Embedded in a recently published interview of former Baltimore commissioner Fred Bealefeld is an extraordinary utterance — something that would and should be a lot more heralded if America were paying sufficient attention to the growing costs and failings of its drug prohibition:
“Professionally,” declares Mr. Bealefeld in a brief interview with the Baltimore Sun Magazine, “I think our war on drugs has failed…We invested a lot of this country’s blood and resources and didn’t achieve the results. Developing real educational and job opportunities for somebody would have been much more meaningful in neighborhoods than some of the work we built into putting people in jail. That’s why I think it was so misguided. We wound up alienating a lot of folks in building this gigantic jail system in our country.”
The former commissioner also credited a strategic de-emphasis of the drug war with enabling his department to focus on violent crime: “I always hope that our guys could differentiate between the value of taking a violent offender off the streets and some 16-year-old kid with a bag of weed in his pocket. To me, those two arrests are dramatically different. They don’t score as just one. They’re dramatically different. I’d hope that people understood that. As a society, that’s for us to cast our votes on. That’s a societal issue.”
To the extent this is true and it has allowed Mr. Bealefeld to have some success at reducing the rate of homicide in Baltimore, he is entitled to credit. More than that, those of us who worked on The Wire want that strategy to get all possible attention from political leaders and law enforcement officials nationally. After all, from The Corner onward and for the last couple decades, Ed Burns and I have been arguing that the drug war has not only destroyed communities and led to record levels of incarceration, but it has in fact impaired police work itself. In The Wire, specifically, this argument manifests itself in any number of soliloquies, often from the likes of Bunny Colvin, a fictional Baltimore police commander who chooses to ignore the drug war and focus instead on reducing the harm of the drug trade in his district.
If Mr. Bealefeld’s success is predicated on a similar approach, as he contends, then not just Baltimore, but the nation as a whole should take notice. The drug war is in no way making our communities safer; quite the opposite, in fact. While chasing drug stats, big-city police departments have walked away from Job One, which was always reducing violence and making the city safer. For my purposes and beliefs, nothing would benefit the country more than Mr. Bealefeld making this argument loudly and often.
To be completely honest, I only wish he had done so overtly, while still wearing the uniform of the Baltimore Police Commissioner. It is one thing after all, to speak honestly about the dystopia of drug prohibition from the sinecure of retirement, when there are no longer promotions and pensions still to conquer. But imagine the impact of a sitting Baltimore police commander, who, having reduced crime significantly by de-emphasizing drug arrests and drug warfare, speaks honestly about that work, about what this Kafkaesque drug prohibition has done to our actual ability to reduce crime and police our cities.
In the interview, Mr. Bealefeld argues that it was not his role as police commissioner to debate the legislature or to speak to which laws he supported or didn’t. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced that this isn’t a bit too precise to be entirely legit. Given that Mr. Bealefeld clearly had the support of City Hall as he disengaged the department from the excesses of the drug war, I think it well within his purview not to debate the legislature or critique specific laws, but to tell the public — as a law enforcement leader and professional — what will work and what won’t, and further, what he plans to do and not do to reduce crime.
Frankly, I think people are ready for our leaders to be a lot more blunt and a lot more honest about the drug war, and Mr. Bealefeld could have truly added to public discourse and debate by standing up, in uniform, and declaring for what matters in police work and what is destructive to that work. Saying so belatedly is notable, true, but it brings to mind the travails of another war and another leader who withheld his insight. Robert McNamara also argued that it was not his role to question our Vietnam involvement in the years after he no longer saw the viability of the policy he had initiated. In that case, a loyalty to government itself informed McNamara’s silence, though in retrospect many hold that silence in low regard. Much blood and much treasure was still to be squandered while McNamara held his tongue and quieted his conscience. So, too, with the drug war. Amid the increasing rates of incarceration in this country and the continuing bloodletting in our cities and in northern Mexico, there is no ceremony worth standing upon.
The interviewer for the Sun Magazine was not particularly probing in this regard. To my thinking, the stark revelation of a recently retired Baltimore Police Commissioner calling the drug war a failure and crediting his successes with having discarded the priorities of that war begs the obvious follow-up query: Why are you saying so now? Why not speak forthrightly when you are doing such and having valid results, when the imagery of a police professional in a crisp blue uniform calling a halt to the insanity of American drug prohibition might lead to real national discourse and discussion? The late timing of Mr. Bealefeld’s honesty leaves me with as much regret as elation; a bad war needs no critics in sad, sober reflection after combat, but when the bodies are being piled.
The interview then came down off the mountaintop and Mr. Bealefeld took the opportunity to again critique The Wire, a project in which he finds little favor. He is, of course, entitled to any opinion regarding the television drama, or any storytelling, for that matter. Just as all public officials are entitled to their opinions. In the past, I have been careful to respond to such criticisms only at those moments when public officials actually challenge our right and standing to tell a story. When public officials say they hate the show, I nod politely. When the Baltimore City Council proposes resolutions against filmmaking, or when a Police Commissioner publicly demands, on behalf of an entire city, an apology from a filmmaker, I’m obliged to fashion a response. But not before.
Mr. Bealefeld really doesn’t like The Wire. So be it. No harm, no foul.
But there was one additional contention that I did find remarkable, and perhaps, an insight into why this television show and his sense of it continues to oppress the former commissioner. Mr. Bealefeld told his interviewer that Ed Burns and I claim “our art is a reflection of the truth of what’s happening in the city,” but then he argued that The Wire was instead a reflection of 20-year old truth and therefore a dated narrative of Baltimore:
“The fact of the matter is, they’re still sitting at the bar with their war buddies talking about the good old days. They don’t talk to anybody here now but malcontents and people that are cheesed off. They don’t come to me and say, ‘let us hear what you have going.’ They’ve never looked at the training. They’ve never looked at our strategy. We’ve done precisely what (Simon) spent the big chunk of his career railing against – the failed drug war. We were one of the few big cities in America that disengaged from that and dedicated ourselves to a strategy almost right out of (Simon’s) book: Focusing on the most violent offenders and achieving real serious results. But they just can’t overcome the negativity they have.”
The interviewer allowed that to stand without ever noting the following:
1) The Wire was conceived in 1999-2000. It was written from 2000 to spring of 2007, with the last episodes of season five, the final season, penned well before summer of that year. It finished filming its final scenes in late summer of 2007.
2) Mr. Bealefeld was named as Baltimore Police Commissioner in November of 2007. By the time he took command and began to implement the policies for which he wanted the show to give credit, The Wire, as a television production, had ceased to exist.
Seriously. This man is angry because we wrote and filmed and aired a narrative about the world before Fred Bealefeld — and we didn’t consult Fred Bealefeld, or depict Fred Bealefeld or his works, or in any way credit Fred Bealefeld and his accomplishments in our narrative.
The Wire was not predicated on a twenty-year-old truth, as Mr. Bealefeld now wishes to imagine, but everything of the Baltimore department’s engagement with the drug war and with violent crime up until early 2007. We spoke to the known world not of twenty years ago, as Mr. Bealefeld insists, but to the known world that Mr. Bealefeld himself inherited and, indeed, roundly criticizes elsewhere in the interview, comparing himself more favorably to previous commissioners as varied as Ed Norris and Kevin Clark, who were indeed among those who actually served as commissioner during the time of The Wire’s production.
Again, Mr. Bealefeld is entitled to dislike a television drama for any number of reasons. But in that he seems to feel that a narrative that was written and filmed before he had ever so much as vocalized his own ambitions for the department, or before he had ascended to top command, should nonetheless be about him, well, he’s planted his flag on an absurd and embarrassing bit of rhetorical real estate. In his own words, he’s upset that The Wire failed to credit him with achieving what he did — when what he achieved, by his own assessment, comports so nicely with The Wire‘s and its creators critiques of the department and the drug war. Yet The Wire was done and gone before Mr. Bealefeld’s five years at the helm ever began.
That’s not negativity on our part. If anything, it’s at worst a failure to be cosmically prescient.
In our fictional version, a police commander named Colvin, operating amid the drug war and dynamics of the present-day department, attempts to de-emphasize the drug war and return his district to a rational response to crime and crime fighting. His career is destroyed. At the time we wrote that, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke — a man who, unlike Mr. Bealefeld, spoke truth to the drug war when his career was on the line, when he was ascendant in Democratic Party circles and on the short list for a Clinton-era cabinet post — had been professionally impaled because of his honesty. In Colvin’s fate, we were, in fact, honoring Mr. Schmoke as a man who told a fundamental truth without personal calculation, a man who had ended his public career as prophet without honor in his city and country. We created what we could from the known universe, and Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld was not actually extant at the moment that we wrote The Wire‘s final episode and sent the pages to the film set. That he resents this and believes it proves a sour cynicism within Mr. Burns and myself is, I think, more revealing of a certain awkward and all-encompassing narcissism on someone else’s part. Our greatest crime, apparently, is that by the time Fred Bealefeld showed up, we weren’t still around to exhalt him.
Apologies for that, Mr. Bealefeld. We had the time we did.
In sum, it’s fine that this fellow hates the show and apparently thinks little of Ed Burns or myself. It’s his every right. For my part, as I said above, I’m entirely pleased that Mr. Bealefeld did what others would not and turned away from the greater excesses of the drug war. And I will be elated if that deserving narrative has traction not only in Baltimore, but nationally. Overall, Mr. Bealefeld’s anger and resentment is in no way reciprocated.
Indeed, the only reciprocity I would seek with him — if Mr. Bealefeld finds pause to actually examine the emotions that have led him into such bizarre territory — is this: I’m willing to grant that Baltimore’s former commissioner found his way to some fundamental truths and to some degree acted to good effect on those truths. I’m even willing to acknowledge that perhaps he got there by dint of his own professional experiences and considerations, that he didn’t read or need to read The Corner, or see that miniseries, or watch The Wire, or glean anything from the fact that — as he himself notes in the interview — we were earlier making the same, precise arguments that he now voices and that he pursued to some extent as commissioner. Mr. Burns and I have neither the need nor the desire to insert ourselves into Mr. Bealefeld’s version of his personal narrative. He can credit himself and himself alone for his journey, his insights, his accomplishments.
Would that Mr. Bealefeld could manage an equal restraint and concede that since his tenure as commissioner did not in fact exist when The Wire was written and filmed — and only the last 10 episodes were broadcast during the first months of his time at the helm of the BPD — we were, in fact, making arguments that had never been voiced or acted upon by anyone in Baltimore politics or law enforcement in any way, that these arguments had yet to find any favor in the department or at City Hall, and we were doing so because we believed and still believe in those arguments. That is our narrative — an honest and timely one — and it exists independent of Mr. Bealefeld.