective Jalen Shaw) on "Law & Order."Heidi Gutman / NBC

“The System,” he says, was a script that left him “pleasantly surprised,” because it deals with “the system being unfairly slanted against people of color.”

“That’s something I’m very proud of about the show, and to see that we’re not shying away from,” he adds. “They’ve really nailed certain parts of the Black experience in America when it comes to fighting a system that was set up to steal our joy and freedom in some cases. This episode really touches upon that.”

“Law & Order” first started airing in 1990, when the young Brooks was only about 10 years old, and by 13 he says it was “always on in the house,” along with shows like “Dragnet” and “Perry Mason.”

Mehcad Brooks as Detective Jalen Shaw in "Law & Order."
Brooks as Detective Shaw. He says he grew up wanting to be a NYPD policeman.Zach Dilgard / NBC

“It’s been in my family’s cultural zeitgeist since I was a child,” he says. Though he grew up in Austin, Texas, Brooks’ mother is from New York, and he can recall “wanting so badly to be a New York cop.” But as he got older, he thought, “I’m not cut out for that.”

But when he appeared as a guest star on “Law & Order: SVU” in 2011 as a victim of sexual assault, he had an inkling it wouldn’t be his only turn in the series.

“About 10, 11 years ago I did an episode of ‘SVU’ and I was in makeup with Mariska (Hargitay, who plays Olivia Benson on the show), and she said, ‘Maybe you’ll come back as a cop.’ True story.”

And when he did finally land the role, he recalls exactly where he was and what he did: on a group Zoom chat with his team. “I remember falling on the ground like a child, on my back and kicking my legs up,” he laughs. “I understand how unique this position is and what an honor it is — and I was humbled by it. I’m having the time of my life.”

The “Law & Order” fall finale airs Dec. 8 at 8 p.m., followed by the fall finales for “Law & Order: SVU” at 9 p.m. and “Law & Order: Organized Crime” at 10 p.m.