On Police/Crime On the Drug War The Wire

Mr. Bealefeld’s Come-To-Jesus Moment

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.






  • Forgive me if I am repeating anything already stated, as I have not read all of the comments on this post, but contrarily to former Commish Bealfield’s contention that The Wire portrayed a Baltimore of 20 years and is therefore not accurate to changes within the police department under his comman, I never found the show to be a commentary on Baltimore, its police department, its political leaders, or the city’s drug trade.

    Certainly, the plot lines and characters are based on events and people that actually took place or participated in the “War on Drugs.” Those characters and story lines, I find, were used because they, from a creative/artistic standpoint, were easily accessible by the writers, following careers in the department and as a “cop shop” journalist.

    However, I don’t think The Wire, as a whole, was ever a show about Baltimore, or meant to portray the city just because…

    Baltimore, its police department, drug trade, politicians, etc. were used as a vehicle to create a social commentary/satire that, while reflective of Baltimore, are probably reflective of many other cities in America. It seems to me it was only utilized as a tool for that purpose, not write a biography of the city and put it on television.

    • Uhhh, Andrew. Have you BEEN to Baltimore?

      PS. Yes, it does portray inner cities all over America. Particularly all over NE & SE Washington D.C. and the hellhole that is PG County, MD inside the Beltway. But it ALSO portrays Baltimore, which you would know if you spent some time there before spouting off.

  • I don’t know, I’m simply not buying this whole focus on violent crime strategy was real. Nothing changed in the culture of the department. I’m not saying it was an elaborate scheme, but I do think it was the result of unrelated coincidences.

    (Crime Reduction)

    Crime went down – Yes, but crime has always been largely cultural. Police take way too much credit for crime rates. It is very easy to show this. The simplest answer is often the easiest. If police affect crime rates well then you are telling me that all of the police leaders are working together to be crappy when there is a national crime rise. If crime rates were based on policing, then there would be dramatically different crime rates from city to city. Instead Oakland, CA and Baltimore, MD have similar crime rates and are on opposite coasts. It’s the culture of America. Crime goes up and crime goes down, it does this nationally.

    Recidivism is where police can have a huge impact. Quality case work that keeps that offender off of the street, and then programs to address that offender’s successful transition back into society. Over time this should discourage crime by letting offenders know that the police in their area do excellent work and will get you. That would take a cultural and policy change in the police departments themselves and I have not known of any leadership that was strong enough and lasted long enough to do such a thing.

    (Arrests Went Down)

    Fewer people were arrested – Yes, but because of BPD policy, no way. I am speaking from the experience of being a front line supervisor during all of this. The pressure for arrest stats never changed from the officer’s viewpoint. Arrests were lower because of morale and resources. We had:

    1.) A contract dispute over pay raises

    2.) The provision of our retirement changed to 25 years from 20 years. Everyone was told they had to work five more years longer than they planned and some have plans and timelines because they are thinking into the future.

    3.) College tuition reimbursement stopped, except of course for Bealefeld and select Command Staff.

    4.) Overtime was dramatically cut back; much of overtime is for crime suppression, i.e. go arrest a bunch of people or you will not get overtime again.

    5.) For their efforts in taking from the officers in overtime the commanders were giving a 20k bonus.

    6.) Court overtime was stopped, and mind you we have to go to court it’s the law, and instead compensation time was given. For a 5 year officer that went to court a lot this resulted in $1,500 directly taken from their paychecks.

    7.) On many nights the ED and WD would not even have flex cuffs to take people to jail with.

    8.) The districts are understaffed so more time is spent humping calls.

    9.) CBIF won’t take a prisoner if they have so much as a scratch. One time they refused to take a disorderly subject that was arrested because he was too disorderly!

    10.) Forced medical retirements were implemented. If you get hurt you have 1 year to get 100% full duty or forced to file for medical retirement. Many well-known and respected officers were affected by this which begins to affect everyone else. The department told the officers that they would not be looking out for them any longer. Broken down: Bealefeld said for these young enthusiastic police officers (young officers make way more lock ups then veterans) to go after bad guys with guns. But it did not take long, especially after Keith Romans, for police to figure out what that meant.

    Scenario: Officer with 2 years on sees a person with a gun. Goes after person with gun (like Bealefeld wants) gets shot, but lives, and is in decent shape. Old days officer would be taken care of and remain employed, now forced out. Officer with 2 years on, paid approx. 44k a year. Medical line-of-duty retirement that is forced is 66.66%, now officer will be paid 29k a year (out of pension funds, paid for by other police, not the city’s money), but the kicker is that the medical insurance contribution flips from 80/20 to 20/80, so the officer is now paying $800 of the monthly premium, not the $200 that he was. That insurance is now $9,600 per year.

    So that officer that vigorously went after Bealfeld’s “bad guys with guns” leaves disabled, forced out of the police community, bullet permanently lodged in the body, and tossed 19k a year of thank you. Well no thank you. Many are not willing to go out there and risk themselves like that, it is foolish.

    There are many reasons that crime goes up and arrest stats go down. I just am not buying that Bealfeld’s policies had anything to do with any of them and that is another reason he left. Crime is going back up, it started going back up when he was still in officer. If you own it when it’s good then you must own it when it’s not. So, smartly, he got out of here.

  • Mr. Simon, your post could have ended shortly after you made points 1) and 2). The labored takedown of Bealefeld over such a minor gripe seems a bit indulgent, and it wouldn’t be worthwhile to say so if the scope and intensity of your protest wasn’t doing your readers a disservice by distracting from the more important policy questions on which your post is (ostensibly) focused. Let me take a detour to what I think is the heart of the matter (so to better explain why I think your critique of Bealefeld unjust): your conflation of “the drug war” with “drug prohibition.” How is it in any way useful to consider these as the same thing? I feel silly even pointing this out, but the logical consequences of the distinction seem to be lost on the drug policy reformers whose assumptions and arguments (specifically about the prospect of “drug legalization” as a viable policy alternative) you seem to share.

    First, the particular drugs whose manufacture, distribution and use have played a role in the vast majority of drug-related social destruction in the recent past (including but not limited to addiction, drug-market related violence and the “code of the streets” respect culture it institutionalized, incarceration and its attendant costs for socially marginal groups, etc) have been effectively illegal, at a national level, for nearly a century. If:

    1) drug prohibition and the “drug war” are the same thing,
    2) “ending the drug war” means legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc. (which in practice means doing away with Schedule I of the CSA so these drugs become, in some way, consumer goods like alcohol rather than being “regulated” primarily by the medical profession through the use of prescriptions and the application of clinical practice standards, as currently is the case with the Schedule II-V drugs), and
    3) legalization is the only viable way to deal with the enormous social costs caused by the use of the drugs and their historical prohibition…

    then one would expect that these enormous costs would have existed (at least in some proportion to what exists now) since the dawn of drug prohibition in the US.

    But that is clearly not the case. The precipitous increase in incarceration did not begin until, at earliest, the 1970s. There is no reason to believe the aggregate social costs of drug use and addiction were anywhere near as great in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s as they became from the 70s to today (which likely has more to do with what kinds of people were using/becoming addicted and the social context in which they lived). If “drug war” identifies an era, it could not possibly encompass the entire history of American drug prohibition, and it is therefore pointless to boil “drug war” down to the legal fact of prohibition.

    If “drug war” has any useful meaning, it describes the policies of governments (at multiple levels) instituted PRIMARILY IN RESPONSE to the sudden emergence of widespread illegal drug use as part of a (counter)cultural movement in the late 60s. It could also mean the mainstream cultural reaction to this movement that led to the “parents movement” and the government-sponsored anti-drug propaganda of the 1980s and 90s. But even this reading weakens the utility of the phrase “drug war,” as the national policy focus on drugs that started under Nixon and withered throughout the 70s (remember the time of marijuana decrim in nearly a dozen states?) was truly mild (and actually downright progressive) compared to the Reagan-era militarization of drug policy precipitated primarily by the anarchy of urban crack markets in the mid 80s. The late William Stuntz argued that the actual policy choices of the drug war era could only be rationally understood as a response intended to control urban VIOLENCE, not drugs per se, and I think he was largely right about that. So, in essence, the “drug war” has meant massive infusions of federal funding for drug law enforcement at all levels; the creation of multi-agency, vertically integrated drug task forces in areas that have little if any drug enforcement capacity; using the military to interdict drugs being shipped into the country and funding locals to eradicate drugs in source countries; drastically increasing the severity of penalties for drug-related crimes, and creating new criminal offenses to be used by prosecutors to secure convictions; defining police productivity in terms of short term outputs (arrests, of which drug-related are often the easiest) rather than medium or long term social outcomes (actual deterrence of future crime by known offenders and lower crime rates), etc. You have rightly criticized these kinds of policies and rightly praised those (like Bealefeld) who have used their professional discretion and chosen to defer. But I think there’s a fundamental conceptual difference between prohibition itself and how prohibition is (or is not) enforced that needs to be recognized.

    Why? Because drug prohibition (like other morals legislation) has a major symbolic component, which might even be its most valued aspect. The legal framework that prohibits drug use (regardless of the details) will continue to be desirable as a representation of “our” collective determination that drug use and its worst consequences are socially unacceptable. The iron will of prohibition exists in the heart of every middle class parent that looks at their child and fears for their destruction by vice (not, as is often suggested, as a conspiracy of private prison operators, cop societies and other interests determined to continue to reap the spoils of drug war). On the other hand, support for the “drug war” (as I’ve defined it) really only continues to exist among weak-kneed politicians (legislators and executives, but also top prosecutors, judges, etc.) looking for a horse to ride, or badgered by angry constituents to take a hard line (often those of religious conviction from the communities hardest hit by drugs and related crime, as evidenced by the support of black leaders for the major federal drug war legislation of the 80s). In this sense, widespread disillusionment with the failure of coercive, enforcement-centered approaches to control drug problems (even among those tasked with carrying out those policies) has already ended most of what has been known as the “drug war” at the state/local level (where it matters most), without a single significant move to roll back the government authority that created it. Maybe the current “drug czar’s” proclamation that the Obama admin has ended the drug war isn’t completely propaganda. So, basically, heroin, cocaine and all the other “illegal” drugs (and, to an increasing extent, diverted pharmaceuticals) are not going to be made available for non-medical, “recreational” use as consumer products at any point in the near future. National polls continue to show nearly 80% of respondents opposed to legalizing the drugs at issue (not including marijuana, the use and sale of which causes comparatively little social harm), and there is no indication that’s going to change in my lifetime (I’m a good deal younger than you).

    A few years ago, I attended a conference for an organization that, to my knowledge, is at the forefront of developing and implementing policing/CJ strategies at the local level that are effective in drastically reducing levels of violence and permanently closing down overt drug markets without putting everyone in jail forever. At one point during an open panel discussion, a drug policy reformer asked the person chiefly responsible for developing these strategies about drug legalization, specifically why it didn’t seem to be on the radar for discussion/advocacy at a conference that otherwise featured no shortage of frank discussion about drug war policing and its effect on minority communities. After suggesting that legalization advocacy wasn’t necessarily at odds with the strategy, the policy guy basically broke it down along the lines of “we made the choice to deal with these problems as best we could today, rather than wait until tomorrow when drugs will surely be legalized” (to howls of laughter). That comment pointed up a pretty depressing aspect of legalization advocacy. It’s almost become another go-to cure-all for people attracted to kooky ideologies, like gold-standard fetishism. People can argue for it forcefully and passionately safe in the knowledge that, since it’ll never happen, they won’t be held to account for its failure as a solution. Notice how, even a couple months from a presidential election, the drug war isn’t even on the national political map at all (save for a mention of Rx drug abuse now and again). The only people with any political weight banging on about it are Paulites and other libertarian ideologues (it’s right up there with “End the Fed” on the list of utopian snake oil brands). When Pat Robertson has embraced legalization, you know it’s probably an idea that’s past its prime.

    Which, finally, brings me around to your criticism of Bealefeld for not having the “courage” to speak out against the drug war while in office, which I can only interpret as meaning a failure to advocate against drug prohibition. First, if one accepts my distinction between drug prohibition and drug war, the entire premise of your post is flawed. Bealefeld, in either the quotes you included or any similar public statements I’ve heard him make over the years WHILE HE WAS COMMISSIONER (remember “I’m not trying to win the drug war”? http://newsone.com/523472/baltimores-crime-drop-as-war-on-drugs-becomes-war-on-violence/) has not embraced an end to prohibition, but an end to the specific policies of the drug war, some of which I listed above. If he IS actually calling for an end to prohibition, he doesn’t seem to be doing so directly and clearly, even in retirement. He was able to, in your words, conduct a “strategic de-emphasis of the drug war”, which has reaped rewards without the need (obviously) of ending prohibition. So, as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been any “come to Jesus moment.”

    Second, we should be THANKING Bealefeld for having the good sense to avoid the same kind of quixotic advocacy that Schmoke bumbled into. True, the social context of Schmoke’s time as mayor was far less forgiving than would be the case today, given that he took the top job right as the calamity of crack fundamentally changed the equation. But that doesn’t mean that a police commissioner, who is not an elected official but serves at the pleasure of the mayor, would get away with editorializing in such a way today. Regardless, what Bealefeld has done is quietly and methodically institutionalized policing polices THAT MAKE AN ACTUAL POSITIVE DIFFERENCE IN BALTIMORE. A difference that is real and measureable in lower arrest numbers and lower violent crime rates. No legal changes were needed to make this happen. No social movement had to be orchestrated to fundamentally change people’s perceptions and overthrow a century-old policy regime. IMHO, Baltimore can do without the “courage” of public martyrdom if it means we get intelligent public policy implemented by competent public servants. If Bealefeld had squandered his opportunity to institute these changes by acting like Schmoke, I would have regarded him as a twit. But, after all, he had at least some model of what not to do. For all his insight (I mean that with no bitterness or irony), Schmoke’s courageous proclamations ended with, what? Oh yeah!… the election of a new mayor who ran on a platform of more drug war and gave us “zero tolerance.” Hell of a bargain….

    I can’t speak to Bealefeld’s true motives for his hostility to The Wire. But I will say that I know a number of people who worked in “the system” during the 2000s, and I will say that ambivalence or even general dislike for the series is rather common (don’t worry, I do my best to convince them otherwise). I don’t think it springs so much from their feeling that a TV show has accurately portrayed their supposed complicity in corrupt or ineffective government. Rather, these people often remember how they were called on to play a certain game (the cost of being given actual responsibility) in order to have the opportunity to do real, important work that has a chance of improving people’s lives. This tradeoff could be as simple as toeing the company line and, when called on, speaking against “negative” portrayals of government and public officials that might undermine respect for the institutions (kind of laughable but that’s what happens!). I witnessed this among people that weren’t even directly responsible to government officials, but had to work with them in order to get a job done. That such displays continue to be perceived as necessary within organizations might be a good topic for social psychologists to pick over, but either way these folks grudgingly submited to expectations as a sort of necessary evil, and they resent the insinuation that they become corrupted by choosing to participate rather than sitting on the sidelines and bitching. Of course, having people that “mean well” doesn’t guarantee good results, but at least we can refrain from excessively browbeating those people that DO get good results, even if their public statements may not appear totally rational or coherent.

    So anyway, if you’re arguing that having high-ranking government officials openly advocate for an end to drug prohibition (even if it just involves advocating for a halt to enforcement of drug laws and not full-on repeal of the CSA) is the best way to achieve the ends you purport to value, you really are less moored to reality than I thought. As it was after Len Bias’ death, politics is poison for good drug policy. Those trying to do innovative policy work in this area should learn to avoid the public spotlight and hope to complete their work (which often takes years to develop) and demonstrate results before some politician pulls the plug because some analytically-challenged but ambitious young reporter starts writing stories that don’t play well politically. Even in our comparatively liberal age, harm reduction doesn’t play well in the sticks!

    • Regrettably, you seem to feel that my purposes in writing what I write when I write it ought to comport to your priorities, or those that you presume to be priorities on the behalf of other readers. Much to my delight, the blog is my own. The priorities are mine.

      And given that I have devoted books, essays, a five-season television drama and much of my reportorial output to discussions of the drug war and its failings — and have done so for more than twenty years now –I can’t regard it to be particularly indulgent if a portion of a solitary post on this blog responds specifically to Fred Bealefeld and his continuing arguments against my standing and the standing of the others who made “The Wire.” Mark you, I am unconcerned with Mr. Bealefeld’s dislike of The Wire, or for that matter, the opinions of whoever you think you know in “the system” who dislikes the drama. If you think my post was an argument on behalf of The Wire’s merits or against any critique by detractors, you missed the point, clearly.

      What I am required to do, as someone who helped to create The Wire, is to respond to Mr. Bealefeld’s arguments against our ethics or methodology in creating the drama. You may be unaware of the history, but in order to tell that story in the city of Baltimore over nearly a decade, it was necessary to play a certain amount of earnest defense against public officials and elected personages, folks who felt that their disagreements with the drama and its message more than justified, at times, the withholding of film permits, the pursuit of official denunciations of the drama from elected bodies, and, ultimately, arguments not against the content of the project, but against the motivations and legitimacy of anyone who would pursue such a project.

      Mr. Bealefeld continues to do so. That he now further claims that The Wire lacks legitimacy because it failed to tell the story of his tenure as police commissioner — when in fact the drama had been completed before that tenure began — is certainly something that can suffer a few paragraphs on this blog. After all, this isn’t David Simon going out of his way to piss on Fred Bealefeld. This is me, playing a modest defense, as Mr. Bealefeld travels miles from his path to take a piss all his own. That you feel he should do so without engendering a response is your opinion. But again, from my viewpoint, I never respond when people say they didn’t value or enjoy The Wire. They’re entitled. When they begin to argue against our standing in creating that narrative, I have found that it is both correct and necessary to openly disagree and assert for our legitimate purpose and motivations — if for no other reason than it keeps the lines clear for additional dissent and open discussion. When Mr. Bealefeld claims the Wire is wrong about that which it depicts, so be it. When he claims it is wrong because its creators hung out with the wrong people, and listened to the wrong plaints, and ignored the wisdom that is Commissioner Fred Bealefeld purposely, because we were intent on ignoring such things, he’s no longer critiquing content, he’s attempting to degrade the ethics and motivations of those of us who worked on the project.

      Telling a story about a real place and the real problems of that place carries with it certain fundamental responsibilities for the storytellers, and frankly, we took those responsibilities to Baltimore very seriously. That Mr. Bealefeld is comfortable using a dishonest chronology to make a claim to contrary is entirely worthy of a clarifying defense. After all, I do this for a living, using real places and real issues — first in Baltimore, then in the context of the military in Iraq, and now in New Orleans. I’m willing to let the material itself stand with little comment; allegations as to any fundamental dishonesty in the methodology need to be answered and defended transparently, if only to make the terms clear for current and future projects.

      That you are uninterested in any of that is acceptable, of course. You could have easily left your discussion of the drug war on any number of other blog enteries that deal with the subject, given how often I address that theme in a variety of posts, and given that the issue with Mr. Bealefeld is so distant from your heart. Or you could have also just made your points here, without going out of your way to interpose in that which is of no consequence to you. But since you did, you now have some more back at you.

      As to your comments regarding the drug war itself, I believe your swing goes wide, in my opinion, at an early premise. Honestly, I have a problem with some of your “ifs.”

      The origins of the drug war were not a function of the counter-culture. And they are not about the damaging effects of narcotics. This country was content with opiates when we had some of the highest rates of drug abuse in our history — in the wake of the Civil War, when returning soldiers, many with long-term wounds, brought opiate use to astounding levels in American society. No one had a problem with white use of morphine. And the drug war — and the exaggerated fears that underlie our drug prohibition — do not simply date to the 1960s. They have their true origins in the fear of the Yellow Peril on the West Coast in the 1880s, when the loathing of the Chinese immigrant class offered the first test-case of race-based use of drug laws in America. The drug war has always been about race and class. It has always been a war on the poor, on the racial other. If it wasn’t yellow people — and now black and brown people– that were being hunted adn marginalized, it wouldn’t still be tolerated by a supposedly free society.

      I further find myself cold to your seemingly “nuanced” brand of realpolitik, in which you decide from on high what people can or can’t be told in order to achieve practical results without actually addressing the moral depravity of the American drug prohibition. That path, I feel, is clever and dishonorable both, conceived as it is to accomodate much of the status quo and avoid meaningful change in the national consensus. American ideas about the drug war are changing and changing rapidly and this happening because people are finally speaking bluntly. I would direct you to the documentary film, “THe House I Live In.,” which won the Sundance prize this year, and have you bear witness in that film to people as unlikely as Oklahoma corrections officials calling the drug war for what it is. Or read “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander. These are not arguments that skirt the moral core of the problem, or worry about making an easier political sale to the general public, or even fret about what they will say in the hinterlands. These are voices who see the drug war for what it has become and who realize that we can no long suffer accommodation with what some still believe is politically inevitable or practical. These are the new voices of dissent and by being full-throated, and not too clever by half, they are being heard. And I believe it will by speaking openly and bluntly, early and often, that those voices are going to sway public opinion against this appalling betrayal of our democratic society.

      You want to credit Mr. Bealefeld with being practical and not impaling himself as Mr. Schmoke did a generation earlier. Well, Mr. Schmoke was ahead of his time and it cost him politically. I credit that greatly; sometimes the fights you know you are going to lose are the ones worth having, to quote I.F. Stone. Meanwhile, Mr. Schmoke’s police department fought the drug war aggressively, which is to his discredit, but again the time wasn’t right for considered change. Now, a quarter century later, during the later years of his tenure as police commissioner, Mr. Bealefeld to some extent mitigated the excesses of drug prohibition and achieved good results. Commendable and deserving of considered attention, to be sure. Yet armed with that success and backed by a supporting mayor, he nonetheless chose to hold his tongue rather than tell Baltimoreans — not people in the “sticks,” as you worry about, but an urban populace utterly aware of the drug war and its dynamics — some fundamental truth. That he is saying so now is good, but belated. He may get your praise for not being forthright when it might have had a deeper impact on the drug war and national consensus, but the former reporter in me still responds more favorably to those who actually say what is so without too much calculation.

      Again, to the extent that Mr. Bealfeld diminished the drug war and reduced crime in Baltimore, he has my support and I have said so repeatedly. I’ve been arguing for that equation in print since 1994, as Mr. Bealefeld himself noted. To the extent he is now a voice against the drug war, he has my further support and alliance as well. But in that he felt he could not speak to the truth of the above while wearing the uniform of the commissioner — and to the extent that you think this equivocation to have been practical, or clever, or necessary — no, sorry. Not buying it.

      This drug war ends not when our political leaders manage to cleverly marginalize their enforcement strategies without telling anyone. For too long, our political leadership has shown itself helpless and useless when they are calculating the drug war against their own careerist worries. No, this war ends as all bad wars end — when enough of us refuse to fight, or specifically, when a prosecutor can no longer find twelve people to put a thirteenth in jail for violating the drug laws. I am unworried about the net effect of legal or effectively legal narcotics in this world. The availability of drugs is already unquestioned in society; they are more potent, more plentiful, more omnipresent than when the so-called War on Drugs began. They are a damaging force, to be sure, but not nearly as destructive as the war against them has proven to be. For more on this argument, I would recommend the blogpost that corresponds to the recent Mexican elections. Not to repeat those arguments, but suffice to say I am not willing to make my children marginally safer from dangerous drugs by fighting to the last poor American and Mexican. Those people love their children, too. And they are the fodder in this ongoing nightmare.

      • Thanks for taking the time to respond at length. I’ll try to respond to your objections “in the order in which they were received” and in the spirit of open (and vigorous) debate that you admirably bring to this blog.

        First, I didn’t presume to be imposing any new priorities on you or your readers. Despite my acknowledged detour into drug policy history (which I thought necessary to clearly articulate the larger point), I tried to keep as close as possible to the subjects covered in your original post. As I understood it, your post was intended to make two points:

        1) Public leaders (Fred Bealefeld in particular) that believe the drug war has failed should stand up and say so while they’re in office, and not wait until they’re in the safety of retirement. If they muster the courage to speak up when their ass is on the line it’ll carry more weight and help end the drug war sooner.

        2) Bealefeld’s SUBSTANTIVE CRITIQUE of The Wire (not the right of its creators to make it, if I’m interpreting your use of he word “standing” correctly) as thematically outdated is obvious bullshit, because the drug war policing strategy depicted didn’t begin to change until after the show was already made.

        As to the second point, maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see anywhere in your original post where you referenced actual obstacles that public officials attempted to throw in your way during the filming of The Wire. I did see the section where you noted how, as a general rule, you don’t respond to substantive criticism of the show. Given that Bealefeld’s critique sounded pretty substantive to me, I did wonder how you rationalized the (extended, in my opinion) response. Hence my “indulgent” comment, figuring there’s likely something else going on here that you’re not exactly spelling out. Well now you’ve made it clearly known! So, to the extent that your response to Bealefeld was about his substantive critique and NOT a questioning of your right or authority to make it, I don’t see how I, as you suggest, misinterpreted your post.

        For the record, I’m not “uninterested” in the trials you experienced filming the show. I’ve been here my whole life, and at the time I had heated arguments with folks both inside and outside “the system” about the supposed lack of balance in the show’s portrayal of the city and a general worry about how such a dark and cynical take on city institutions would affect morale. In short, they were assuming your task was one of government or civic propaganda, and I had no truck with those arguments. I heard reports of something more than just handwringing on the part of officials, which I always regarded, if true, as incredibly craven and self-defeating. But, of course, so much of human perception is reactionary, impulsive and visceral rather than coolly rationale, so I understood my associates’ worry while disagreeing with their conclusions. My aside about the motivations of people I know who worked in the CJ system was not meant to suggest I or they had some special insight into “the truth” of the matter, but rather as mere speculation on what might motivate someone like Bealefeld to say things that appear so ridiculous on their face. Plus, I thought the broader point about the organizational demands placed on government officials was worth making. Why you felt the need to insert the sneering “whoever you think you know” in response is beyond me. Why not just assume I actually know who I know?

        Now to the first point of your post, to which the majority of my response was directed. To briefly reiterate, I made two points myself:

        1) Drug prohibition and the “drug war” are not the same thing, and the conflation of the two has lead to the incorrect assertion that drug legalization is the only viable solution for both the harms caused by drugs and by their prohibition.

        2) If Bealefeld has, in words and in deed, disowned the “drug war” without going so far to advocate against drug prohibition, he should be commented for both avoiding becoming entrapped in a quixotic debate and managing to affect a real shift away from destructive drug war policing strategies, a shift that has likely generated social benefits.

        You say the drug war didn’t start as a reaction to the counterculture drug use of the 1960s. Fair enough. I conceded as much myself when I said that the drug war, aka the “War on Drugs”, actually started under Reagan, primarily in reaction to the violence of the urban crack markets. Sure, Nixon declared drug use “public enemy #1,” but he also put a methadone maintenance pioneer and leading addiction medicine specialist in charge of the first ever White House drug policy office and pumped a far greater proportion of federal funds into local level drug treatment providers than any president before or since. Drugs didn’t seem to matter much to Ford, and Carter favored marijuana decrim and had a senior drug policy advisor that was awful cozy with NORML. Hardly a “drug war” by any definition. I’m making pretty much the same argument Mark Kleiman does here: http://www.samefacts.com/2011/07/drug-policy/fun-facts-dept-nixon-reagan-and-the-drug-war/

        But wait. You say the drug war ACTUALLY started back in the… 1880s? Locating the start of the drug war before the federal government even asserted the authority to regulate interstate railroad traffic waters down its definition and destroys the utility of the phrase. No one was talking about a war on drugs in the 40s, supposedly half a century after it started. Anslinger put his money into absurdist cinema because he had money/power sufficient to do little else. What you’re describing is the advent of drug PROHIBITION not the “drug war.” I’m saying there is a qualitative difference, a serious DIFFERENCE IN KIND, between local legislators merely passing laws banning the use of opium and closing down some opium dens because they don’t want their white daughters mingling with them Chinese (during a time when the local CJ system was so different from today as to be unrecognizable) and the full-on assault of multiple levels of government in a post-industrial age on whole sections of American cities that are primarily occupied by racial minorities. The US and just about every western nation is a signatory to the same international treaty that requires formal prohibition of most common “street drugs,” yet we are in a league of our own when it comes to enforcement-related costs. It’s the policy choices that have been made about how to enforce prohibitory drug laws, NOT the laws themselves, that got us to where we are today.

        Honestly, I’m familiar enough with drug policy history, including the sordid association with racist intentions of the early prohibitionist laws. I have no desire to rehash here what researchers like David Musto, David Courtwright, Peter Reuter and others have exhaustively chronicled. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that narrowly focusing on the history of drug policy is leading folks down blind alleys. Just because prohibitionist laws were originally passed by people with contemptible racist/classist motives doesn’t mean that the reason drug enforcement is TODAY primarily focused on poor minority communities is a result of racist intent. You should know this as well as anyone. Drug law s have been aggressively enforced in urban minority communities not because the cops are out to eradicate drug use among blacks or even to use drug enforcement as a tool of racial oppression. The cops are there because: 1) those things are happening OVERTLY, 2) other people who live in the community want the public nuisance eliminated and put pressure on the government to act, and 3) using drug law enforcement if a quick and easy tool to that allows law enforcement to look like they’re doing something in response. Markets are open for business on public corners and around liquor stores and barely-concealed crack houses and shooting galleries. Where people beef with and shoot at each other. Where fights break out, prostitutes hang around, stick up kids prey on sellers and buyers, junkies nod out on the sidewalk, and the rest of the neighborhood is terrified to step out their front door. To reiterate an earlier point, the reliance on drug law enforcement only makes sense as an attempt to control social disorder and other crimes, a point too often lost on those trying to change the NYPD’s stop and frisk policies. White, affluent drug markets don’t get this kind of police attention because they are discrete, taking place out of public view where there is far less likelihood of people that aren’t party to the activity will be adversely affected and call the cops. The cops likely wouldn’t have sufficient resources to smoke out the majority of this activity even if the political will existed. So even though it’s clear that using drug enforcement to try and deter other crimes/nuisances that accompany urban drug markets or prevent people from committing them through incarceration (aka the drug war) has not only failed, but exacerbated the problem, it’s hard to argue that that the problem itself is caused by drug prohibition when other drug markets exist under the same prohibitory legal regime that don’t produce so much social damage. And it’s really hard to imply that the major problem with the drug war is racist intent, when that war has recently been carried out under the watch of black mayors and city councils, implemented by black police commissioners, black district attorneys and black cops, in neighborhoods that elect black representatives to state legislatures and, often, with the support of the most respected figures in black communities. The criminal justice system is broken in these communities; drug policy is part of the problem, but surely not the extent of it.

        So, if you believe drug prohibition and the drug war are the same thing, and the best strategy for defeating this enemy is to attack it at its supposedly racist core, then are you going to try to convince soccer moms to legalize drugs because the laws were passed with racist intent? Or even because the laws are enforced in a racially discriminatory manner? Good luck with that. Good luck with tying to convince white suburban soccer mom that her desire to keep heroin out of stores makes her a racist. Middle class Americans have never been known to give up a little security for the benefit of poor others. The minute the civil rights movement started making any real demands of northern, white middle class communities (actual integration attempts in schools and housing) these people fought back in numbers and with a level of vitriol rarely scene even in the South (witness the reception of the Chicago Freedom Movement in white neighborhoods in 1966). Even if there is some change in popular opinion about the drug war, it is surely limited to enforcement policies and more likely the costs (paid for by their taxes), not prohibition itself (again, excluding marijuana). One needs no more evidence than the recent, knee-jerk reaction taking place first at the state level and now with the feds to place in Schedule I the chemicals commonly found in “bath salts” and synthetic cannabinoids sold as “K2” and “Spice.” Surely you noticed the hysterical spectacle around bath salts’ reported role in the Miami face-eating, all based on an off-the-cuff comment from the head of the local FOP. There are even movements developing to ban or severely restrict access to pharmaceutical opioids that are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the country. No one with half a brain is suggesting that the intent behind these prohibitionist moves is essentially racist or classist, so the historical analogy becomes trivial and ultimately useless as a context for developing policy. This is not an issue, as you suggest, of splitting hairs, trying to be “too clever by half” or bellyaching about how the public will receive the “revealed truth” about drug legalization. We already know how this is likely to end. I invite you to read the section in MacCoun and Reuter’s excellent “Drug War Heresies” where they track “elite opinion” (by measuring the tone and tenor of articles and editorials about drug prohibition) over time and compare to actual policy changes. In short: lots of back and forth in elite opinion, with no discernible impact on policy. I’m not suggesting this is some immutable law of history, only that I can’t see how today is much different from times past.

        Which brings me to your assertion that I’m advocating some kind of drug policy realpolitick, a Straussian attempt to conceal real motives from the ignorant masses? You’ve completely misunderstood. I’m not arguing that everyone shut up about ending prohibition. Hopefully (I’m pessimistic, though) it’ll get people who otherwise wouldn’t care at all to engage in some critical thinking about drug policy, NOT simply swallowing the wholesale characterization from any one side (whether it be from Ethan Nadelmann or, far worse, the dreaded Bill Bennett) of what I think is a severely oversimplified debate. My point was specific to your criticism of Bealefeld as somehow remiss in not clearly articulating, both in retirement and while in office, YOUR belief that drug prohibition must be ended, when 1) it is far from clear that Bealefeld actually favors such a policy, and 2) even if he did, vocalizing his support could very well have undermined or destroyed his precarious political support (like Schmoke before him), and risked the loss of the REAL WORLD CHANGES he’s been instrumental in implementing.

        So here, clearly, is our disagreement. You believe ending drug prohibition is the only way to affect REAL change in drug enforcement (and all drug policy generally?) and would prefer (and use your public platform to compel) public office holders of honor to fall on their swords rather than settle for half-measures. I believe spending precious time pounding the chest for drug legalization is, at best, tilting at windmills, and at worst a poisoned distraction that makes the development of effective policies more difficult or impossible due to increased political noise. You criticize Bealefeld for not sooner jumping on the caravan to Zion. I say he should be praised for prioritizing the making of this place a much better one. I also believe that the “fundamental truth” that Bealefeld speaks, both now and before, is that drug war-style law enforcement is bogus and should be disposed of, not necessarily that legalizing drugs is a useful way of doing what he was already able to accomplish in Baltimore without it.

        Finally, I wasn’t suggesting that “political leaders… cleverly marginalize their enforcement strategies without telling anyone.” I would be overjoyed if more people understood and supported innovative strategies like the “pulling levers” approach originally developed in Boston back the in mid-90s, or even Chicago CeaseFire which has been replicated in Baltimore as SafeStreets. But my sense is that, when these approaches are described in the media, the public reaction is typically hostile. They’re interpreted as “hug a thug” programs that seek to coddle or bribe “urban terrorists.” People don’t typically even understand a strategy of focusing on “bad guys with guns.” “I mean, isn’t that what the police have ALWAYS done?” How about harm reduction policies like needle exchange, safe injection sites or naloxone distribution? “What, you want to HELP addicts get high?” These aren’t the reactions of right wingers alone; these are the impulsive thoughts of mainstream, middle-of-the-road folks, and even many who smugly cling to liberal pretenses. So, please forgive my pessimism when it comes to the wisdom of the crowd.

        But it runs the other way as well. Check the reaction from ever-so-enlightened anti-drug war activists to the apparent success of the HOPE probation model in Hawai’i. “You want to punish drug users with JAIL TIME? But drug users need TREATMENT, not INCARCERATION!” Uh, but this program seems to reduce the need for both, while reducing crime…. If there’s any real “movement” for rolling back the drug war in this country, it’s the people that are quietly, pragmatically working to create non-traditional collaborations between various entities at the local level to implement these kinds of strategies, not the “full throated” moralists pounding the podium and trying to shame an indifferent nation. Speaking of “wide swings!” The political campaign to end drug prohibition surely goes there. You want to convince every bystander in the country to use their votes to legalize drugs in order to save America’s most vulnerable, when all that’s really needed is to convince some line level cops, probation officers, prosecutors, case workers, treatment and social service providers and community folks in a town near you to get together in a room and hash out a plan to deal with that relatively tiny group of people that they are already forced to deal with, in their own narrow context, over and over again. Not an easy task for sure, but one that’s clearly possible, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years. What’s the track record of success for legalization advocacy (again, save marijuana)?

  • I wonder what Mr. Bealefeld would say is the appropriate and current narrative of today in regards to the Baltimore Police Department and it’s training, tactics, and policies in regards to drug use and distribution in the city.

    • Very good questions. He has a great deal to say that needs to be said going forward. I am hoping that he continues in his present arguments on the issues that matter, his emotional grievances with a television show notwithstanding.

  • I agree about Mr. Bealefeld’s comment being helpful in general, but not as courageous and not having as much impact as it might have if he had said it while in office.

    Beyond that, I want to say that as a relative newcomer to Baltimore, who moved here 6 years ago and then promptly got inadvertently embroiled in trying to prevent Baltimore City’s ill-advised takeover and subsequent ongoing degradation and partial destruction of the historic Senator Theatre, I have discovered that when “The Wire” touches on the political corruption of this city, and the cozy relationships of some in power to questionable development interests, it is remarkably accurate for a work of fiction. Sadly, I think that when locals express a strong dislike of “The Wire,” it is often because the show depicts their city all too clearly.

  • I get what you’re saying, Mr. Simon.
    I remember writing my first letter to a politician, and it was to Kurt Schmoke, praising him for his bravery.
    So I do agree that the so-called war on drugs is lame, even destructive.
    But I also feel like you are unfairly sitting in judgement of Bealefeld’s belated honesty.
    I remember the commissioner getting crap from the press for calling people, “knuckleheads”.
    Here’s a guy, doing his job, a family to support, etc., and he can’t win in the public eye, even WITH the crime rate down.
    So you expect him to crucify his career by being the second honest public figure?

    • Well, this blogpost presents readers with a fundamental hypocrisy, does it not? On the one hand, we have Mr. Bealefeld challenging the intellectual integrity of The Wire, claiming that its authors were immune and resistant to his insights and progress in crime fighting — when in fact all such activity occurred after The Wire had already been written and filmed. Chronology means nothing when Mr. Bealefeld’s critique is at hand.

      Yet timing is everything when he makes the calculation about when it is safe to stand up and speak against the drug war. There. and in that instance, you suggest that he could only plausibly do so after his retirement as Baltimore’s chief law enforcer.

      Remarkable isn’t it that Mr. Burns and myself are to be faulted for using The Wire to speak to the frauds and amorality of the drug war early, before Mr. Bealefeld has a chance to assume command of the Baltimore department. There, we are too early to tell much truth. Yet at the same time, you suggest it is somehow right on time for Mr. Bealefeld to address the drug war and its cost late and to less effect than he might have as a sitting commissioner.

      In truth, I think that 2010 is not 1993 and that nearly two decades later, many Americans — a majority, I believe, and certainly a strong plurality — are ready to reconsider the drug war in all its dystopic breadth. What impaled Kurt Schmoke a generation ago will not impale a Baltimore political leader in the current climate. Americans are more and more aware of what the drug war has wrought and opposition to that war is growing, I believe. Armored by the improved homicide statistics under his watch, Mr. Bealefeld, in particular, could have spoken bluntly and honestly about what works and what doesn’t in drug enforcement and in doing so, he could have advanced the necessary public discourse. He would have survived that storm with as much ease as he rode out the “knuckleheads” remark, which frankly, wasn’t even a tempest in a thimble.

      It is good — but not better — that he is speaking to the drug war now. I have only praise for his current honesty. But for him to in one breath argue the same stance The Wire undertook years before he arrived at that stance, and then in the next breath challenge the intellectual honesty of The Wire for not having given consideration to Commissioner Fred Bealefeld and his works when Commissioner Bealefeld and his works did not yet exist, is, well, embarrassing. Sorry.

      • IS there really a difference between 2010 and 1993? I grew up with the same crap in PG County (southeast side, inside the Beltway marymotherofgod) and got out after graduating high school in ’95, never looking back. But people I’ve kept in touch with and occasional news stories I run across through underground sources (because we all know mainstream media is unreliable at best, a complete farce at it it’s norm) do not make it appear that the “War on Drugs” as a gravy train for the corrupt political agenda that characterizes pretty much the whole DMV (slang for “DC, Maryland, Virginia”) has gone anywhere. Maybe with the long-overdue ejection of Marion Barry there were a few brief moments of clarity, but…. really? Do you think anything has really changed between then and now? I’d love to be wrong, but it would be a pretty big kick in the head to get my mind around after 15 years coming up in that shithole.

  • 1. “Loyalty to an entity is a fool’s choice. Loyalty is to people.” . . .
    2. “He knew the powers that be would have him ‘riding the boat’.
    3. “It’s all about self-preservation Jimmy. You never learned that.”

    I’d love to know who penned # 3 above and fit it into [character] Jay Landsman’s dialogue in one of the early seasons of ‘The Wire’. How perfectly accurate it is, at least in the world of law enforcement bureaucracy. I’d go a step further than Dana King in her comment above (#1) and say that loyalty to moral principle is the key. Assuming you can find others guided by those principles, then loyalty to those people / groups / entities applies. But people can and often do change for the worse, especially when threatened with loss of power, money, status, position on the boat, etc. One of the telling signs of someone’s character (and therefore fitness for a position such as BPD Commissioner) is whether that person adheres to the moral principle or to self-preservation when presented with an opportunity in which that person believes only one can survive the outcome of that opportunity. Fred Bealefeld may have done, or been part of larger decisions that did, goodt things for the city. He may have missed the opportunity to have an even larger impact had he spoken out on misguided policies in the drug war. Either way, what’s done is done. I’d like to know who’s next in line and what that person is loyal to.

  • There is a chapter in F.A. Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom” entitled “Why The Worst Get On Top”. It fits Mr. Bealefeld perfectly. In the end though, he is like most other bureaucrats that weasel their way to the top.

  • If I have learned anything in 56 years, it is that loyalty to an entity is a fool’s choice. Loyalty is to people. It may be individuals, or it may be certain people within the entity–whether that be a company, police force, or government–but it is people who must be placed first. We see every day the effects of not doing that, of not thinking “how will this effect people?” instead of “how does this look?’ or “How does this conform with policy?”

    I thank everyone connected with The Wire for helping me to learn that. not exclusively, but prominently.

  • He obviously couldn’t speak those words while in power, he knew the powers that be would have him “riding the boat.”

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