It had been three years since The Wire stopped airing on HBO, and in Baltimore, a certain settled tolerance for the drama had become the norm. So I was surprised when the current police commissioner asked a question about The Wire at a public forum, vented openly. This was a sleeping dog; let it lie, brother. Instead, the commissioner insisted that we had smeared the city and that the slander would “take decades to overcome.” He said those of us who worked on the drama owed Baltimore an apology.
The comments hit the internet, but at first weren’t picked up anywhere and seemed to slip below the waves. Just as well, I thought, because I haven’t been in a rush to tell Baltimore officials what they need to think about Homicide, The Corner or The Wire. They’re entitled to dislike the work if they do. My battles with city officials were always contained within the argument that they could express any opinion they liked, so long as they didn’t try to use their authority to amend or influence the story telling. Here, though, we were being accused of slander and an apology was being demanded for the story itself.
A day or two passed before The Sun was alerted to the commissioner’s remarks, which the paper immediately posted. Then I was called directly and asked for a reply, leaving me with the choice of no-commenting a charge of slander and a demand for an apology, or addressing the complaint directly. The Sun linked the reply to Mr. Bealefeld’s charges on its website, then ran it again as a stand-alone column on the op-ed page. In the end, I felt bad for the commissioner, but sometimes life is very much like poker, and you can only play the hand you’re dealt. And, hey, the deck was in his hand, not mine.
REPRINTED FROM THE BALTIMORE SUN
January 18, 2011
“The Wire” creator David Simon, during a break between dubbing sessions for season two of “Treme,” responds to comments made recently by Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III that the HBO show was a “smear that will take decades to overcome,” reviving a debate that took place throughout the show’s run:
It is my understanding that Commissioner Bealefeld – by finally choosing to emphasize the quality, rather than the quantity of arrest – has been able to reduce the homicide rate somewhat in our city. If true, this is not only commendable, it is a long time coming. Too long, in fact.
Interestingly, the newspaper that covered his department began making the argument to do exactly that as early as 1994, in a series of articles entitled “Crisis In Blue” (Ed. note: part two can be found here) that carefully articulated the disconnect between the Baltimore department’s aggressive street-level prosecution of the drug war and the root causes of violence in the city. The arguments were furthered in a book entitled “The Corner” that was published three years later. After a new election cycle, however, those arguments were ignored in favor of years of “zero tolerance” of minor street crimes and an obsession with street-level drug enforcement that actually de-emphasized quality police work and led to marked declines in arrest rates for major felonies.
Later, when a mayor sought to become governor using public safety as an issue, the same police department went further down the path, emphasizing widespread street arrests of dubious quality and legality. This did not reduce crime so much as it violated the civil rights of many city residents and led to the widespread alienation of our jury pool, with many city jurors no longer willing to trust the integrity of testifying officers – a problem that will plague Baltimore law enforcement for years.
Furthermore, on behalf of Mr. O’Malley’s political aspirations, many supervisors in many police districts were engaged in a prolonged campaign to improperly downgrade U.C.R. felonies to misdemeanors so as to further the political claim that crime was under control. This was common knowledge throughout the department and was much remarked upon privately by respected veteran supervisors and investigators, themselves frustrated at the practice. Nonetheless, aggravated assaults became common assaults. Armed robberies became larcenies. Rapes were unfounded.
I do not recall that Commissioner Bealefeld – when he was rising through the ranks during those years – made strenuous public objection to the department’s misdirection, to its statistical flummery, or to the decline in arrest rates that resulted as quality police work was de-emphasized in favor of juked stats. Perhaps he did so in private, to little avail. And perhaps now that he is in a position to act, he is taking a better path. Again, as a resident of Baltimore, he has my wholehearted support if this is the case.
But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.Commissioner Bealefeld may not be comfortable with public dissent, or even a public critique of his agency. He may even believe that the recent decline in crime entitles him to denigrate as “stupid” or “slander” all prior dissent, as if the previous two decades of mismanagement in the Baltimore department had not happened and should not have been addressed by any act of storytelling, given that Baltimore is no longer among the most violent American cities, but merely a very violent one.Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility. That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O’Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work. Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.We made things up, true. We have never claimed otherwise. But respectfully, with regard to our critique, we have slandered no one. And to the extent you can stand behind a fictional tale, we stand by ours – and more importantly, our purpose in telling that tale.Respectfully,David SimonBaltimore, MD
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“…or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern.”
Somewhere a dictionary editor is adding this line to the definition of ‘eviscerate’.
Longtime fan, just discovered this blog. (Loved the Treme season finale, very sorry to hear that the last season has been cut to five episodes.)
Am curious as to your opinion of the possibility of a President O’Malley. As 2016 approaches, I anticipate that you’ll be getting this question a lot.
Well, unless the Republicans figure out how to run someone to the left of a Democratic nominee, he’ll have my vote if nominated. Just as he had my votes for mayor and governor against the alternatives. I can hold my nose and pull a lever as well as any soul.
But that’s a callow man, neither honest nor committed to any idea larger than Martin O’Malley. He isn’t a fool by any means, and his political values are closer to my own than those he campaigns against. But in the closest analysis, he believes in nothing so much as politics itself, and his handling of the Baltimore crime dynamic was nothing less than dishonorable. I think we can do better as a country, but then again, there have been election cycles when the choices have argued otherwise.
I’ll say this though. If he tries running for president and gets the nomination and attempts — amid the glare of a national political contest — to continue to claim his 35 percent and 40 percent reductions in felony crime, then the Democrats will be vulnerable any campaign of proper counter-research by the Republicans. Someone is going to go back into the O’Malley years and call up all of the Baltimore city incident reports by year and sequential number, and they are going to spend the manhours to go back and find out just how many robberies, rapes, aggravated assaults and burglaries were unfounded and made to disappear so that one man could be promoted politically.
The stakes weren’t high enough for anyone to do it when Mr. O’Malley sought the statehouse — and by then the major newspaper in Maryland had already started to eviscerate itself so that The Sun was in no position to do so. But with the billions at stake in presidential politics, there will be a superpac willing to hire the research and manhours required to unmake Mr. O’Malley’s fraud when it comes to crime control and his Baltimore miracle. Honestly, the man set Baltimore law enforcement back on its heels for a decade. And deep down, he knows it. And so do a lot of others who served in the police department during that era. If he’s smart, he’ll stop making the claims and using the cooked stats. Because when push comes to shove at the national level, someone will be willing to go back on an FOIA, pull all the reports, and uncook it.
You underestimate yourself, Mr. Simon. If you hadn’t made cooked police stats a plot point in The Wire, no one outside of Baltimore would have heard about it. And if O’Malley actually gets some traction in a national campaign, you’ll be called upon as the chief source for “proper counter-research…. Someone is going to go back into the O’Malley years,” and they will, thanks to you.
You don’t hear the police Commissioner of New York coming after Law and Order for showing a murder/rape a week… Probably because they understand that the story is fictional, the characters made up and the writers have a right to set it anywhere they like. The Commissioner’s real problem is that he sees too much truth in the Wire. It had to strike a nerve for him to publicly embarrass himself like that. The Wire is a great essay on the problems plaguing our country, much of it based in facts but ultimately told through fictional characters and circumstances. That fiction serves the creators vision and is not beholden to the institutions it seeks to expose.
How could a show that so few people watched be a smear that would take decades for the city to overcome. Other than the distinctly vivid Baltimore setting, the show could have taken place in a number of sections of US cities that have been hollowed over the last 40 years.
There are a couple of strange things about the commissioner’s critique. First, The Wire has everything he complains about:
“They [other cop shows] get detectives that look like models [what about McNulty & Sydnor?], and they drive around in sports cars [OK, maybe there are no sports cars in The Wire]. And you know what New York gets, they get these incredibly tough prosecutors [Rhonda Pearlman], competent cops that solve the most crazy, complicated cases [Freamon].”
Second, it’s pretty clear that while the show is set in Baltimore, the social criticism in the show is more general. Who thinks, after watching the show, that Baltimore is the only city juking stats and dealing with corruption?!
Third, there are good and hopeful things you see watching The Wire — about the city and the people in it. Granted, it’s not a feel good show, but its realism makes the hopeful stories of characters like Bubbles, Kima and Cutty all the more inspiring.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a police commissioner say something more along the lines of: The Wire raised thoughtful and serious questions about the methods and practices of our department that deserve to be addressed. Here’s what we’re doing now…