Introduction

25 Apr
April 25, 2012

I’ve had a leasehold on davidsimon.com for years now.  People smarter than I am told me that even if I had no sense of its use at present, I should throw a few shekels down in case.  But until recently, I saw no reason to do much of anything with the site.

My ambivalence rests on a couple basic ideas:

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The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. III

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

 

Note:  These essays were, of course, written before St. Louis County prosecutors and Ferguson police relented and revealed the identity of the officer sho shot and killed Mr. Brown.  Both the cost to their credibility in the delay inherent in their delay and to the civil peace of that town remains relevant, however.  Moreover, the problem with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationally trying to maintain anonymity in such incidents is on the rise. So the essays stand as argument,  regardless.  - DS

 

August 14, 2014

 

Mr. Thomas Jackson

Chief of Police

Ferguson, Missouri

 

Chief Jackson:

Regard this as an open letter in light of your department’s unwillingness to properly identify the officer involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in your jurisdiction this last week.

Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work.  I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on extraordinary efforts by professional detectives and officers, and, too, on systemic and individual failures within that same agency.  I am not unsympathetic to the complex truths of practical policing.

To that effect, I’m offering no judgment as to the legitimacy of the police action in the death of Mr. Brown, nor am I critiquing your department’s militarized performance with regard to the resulting civil disturbances in your municipality. I leave the former for the more careful assessments of prosecutors and, presumably, a grand jury; the latter, I am sure, will be a subject of continued discussion within your community, in Missouri as a whole, and elsewhere in the country.

But for now, let’s simply focus on the notion that you, as head of a police department accountable to the citizens of your jurisdiction, actually seem to believe — along with local prosecutors — that it is plausible for a sworn and armed officer to kill a citizen and do so in anonymity.

Regrettably, I know that you are not alone in this astonishing breach of trust.  More than a decade ago, some of our most authoritative federal agencies began a tragic retreat from basic accountability, shielding their agents from any scrutiny for their use of the most signficant power that a law officer can possess — the taking of a human life as an act of personal deliberation.  Following the lead of the FBI, other large urban departments have since followed suit, or attempted to do so at points.

But the cost to our society is not abstract — and the currency in which that cost is paid is trust.  Your department has shown that you do not trust the public with the basic information about who specifically has, in the performance of his or her duties, been required to take a human life in Ferguson. And that same public is now in the street demonstrating that they do not believe that Ferguson law enforcement can therefore be relied upon for anything remotely resembling justice.  How could it be otherwise?

If you cannot see the contempt inherent in your policy, then you, sir, may need to reconsider both your own role and the premise of law enforcement in a democratic society.   You may need to yield your position to someone who retains the basic notion that your officers, armed with the extraordinary authority of using state-sanctioned lethal force on fellow citizens, are equally burdened by a responsibility for standing by their actions in full. You, your department, and the prosecutors in your jurisdiction are now running from that responsibility. In doing so, you lose the trust and respect of your citizens, your state and the nation.

I know that you wish to claim that the individual officer, if identified, would be somehow vulnerable. But this is dishonest and dishonorable, sir.  Having covered a police department in a jurisdiction even more troubled than your suburban community, I am well aware of the resources available to your department to protect one of its own against retribution. Your officers are the ones with legal authority. They are all armed. And they can maintain a presence anywhere in your jurisdiction.  Moreover, they have, if necessary, the support of your county’s prosecutors and judiciary, and all of the law itself to ensure the safety of a solitary officer.   They are, as police in Baltimore were accustomed to saying, the biggest, toughest gang out there — so much so that the claim of violent retribution against this officer is embarrassing hyperbole. The same claim was offered by a police commissioner here in Baltimore five years ago, in an abortive effort to hide the identities of officers who took life in the course of their duties. When examined in detail, the claim of any serious threat against any officer evaporated into a series of half-baked crank calls and unsubstantiated rumor.  Fears of retribution were not the issue; accountability was the real target. As it is now in Ferguson.

At this point, let’s be frank about the advantages offered to any officer in a legal examination of any use of lethal force.  We both understand, I am sure, that in presenting the facts of any police shooting to a grand jury, your prosecutors will be able to offer your officer the protection of legal standards that do not in any way address whether a given shooting was justified in a moral sense, or as a measure of good and careful police work.  No, the standard for justifying a police shooting anywhere in these United States has come down to this:  Did the officer have a reasonable belief that in using lethal force he was protecting himself or others from serious injury.  That is hole enough for a pretty big truck, sir, and it allows all but the most egregious and unjustifiable police violence to remain free of criminal prosecution, if not administrative sanction.

This may be the necessary legal standard for a world in which individual officers — even well-trained and well-meaning officers — must make life-and-death decisions in an instant. Even the best officer can give you a bad shooting; we both know this to be true.  And it may be that any stricter legal standard would result in officers unwilling to risk their careers or freedom in cases where the use of lethal force was indeed necessary to save the lives of themselves, their fellow officers or other citizens.  I grant you all of that.

But you must concede as well that the legal standard allows for the prosecutorial justification of all but the most outrageous misuses of police force — that the dynamic is already carefully protective of your individual officers.  The game is already rigged against a legal lynching. And similarly, as already noted, anyone seeking to harm one of your officers in an extra-legal manner confronts not only a lone individual, but the combined authority and force of all of your officers, of the county and state police agencies, of your jurisdiction’s prosecutors and judges.  In and out of court, no police officer ever stands alone and vulnerable — not in the manner of the average citizen.  Say, Mr. Brown, for example.

Yet incredibly, you continue to hide from any accountability by speaking of retribution against an officer.  But such retribution is wholly imagined on your part; the damage to accountability and transparency is actual and of the moment: Without knowing the identity of the officer involved in this incident, the citizens of Ferguson cannot measure that officer against his record. They cannot know if this is the first time he has taken human life, or the tenth. They cannot look to his overall performance as a law officer and know if he was inclined to brutality or insult in his dealings with the citizenry, or if he conducted himself with valor and respect for those he served.  He is hidden not from potential retribution, as you claim. He is hidden from accountability and from the discerning assessment of the citizens you serve.

In Baltimore, I covered many police shootings, most of them necessary, if tragic, and a few that were indeed questionable or dubious, if equally tragic. But in all of those incidents, a police department that remained fully accountable to its citizenry never failed to do one basic thing when a life had been taken: It stood by the body. All of those officers who took a life owned both their authority and their responsibility.  They were identified before their public, and the sunlight of public knowledge was never denied to any moment when an agent of the state, as a matter of personal deliberation and presumed professional necessity, ended the life of a fellow citizen. This was elemental, and democratic to its core.  If our country is to cease its drift toward a militarized police state, it is elemental still.

And beyond the democratic imperative, one other practical cost to Ferguson of your professional failure has yet to be tallied, but is certain and fixed: Your department, in order to solve crimes and maintain order, is dependent on the cooperation of witnesses — fellow citizens willing to trust in the process of arrest and prosecution, and in their own personal safety should they properly contribute to that process.  Yet by offering up the dishonorable claim that your department, and all the authority of the supporting law enforcement and judicial communities of Missouri, cannot protect a single officer from a series of unsubstantiated threats, or that the officer might be more vulnerable to public ridicule than, say, Mr. Brown was vulnerable to actual police gunfire, you have made this question entirely relevant:

If Ferguson police can’t protect one of their own — a fellow officer who is armed, who is allied with an entire department of armed comrades, who are themselves buttressed by their jurisdiction’s prosecutorial arm, who have the full weight of the law at hand in support of that officer — then how in hell are they going to protect me when I go down to the courthouse and testify?  How can they ask me, an ordinary citizen with no armament, alliance or authority, to stand up in open court and be identified?

The answer is you can’t.

The decision of a police agency to hide the identities of its officers behind a veil of secrecy, while asking the public at large to risk all in open court, is not mere hypocrisy. It is cowardice. It is an abdication of your professional role and your basic integrity. Your actions, sir, stand not merely in support of your rank-and-file, or in defiance of a mob; that’s how you wish to be seen, and likely, it is how many will view you within the cloistered culture of the roll-call room. But to the greater public that you serve, your decision is, again, void of all honor or courage.  You have done your uniform, your department and your city a great disservice.  Some reflection and a change in policy is required before anyone in Ferguson, Missouri can be assured that you, Chief Jackson, actually remain in service of law and order in your city.

Respectfully,

 

David Simon

Police Reporter

Baltimore Sun, 1982-1995

 

The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. II

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

Seven years later, from the Baltimore City Paper of February 12, 2009, as the militarization of American police work continued apace, infecting not merely the federal agencies so much less accountible to individual jurisdictions, but municipal police departments that claimed to be directly in the service of specific communities:

Police work, it is said, is only easy in a police state.  So welcome to the city of Baltimore, where a police officer who uses lethal force and takes human life is no longer required to stand behind his or her actions and suffer the scrutiny of the public he or she serves, where the identity of those officers who use lethal force will no longer be known, where our communities are now asked to trust in the judgment of those who clearly don’t trust us.

A 61-year-old Baltimorean is dead, shot by a Southeastern District Officer Feb. 17. His death may well be a reasonable, if tragic outcome. It may even be good police work, though any veteran city prosecutor will acknowledge that having a shooting ruled “justified” by the state’s attorney’s office should in no way be mistaken for such an assessment.

But if we let stand Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld’s new policy of withholding the identities of officers who use lethal force, make no mistake, there will not be any independent public oversight of such efforts ever again. From this point forward, we are in the dark.

Discussions about what an officer did or did not do prior to taking a human life, reflections on the professional history of that officer, an accurate accounting of any other incidents, however many or few, that involved the use of deadly force by that officer—all of this now disappears behind a self-serving and Orwellian veil of secrecy.

The commissioner, backed by the police union, wants you to believe this is about a rash of dangerous threats against his officers. They testified about just such an epidemic to a City Council subcommittee that asked few questions and seemed to blandly acquiesce to the new policy.

And further, to secure the new secrecy in which his officers will now police our communities, the commissioner assures us that in the event he personally perceives that an officer may have done something illegal or against departmental codes in the taking of a life, he will decid—unilaterally and without review—to reveal the officer’s name.

On a legal note, this is remarkable, because it leaves the city’s top law enforcement officer violating the law. By statute, the Baltimore police commissioner doesn’t determine what is public information in this state, nor does the City Council or even the mayor.

The Maryland Public Information Act is a state law and changing it requires an act of the state legislature. Absent that, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled long ago that initial incident reports—the so-called “face sheet” of any police accounting of a reportable event is—are, in the whole and without any redaction, public records. Meaning, everything that belongs on that face sheet—including the name of known assailants, which are the officers in any police shooting—cannot be withheld from any citizen seeking such.

But ignoring the legal niceties, which seems of no real concern to Commissioner Bealefeld, let’s focus on the substance of this new policy.

We, the public, are to trust that the commissioner—and all who follow him in the post—will be entirely and forever honest with the responsibility of deciding what we are allowed to know about police officers who kill citizens in our city, that they will freely provide information embarrassing or problematic to the department, that in making statements that can no longer be verified by an independent press, they will tell the whole truth.

It’s nice to think that the good judgment of one man can so easily replace the free exchange of facts and ideas. But there are words for that mode of government and they sound unkind to the modern ear. Still, rather than dwell on the totalitarian impulse here, perhaps we should simply look at how honestly the commissioner and his surrogates have performed on this issue thus far.

At no point on this issue has the whole truth been in evidence. Far from it.

In his letter to City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Commissioner cited as justification for the policy 23 reported threats against officers in 2008. There were such threats, true, but the lie is one of omission, because the commissioner did not tell the council precisely this:

None of those threats involved any substantive threat against any officer in retaliation for a police-involved shooting, according to sources within the department. Not one. Nor was the number of threats against officers in 2008 in any way notable, according to those sources; there has been no significant increase in such threats in recent years.

Told of this, Councilman Jack Young (D-12th District), chairman of the public safety subcommittee, said he felt deceived. He came away from the commissioner’s testimony believing such threats were in some way related to police shootings: “How in the hell,” he asked, angrily, “am I supposed to do my job when they are lying in my face?”

Councilman Jim Kraft (D-1st District) was similarly surprised to learn in detail the limited nature of the manner in which police-involved shootings are investigated. After hearing police officials testify, he said was under the impression that first the department itself and then the state’s attorney’s office undertook separate reviews of such shootings.

In fact, the state’s attorney’s office has no independent investigators to undertake its own investigation—they necessarily rely on the department’s own investigation of itself before a senior prosecutor reviews the file and recommends action. That prosecutor or the state’s attorney can recommend additional investigation, but again, the work is done by city detectives—the department probing itself.

Furthermore, if a shooting is ruled “justified” by prosecutors, as most are, it in no way reflects a judgment that the use of lethal force constituted good police work. Legally, justification for a police shooting can result if an officer made a reasonable judgment to use lethal force in the belief that the officer, his fellow officers or citizens , his colleagues or citizens were in imminent danger.

If that reasonable judgment was wrong? If the suspect was not in fact armed, but appeared to be? If the officer’s own actions introduced more risk to the situation, or contributed to an escalation of the conflict? If the officer failed to follow certain procedures, or to undertake an action that might have minimized the risk? None of that is directly relevant to the state’s attorney’s decision to legally justify a shooting.

Says a veteran prosecutor involved in such reviews: “I’ve told the department on several occasions that while a shooting was legally justified, it should not be referred to as a ‘good shooting,’ that there was nothing at all good about it.”

As to the internal review by the department itself, rarely, if ever, does this result in departmental charges against an officer whose actions have already been sanctioned by the state’s attorney, but for a wholly different reason: Veteran investigators in the department privately acknowledge that the risk and costs of exposing the department to civil liability by finding even modest fault with officers in use-of-force cases make the internal review problematic.

“I see,” Kraft said on actually having the full process explained to him. “If that’s the way it’s done—and I did not know any of this —then I can see why there might be some concern with the new policy.”

But again, at the hearing itself, the council members asked few questions and took the commissioner’s representations—and omissions—at face value. Just as reporters were asked to take departmental representations at face value in the wake of Tuesday night’s fatal shooting.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi insists, even against state law, that he has every right not to reveal the identity of the officer who shot and killed an unarmed 61-year-old man, and further, that the public loses little of its right to know by being denied the name of the officer.

“You can still report everything except the name.”

Again, a lie of omission: Without the name, there is no conceivable way for a news organization, or a community group, or an individual citizen to evaluate the quality and consistency of that officer’s performance, to learn whether there is a recurring pattern of problematic behavior involving an individual officer, to even find out—independent of a police spokesman’s unverifiable say-so—whether this is the first life taken by an officer or the tenth.

Only after being asked directly if the 29-year-old officer involved in Tuesday’s incident, five-year veteran Traci McKissick, had been involved in any prior incident of which the public ought to be informed did Mr. Guglielmi offer what can only be categorized as a sanitized and misleading version of same.

Officer McKissick had, the spokesman said, been involved in “one other police-involved shooting. She was dragged by a car and she fired one shot. There were no injuries and the shooting was ruled justified.”

Where there any other details that the department could provide?

“No.”

By that basic reading, the officer’s performance in that earlier incident was sterling and heroic, raising no issue as to her capabilities as a street officer. Yet here is what police sources provide of the 2005 incident in which Officer McKissick fired her weapon:

During a traffic stop gone awry, the officer for some uncertain reason entered the suspect’s vehicle when the suspect was not properly detained. The suspect then drove away with the officer in the passenger seat and, as Officer McKissick had drawn her handgun, the suspect was able to seize the weapon. In the struggle, a shot was fired and the bullet was discharged into the rear of the car. The suspect threw the gun out of the window; it was never recovered.

And Tuesday night’s incident? Well, yes, the same officer—who sources describe as physically diminutive—was again in a struggle with a larger, unarmed suspect and at some point she was in danger of losing her weapon for a second time. Whether she again drew her weapon first on an unarmed suspect, or did so prematurely, is unclear, sources close to the investigation acknowledge.

During the struggle, a sergeant arrived and fired one shot, fatally wounding the suspect. Officer McKissick, still in the grip of the suspect, regained control of her weapon and fired as many as 15 shots, emptying her weapon into the suspect’s leg. All are grouped contact wounds.

A citizen is now dead, perhaps justifiably so. But, the spokesman was asked, don’t you think it might also be relevant to the public that this officer has some history of losing her service weapon in physical altercations? Do you think the public might want to know if the department is looking into that aspect of her training and performance?

Mr. Guglielmi replied that the department has “no concerns” with the officer’s performance in either incident and, further, that the 2005 event was not relevant. You don’t consider a prior incident, he argued, when investigating the current one.

True, perhaps, in terms of the officer’s legal justification. But in terms of an officer’s training, capability, and performance? What could be more relevant than a potentially dangerous—and now lethal—circumstance that has repeated itself?

Half-truths, omissions, the grudging release of favorable details, the obfuscation of problematic facts—such a performance is, apparently, the reservoir of integrity on which citizens are to drink under the new policy. So much for Commissioner Bealefeld’s assurances that we will be told what we need to know when we need to know it.

There may be many officers—younger ones, certainly, those without a sense of the department’s history—who think the new policy beneficial. There may be officers who feel that they risk their lives, that they are vulnerable in their duties, that they are entitled to an extra measure of protection.

The service and risk of a law officer is not to be denied. But the greater and more fundamental truth is that being given the solitary right to carry a weapon and take human life as a publicly sanctioned act carries with it an essential responsibility to the public.

If you cannot stand openly in sight of the community you police and defend your actions, if your service history cannot stand a full, proper, and unregulated scrutiny by that public, and if that action and that history needs to be tailored, groomed, and cleaned by police officials who don’t trust citizens with all of the facts, all of the time, then how are you deserving of a badge, a gun, or the public’s trust in any regard?

Here is a fact: Over the last quarter century, in a drug-saturated city, dozens of Baltimoreans have been slain because they were witnesses or potential witnesses in state and federal prosecutions. Still, our city leaders insist—rightly—that to make the city safer, it is essential that citizens continue to come forward, to commit to the process, to believe authorities when they say they will be protected.

In that same 25-year span, police officials can recall exactly one police who was murdered—seven years ago—after being involved in a police shooting and then testifying against the assailants. Fraternal Order of Police officials are quick to cite the case of Officer Thomas Newman as justification for the new policy of secrecy.

But again, this is half-truth where only the full measure will do.

Officer Newman would have been targeted and killed if there had never been a newspaper published in Baltimore, if the general public had never learned his name. The officer testified in open court against his assailants and he was slain in retaliation almost a year after the trial and when he was observed as a happenstance in a bar on Dundalk Avenue. Media reports of his identity played no role in his death whatsoever and his tragic death has exactly nothing to do with the present change in policy.

Instead of anecdotal equivocations, those who support this new policy might do better to contemplate this appalling and destructive hypocrisy: If those who are authorized and trained to carry a badge, who carry semiautomatic pistols and esplatoons, who are backed by their fellow officers, who are nearly 3,000 strong, who have the power of subpoena and arrest, who have the ability to pursue and charge criminal behavior—including threats on an officer—if these men and women are now too frightened to have their identities known to the public in conjunction with the use of force, then how can anyone in Baltimore law enforcement justify asking an unarmed, unsworn citizen to testify in court as a witness?

Trust demands trust. And for any citizen of this city to be asked to consign life and limb to a system in which even the armed law officers won’t stand behind their actions is an ugly affront. It is, frankly, a question of institutional cowardice: The community standing of a once-proud and responsive police agency damaged by the sight of officers seemingly afraid to stand behind their actions in the same time-honored way that generations of Baltimore police have before them.

As for Commissioner Bealefeld, his response to any of this is proving elusive. For days on end, he has not returned repeated calls on the matter. Evidently, the temptation to avoid public scrutiny and criticism, once sampled, is habit-forming.

Police work in Baltimore is being made easy. But to anyone in city law enforcement who still understands the hard job of policing a city with precision, responsibility, and integrity, this is, of course, no real comfort. It is, in fact, both shameful and frightening.

*          *         *

Eventually, pressed by the ACLU, the Baltimore department returned to a policy of identifying officers who take human life, albeit they have implemented a policy that delays the release of that name, often for days at a time — a cynical means of keeping anonymous the identity and history of officers until after media attention to a given incident has dramatically receded.  That policy, equally contemptuous of the public’s right to know the most basic information about the performance of their government, has been allowed to stand by new police commissioners, by Baltimore’s mayor and city council, and by news organizations unwilling to exert for the right to public information under Maryland law.

Which brings us to present-day Ferguson, Missouri and a new and astonishing level of dishonor.

 

 

The endgame for American civic responsibility. Pt. I

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life.  The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

It would be nice to think that this new notion of frightened and vulnerable police officers, taking life anonymously and then hiding behind claims of imminent and actual threat, is some fresh hell of sudden origin, and that this Missouri police department is alone in having lost its moral compass.  Not so.

As Orson Welles famously pointed out, police work is only easy in a police state.  And there is a temptation — in these days of shrinking institutional journalism — on the part of much larger law enforcement agencies to make their jobs very easy indeed.  Before we get to Ferguson and the present tragedy, indulge me by reviewing a twelve-year-old opinion piece, written for the Baltimore Sun in the wake of a shooting by a special agent that the FBI field office declined to identify:  From the March 12, 2002 edition of that paper:

Here’s  A fundamental truth about police work in America:

In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace. As a well-armed society, we find it necessary to arm our law officers as a consequence and to accept that they will have to use those weapons as an act of personal deliberation.

This is an extraordinary right. But on foot patrol, in a radio car, on drug raids or during car stops, there can be no body politic to deliberate such matters. It comes down to a solitary civil servant reaching for the right decision in a terrifying instant. We train people for that instant. We pray that they act correctly.

One other fundamental truth about police work was absolutely clear to nearly everyone, save for the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office and, perhaps, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland:  If American citizens grant law officers the right to carry and use firearms with deadly force, it comes with an equal measure of responsibility.

When a firearm is used in the line of duty, an individual and an agency are both responsible for that action.
If a law officer exercises his right to lethal force, his actions are accounted and declared to the public he serves. He does not hide behind an arbitrary grant of anonymity; he is publicly identified as an acknowledgment that when he accepted the extraordinary rights granted to a law officer, he also accepted the responsibilities.

The recent shooting of an unarmed suspect by Special Agent Christopher Braga, 35, of the Baltimore field office of the FBI during a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County seems, at first glance, to be a tragic failure on the part of that agency and of one agent in particular.

Yet initially, the FBI resisted all efforts by the public to identify Special Agent Braga. The U.S. attorney for Maryland remained mute. They held to this policy for a week. And when the FBI released the agent’s name, officials said they did so only because local newspapers, having obtained the information from other sources, were forcing their hand.

Yet every other police agency in this country understands that when one of its officers uses deadly force, it is an action that demands accountability to the public.  Moreover, many of those agencies — if asked — would also provide information indicating whether a specific officer had been involved in past shootings and, further, whether any citizen complaints against an officer for excessive use of force had been sustained by administrative review. How else for the public to know whether a problem might exist with a particular officer?

Local FBI officials said they were following a bureau-wide policy in refusing to identify the responsible agent. Perhaps, but the policy is both wrong and contemptuous of the citizenry the FBI seeks to serve. Beyond that, the agent in charge of the Baltimore office suggested that the anonymity of agents needs to be maintained to protect them from possible retribution.

Remarkable.

Maryland troopers, federal ATF agents and Baltimore police officers who every day police some of the toughest terrain in America are routinely identified by their agencies when they exercise deadly force. Are all of those law officers at lesser risk than FBI agents? And what about ordinary citizens asked by law enforcement to assist their efforts by testifying openly in criminal courts, knowing that they can be identified publicly for doing so.

Even as the agent was finally identified, FBI officials couldn’t help but reveal just how self-serving and ethically bankrupt their policy actually is. Lynne A. Hunt, the head of the Baltimore FBI office, noted that Special Agent Braga is a former Marine officer, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran and a trained member of an FBI tactical team. Adding that Special Agent Braga is a husband and father of three young children, Special Agent Hunt said she did not want him to be perceived as a “faceless agent.”

She thereby made it clear that when the FBI believes that information about an agent involved in the shooting of a citizen might be perceived in a positive light, she and the bureau stand ready to provide it. Presumably, if the agent involved had no military service, a spotty record with the bureau and a divorce from a childless marriage, then faceless he might remain.

Given that the FBI’s actions in this matter have suddenly gone from a blanket declaration of policy to a belated attempt at spin, how is the public to believe that the bureau’s review of this matter will lead to a full airing of facts? Can this same Special Agent Hunt be relied upon to reveal the full facts of the probe, or will we hear from her only when certain facts serve her agency’s interest?

If FBI officials here wish to retain the right to exercise deadly force against Maryland citizens — as well as the respect of that citizenry — they, and the U.S. attorney who oversees them, will take a hard look at their performance in this matter. And they will find a way to achieve the kind of public accountability required of all other law enforcement officers.

*       *       *

When that op-ed ran a dozen years ago, the FBI’s effort to cloak its agents in anonymity was a unique affront to accountability and the public’s right to know in my state.  But not for long.  In part two, we’ll revisit the Baltimore Police Department less than a decade later, following the U.S. Justice Department down the same ugly road. And if you think such criticism as offered above gave the FBI the slightest pause, think again.  Justin Fenton, currently of The Sun, tells me that he is still waiting for the local field office of the bureau to properly identify the agents who killed a citizen in Owings Mills, Maryland back in April.  The citizens of Maryland are still not allowed to know the identities of the federal agents who kill them, to evaluate the service histories or past behavior of those agents, to know whether this is the first time an agent has used lethal force or the tenth.  For the FBI, police work in these United States has been made very easy indeed.  On to Part II, seven years down this bad road, where the same virus infects local law enforcement:

Robin Williams: A brief encounter

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

This is a grievous thing to say aloud, much less think, but I wish that the suicide of Robin Williams made less sense to me than it somehow does. I say that with very little real knowledge of the man, his inner being, or the whole of his life. I encountered him only once, twenty years ago, but the memory is distinct. I found Mr. Williams good-hearted, hilarious, talented, and remarkably, indescribably sad.

We were in the Maryland morgue on the given day, though the location had little to do with the sadness. Mr. Williams was guesting on an episode of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street I had cowritten with my college-newspaper comrade, David Mills. It was the first attempt at a television script for either of us, and until Mr. Williams had agreed to sign on as a guest star, our effort had seemed something of a miserable failure.

For one thing, we had originally written the episode for season one of the network drama.  But NBC execs, reading a narrative in which a mother of two is shot to death in front of her husband and children and no warm victories follow thereafter, thought the effort too grim.  Executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson pulled the script from that first season’s order of nine episodes, subbing another in its place.

So much for a career in television, we had assumed.  Mr. Mills went back to the Washington Post; I remained on the metro desk at the Baltimore Sun. But after Mr. Fontana had somehow managed a paltry four-episode renewal of the show for a second season, the script was resurrected. Mr. Williams, who had been directed by Mr. Levinson in the earlier triumph of Good Morning, Vietnam, had agreed to take the role of the husband.

This was a big deal. It came at a time before premium cable, and before film stars would be caught dead guesting on network television shows. Moreover, the role called for a dry, humorless tour through post-traumatic stress, guilt and unbridled grief.  It was not a Robin Williams role, to be sure. But he was box office and if he was willing to go dark then NBC was willing to go dark as well, at least for one hour. And so, many months after we had turned our script in to Mr. Fontana, David and I were told that it would be filmed after all.  Or at least half of our script would be.

The arrival of Mr. Williams required some rewriting — given that we had divided the scenes equally between the stricken family and the three young men complicit in the robbery-murder.  One does not acquire Robin Williams in order to have him off-screen in every other scene, and so, Tom and Jim Yoshimura set to work writing additional pyrotechnics for the guest actor and trimming back on the intricacies of the relationship between the three suspects. By the time they finished, a little over half the pages of our original script were still in evidence.

In the communal world of dramatic television, getting half your pages through editing is, I now know, a victory for any freelance writer. But at the time, coming from newspapers, so much rewriting constituted abject failure, if not incompetence. In reading the finished script, I felt embarrassed and unworthy.

What I couldn’t know then was that the entire enterprise was hanging by a thread, that NBC had effectively cancelled Homicide after the low-rated first season, that Tom had talked Don Ohlmeyer into the four-ep renewal over drinks and begging, and that Barry and his partner at the time, Mark Johnson, had secured Mr. Williams as a last-ditch stunt-cast to save the show. Never mind my affections for Scene Two, in which the three corner boys discuss Chicken McNuggets and the corporate co-opting of individuality (yeah, that’s where that schtick came from), the mission here was to have the leading comic actor of his generation carry us up to the mountaintop with a thirty share.

So when producer Gail Mutrux invited me to set to meet Mr. Williams, I was actually torn. David and I both felt that we had failed to deliver a complete script suitable for shooting, but more than that, I was ill at ease with this strange stepchild that had arrived in my city. Based on my non-fiction book, but effectively its own universe, the NBC show was something that I could admire, but not yet accept on its own terms. I didn’t understand a film set. Or actors. Or process.

Even before my edited script was fully published, I had gone on my lunch hour to set during the previous episode.  I suppose I wanted a victory lap for even having my name on a television script, even if half of it had been rewritten. Kyle Secor came up to me first, asking if he would have scenes with Robin Williams.

“No, not that I wrote.  You’re not really big in the ep.  It’s mostly Melissa and Danny.”

Richard Belzer made the same inquiry.

“Not much.  Maybe a line or two.”

That night, the phone rang in my South Baltimore rowhouse.  It was Tom Fontana, calling from New York.  He had some advice for me. At this late vantage, it is, I will attest, good advice by and large.

“You talked to the actors.”

“Ummm…”

“Never talk to actors.  Never, never, never, never talk to actors.”

He proceeded to explain to me how any actor who was unable to share a scene with Mr. Williams would be in open rebellion against the production and that I had revealed myself, in the most off-handed way, to be a babbling idiot. Do not, he said, talk to the actors about anything, ever again. Click.

So, yes, the invitation to return to the film set and meet Mr. Williams during the ensuing episode had me at odds with myself. On the one hand, I had the ire of Tom Fontana ringing in my ear. On the other hand, I was a  crime reporter in Baltimore and Robin Williams was a mighty cultural icon, a singular talent of a kind that someone of my station might encounter once or twice in a lifetime. And yet, again to the first hand, I was still ashamed of having failed to deliver a full script; some of Mr. Williams’ most notable scenes were at the pen of others more talented.

In the end, I went; I couldn’t help it. I dumped my worn LP of “Reality…What A Concept” in the back seat of my car and drove to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, palms sweaty, trying to think of something, anything, clever to say to one of the planet’s fastest and most comic minds.

Except when I got there, everyone warned me that Mr. Williams was not in that frame of mind. The crazed, manic stand-up routines, the machine-gun witticisms and impersonations — all of it was on hold as he tried to live in the shattered soul of a husband and father who had just lost his wife to sudden, implacable violence. He was, I found, the most in-character actor on that film set.

So there I stood, a putz with a dog-eared comedy album under my arm, waiting my turn for god knows what, as Mr. Williams sat in a small conference room, alone and ignored, while the crew set up lights and turned the camera around for another shot. When Lt. Gary D’Addario, one of the original Baltimore detectives in my book and then a tech advisor on the show, finally screwed up enough courage to disturb the man, I watched, stricken, as the lieutenant produced the same comedy record for an autograph. Shit, no. I went back to my car and dumped the LP. Never go civilian, I chastised myself.

Instead, I watched them film a scene, half-written by David and myself, then wandered over to craft services to liberate some Fig Newtons and a bottled water. And there, to my surprise, was Robin Williams, prowling the table, still seemingly wearing his character’s pain. I swallowed and offered my hand.

“Mr. Williams? I’m David Simon. I wrote the script, or some of it anyway. Thank you for everything you are bringing to the performance.”

He smiled, thanked me in return for the work, and asked if I had been writing for Barry and Tom for long. No, I explained, it was my first scriptwork and in reality, I was a newspaper reporter here in Baltimore. In fact, I needed to get back to the office before too long. He showed some mild surprise, and then we stood there, without much else to say. I wanted to offer something — anything — and I thought about the Penn Street morgue in which we were standing.

“Have you ever heard of the Nutshell Studies?”

He had not, of course.

“They’re upstairs, off the hallway up there. I can show you. It’s not anything you could imagine, and since we’re actually in the morgue today…”

He nodded, a bit wearily, I thought, and a nervous production assistant followed us upstairs as I tried to explain the dollhouse-sized dioramas that were on display at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner here in Baltimore. Created as part of the Francis Glessner Lee Seminar for death investigation, a training regimen for police detectives originally funded by Harvard University, each diorama featured the occupants of a dollhouse room in the aftermath of violent death. The scenes were carefully detailed, and a detective in the seminar, as part of his final exam, could stare down at a tableau and determine, from the evidence in each room, whether the doll in question had died accidentally, taken his or her own life, or been willfully murdered.

Mr. Williams looked at each of the rooms, asking questions, fascinated by the macabre display. He guessed at a seemingly accidental death that was in fact a murder, then guessed again at a kitchen suicide by a young girl that seemed at first glance to be a stabbing. I could offer solutions to most of the displays only because I’d learned the answers, years before. The actor took it all in, clicking the buttons to light each diorama and then staring at all of the morbid goings-on until the P.A. told him he was needed back on set.

“How long has that been here?” he asked as we walked back.

“They’re from the 1940s, I think.”

He nodded solemnly. Not a joke to be had. I tried to prompt him:

“Dollhouse from Hell.”

He smiled for just a moment, but followed the P.A. back downstairs to the set, where the grips and gaffer were still lighting. And then, suddenly, it happened. Nothing specifically to do with the dollhouse horror show, or even the fact that we were filming in a working morgue, but instead the arrival of Mr. Levinson, the executive producer, set him off. I wish I could remember the sequence, but there is no way in hell:

It began, I think, with something about Barry arriving as a mohel to circumcise the cast and crew, replete with an imitation offered up with Hasidic accent, then lurched into a string of jokes about how reluctant crew members could opt for an antemortem autopsy downstairs if they didn’t want to be so fixed by Mr. Levinson. There was a segue into all the other morbid Baltimore locales that would be featured in the episode, and all of the ghoulish degradations that would be endured by the crew, following by some savagery about the film caterer and then some banter with Mr. Belzer, who tried to hang for a few bon mots. But no, Robin Williams was firing all rockets, leaving earth’s orbit. I can’t remember all of the sparks of comic synapse, the absurd connections, the twisting journey from one punchline to the next.  I have a specific recollection of him announcing Mr. Levinson’s new NBC drama as “The Pope and Judy,” a warm-hearted romp that would make everyone forget that depressing mess about murders in Baltimore: “He’s the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church; she’s an adorable puppet.”

And then a mock-Italian voice, as a pope tries to fellate a falsetto-voiced puppet — the comedian’s left hand — with a communion wafer.

You had to be there. And, yes, I know that the phrase is used to connote moments that are less humorous in retrospect, but with Mr. Williams the live-wire volatility, the no-net comic gymnastics was part of the allure. If you were there, and I was, then you could scarcely breathe from laughing so hard and so long. The crew stopped working, forming a semicircle around him. Word went down the hallway and out to the trucks. More people rushed in to catch the shooting sparks, so that the entire production came to a halt as Robin Williams, quiet for days in the role of a grieving, wounded man, finally exploded. He was soaring for at least another five minutes before Mr. Levinson gave the slightest nod to his watch: We were losing the day.

Mr. Williams caught the look from the producer and ended the impromptu routine abruptly, with an awkward smile. His breathing was labored, and he looked to be genuinely embarrassed by his demonstration as cast and crew applauded with warm delight before returning to work. But it seemed that the actor had gone there as much for his own needs as for the audience, that he had come back downstairs from the dollhouse of the dead, readied himself to shoot another painful scene of grief and guilt, and then, in manic desperation, reached out for as much human comedy as ten minutes will allow.

I last saw him in the hallway, using the few remaining minutes before filming to face the wall and reacquaint himself with whatever horror he was trying to channel. He was sweating, too, as if it had taken all he had to rise to that warm summit and provoke such laughter. To my great surprise, his face was that of an unhappy man, and I retreated, saddened and surprised by the thought.

His performance in that Homicide episode was brilliant and thorough, and when broadcast, the ratings assured that the NBC drama would run another five years. Yesterday, after the news broke, Jim Yoshimura wrote to me his sadness and reflected on the fact that he would be a starving playwright now or worse if not for Robin Williams. Me, I’d be on a newspaper copy desk somewhere. David Mills, too, would have departed this vale as something other than a dramatist. All of our lives turned because a very rare and talented man came to Baltimore for a week and a half to film a television episode.

I know it’s of little moment compared to his greater achievements, and it matters not at all now to his friends and family, to those who knew and loved Robin Williams and held him close. But I for one am deeply grateful, and today, despite myself, I can’t help but think of that last, hard moment, alone, in the morgue hallway.

 

 

 

 

A quantum of Oriole

25 Jul
July 25, 2014

This essay appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated.  It appears on this site with the gracious permission of the magazine’s editors.   

 

To the beaten dog, every sudden movement is another impending brutality in a lifetime of such. Eventually, even the most modest and trivial move in the mutt’s direction induces a simpering cower.

Tell me on June 16 that Matt Wieters, after playing only 26 games, will cross into the valley of the shadow of Tommy John, and I am supposed to mark that date as the moment when the Baltimore Orioles of 2014 ceased to matter. Flay me with the knowledge that Chris Davis—he of the 53 jacks a year ago—will be hitting a buck-ninety-nine at the All-Star break, and I am supposed to lower my head to your rolled-up newspaper. Push my cold little nose into the mess that has come of Ubaldo Jimenez’s first Baltimore season on a four-year, $50 million contract—he’s 3–8 and now disabled—and I ought to accept the rain of blows that surely follows.

And yet, Steve Pearce.

Anything that can happen, will. And in an infinite universe, it will happen repeatedly. The full implications of the second law of thermodynamics apply to the American League East just as soundly as to a million monkeys at a million typewriters. Eventually, and regardless of all prior history, the Baltimore Orioles are going to type the complete works of Shakespeare.

How do we know this?

Well, for one thing, there is no God. There is only science. If there were a God, he would be—as evidenced by all of modern baseball history—a devoted fan of the Yankees. And God, at least the Judeo-Christian version of Him rather than the Aristotelian unmoved mover, is said to be good. Ergo, there is no God.

So, alone in this cold and expanding universe, we are left to consider the random motion of atoms, of protons and electrons and quarks, as these elemental essences dance and glance their way through the hollow space of, say, a Camden Yards, a Fenway, a Yankee Stadium. There is no romance to the matter, no theology, no purposed narrative even—if by narrative you mean a tale with a moral, with cause and effect, fate or redemption, hubris or vindication. No one is making a point here; the monkeys just keep typing.

Entering play on Thursday, the Orioles were 10 games over .500, three up on a Toronto team that was dominant a month ago and also three ahead of a battered, shield-down Yankees Death Star. The O’s run differential is +24—encouraging news indeed when you consider that the oh-why-the-hell-not O’s of two years ago, the ones who won 93, were only +7 as they stole every one-run and extra-inning game.

The current Orioles, sitting pretty atop the once-vaunted AL East, are actually more legitimate in some ways than the 2012 team that went to the playoffs for the first time since Clinton was president, Lewinsky was a name known but to him, and the world was still debating whether all electronics would cease to operate properly at the stroke of the millennium.

In other words, all I am saying is give Pearce a chance. We can win this.

Why? Because the Yankees’ rotation is shredded and their lineup ordinary, and because Tanaka couldn’t pitch every game and now may not be able to pitch at all. Because Toronto’s batting order—topped with speed and stacked with power—is now hollowed by injury, so much so that talk of trading only for a front-line starter now yields to talk of trading for some of everything. Because Boston is as flat as Shane Victorino on the trainer’s table, awaiting another epidural. And the Rays? Where did those guys go?

The electrons dance away from the great as well as the good. Overall, this is no comfort whatsoever; to accept probability theory is to acknowledge that eventually the United States and the Russians must engage in a nuclear exchange or that your goodly wife will eventually screw the mailman or the yoga instructor. But it also means the American League East can’t forever be the home of predominance.

All right, you say, maybe Baltimore can win the division. Maybe Jimenez gets off the DL and reels off a half-dozen wins. Maybe Davis finds his stroke. Maybe the monkeys can produce a Cymbeline or a Titus Andronicus.

But for Hamlet or Lear, you’re thinking I’m going to need more simians and more keyboards. In the AL Central, Detroit is running away and showing no holes. And the Athletics are throwing up gaudy numbers. Here you sit, Simon, hermetically sealed in your 12-foot-wide South Baltimore row house, nattering on about the Orioles’ run differential? Really? The A’s have scored 163 runs more than their opponents—better than a run and a half more in every game. That’s a statistic that doesn’t smell of probability theory but stinks of certitude.

To which, I reply by discarding stats entirely. To hell with Billy Beane. Chew instead on more quantum mechanics—the uncertainty principle of which clearly states that any effort to measure quantities is disturbed by the very act of observation. In other words Heisenberg has Bill James by the ass.

Remember: Anything that can happen in an infinite and expanding universe eventually will. And despite some long years wandering amid the deep-space weight of baseball dark matter, Baltimore has now crawled from its black hole.

I’m a scribbler by trade. And like all the other scribblers, I know it’s as tempting to assert for a narrative of tragedy as to exalt in glory. Either outcome is food and fuel for poets, who can throw meter at men in the thrush of righteous victory or, even easier, at those bravely facing inevitable doom. We want it all to Mean Something.

I have a close friend, an Emmy-nominated writer, who expends his finest verbiage sending out midseason pontifications on his beloved Cubbies—missives writ in the lofty stylings of a Mencken or a Perelman, speckled with almost as much literary and historical reference as North Sider profanity. Strung together, end on end, season after season, these emails are as comic and inflated a baseball jeremiad as ever committed to language.

Of course my friend, being a lifelong Cubs fan, would wish to remain paper-bag anonymous, but anonymity is for Mob witnesses. His name is Jim Yoshimura, and he is a romantic and a chump and is playing a mug’s game. The Cubs are merely the Orioles of tomorrow. The quarks are still in play for them as well, and all things, mathematically, must pass. Believe in the expanding universe, Jimmy. Believe as I do.

Except, well, there’s this:

In 2003, at the University of Plymouth in England, researchers experimented with a half-dozen Sulawesi crested macaques in a Devon zoo, and discovered there were more unexpected variables than mere simian typing. After a month the monkeys had produced only five pages of work, heavily invoking the letter s throughout. And the lead male eventually took to smashing his machine with a rock, after which the other monkeys urinated and defecated on the keyboard.

So if Chris Davis could start hitting the baseball, that’d be nice too.

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