Creator of ‘The Wire’ talks to the Reformer about troubled police departments — like MPD

David Simon says the drug war has ruined policing but defunding them is not a solution

By: - June 27, 2022 8:52 am

Co-writer and co-creator David Simon on the set of “We Own This City,” a six-episode series depicting Baltimore’s post-Freddie Gray killing atmosphere of policing and politics. | Paul Schiraldi/HBO

David Simon hates the war on drugs. But he doesn’t hate all police. He takes issue with police militarization, but he doesn’t have time for slogans. In fact, he’ll cuss out anything from “ACAB” on the left to “Back the Blue” on the right. For him, the solutions to problematic law enforcement, even here in Minneapolis, are more complex than slogan-chanting political action, but not impossible.

A longtime Baltimore Sun crime reporter-turned-author, screenwriter and TV producer, Simon is most known for creating “The Wire,” a five-season look at how the city dealt with drugs and crime. In 2008, The Atlantic called him “The Angriest Man in Television.” 

With his writing partner and production team, he just pulled off a six-episode HBO series called “We Own This City” that returns to Baltimore to tell stories of corrupt cops. The work is based on the reporting of Justin Fenton, a former crime reporter at The Sun now with a nonprofit newspaper called The Baltimore Banner. Twin Cities readers will see similarities between Baltimore post-Freddie Gray and Minneapolis post-George Floyd. Among them:

  • A white cop who became the face of systematic problems.
  • A special task force that ran roughshod over citizens.
  • Police rarely held accountable for misconduct.
  • Cops running up monster overtime paychecks.
  • A work slowdown by police and a shortage of officers.
  • A city facing a consent decree.

The Reformer talked to Simon about those similarities. Here’s his view of what bad law enforcement looks like, what good policing can look like, and what it takes to get there (edited heavily for space): 

Which aspects of the problems at the Baltimore Police Department are unique to Baltimore as opposed to other American cities? For instance, Minneapolis?

I can’t speak to most demographics of every city or what the crime problems are. Baltimore is a post-industrial, very heavily Rust Belt dynamic, with a very high rate of drug addiction, and it’s a city that has committed for about 30, 40 years to aggressively pursuing the drug war. So that sort of has colored and affected everything. I don’t know if that marries up to the Twin Cities or not, but that’s who we are.

I was struck by the parallels between Minneapolis and Baltimore in “We Own This City.” Was there a visceral reaction for you when you saw George Floyd’s killing? 

I thought it was incredibly overt. The video was a little bit astonishing. How long it went on and how indifferent (Derek Chauvin) was. He seemed to be completely devoid of awareness that he was taking somebody’s life or coming close to taking someone’s life. He doesn’t seem to be comprehending. And the inertia of the cops around him was pretty shocking as well. But I mean just how long it went on. 

There are moments of police violence that are over very quickly.  You might argue — from the premise of a cop — that an instinctive or impulsive moment resulted in a death or police violence. Six, seven, eight seconds – one blow, one battering. … When it gets to be minutes – that’s something I’ll always remember … the premeditation becomes utterly convincing.

The Freddie Gray thing was very different in that … we’re not quite sure what happened. At a minimum, the Baltimore Police Department had a guy in distress, who had suffered a spinal injury, and they rode him around unattended for 45 minutes in the back of a wagon. So there’s definitely a case of negligence there.

The prosecutors looked for video of this van going around west Baltimore to see if they were giving him a rough ride. It doesn’t seem so. That was the initial presumption. The more video came in, the more the van seems to be traveling at relatively normal speeds.

It’s a little bit more of an enigma than George Floyd. George Floyd — there’s nothing enigmatic about it at all.

Jon Bernthal, who plays main character Wayne Jenkins, talks on set with director Reinaldo Marcus Green. Bernthal’s character is a hero to the rank-and-file but a symbol of corruption everywhere else in Baltimore’s post-Freddie Gray killing world. Green also directed the films King Richard and Monsters and Men.

Among the similarities I saw in “We Own This City” was the reaction, the protests, allegations of a work slowdown by police, workers compensation, claims for PTSD. Is that common or something you saw in Baltimore? 

The work slowdown is a pretty remarkable thing. Clearly the arrests nosedived (in Baltimore) and the police stopped getting out of their cars to clear corners or go affect an arrest. They decided fundamentally that they weren’t going to do that. It was not organized, it was not called for by the union or anything like that, but it clearly happened. And definitively so because the arrests collapsed. And suddenly. I have no way of proving that. I think it’s incredibly unprofessional on the part of the police to stop doing their jobs and continue to take pay for it. 

On the other hand, there is an argument that police were making a point that a lot of people didn’t want to contend with, which is this: In Baltimore, it’s really subtle, but the prosecutor — I hate to bring up racial politics, but this is just true — the prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, whose political base is African American…  and critical for her, politically, she did not want to go into another weekend without delivering some sort of indictment. 

They were hoping to in some way mollify the protests. So she charged the death in the back of the wagon. She overcharged it as a second-degree murder… there was certainly a negligence case there and possibly manslaughter, I don’t know. But she charged it as second-degree depraved heart murder.

And this is sort of the subtle nuance here: The three officers who were involved in the transport were African American. The three who were involved in the arrest — the knife arrest, which, whatever else it was, was effectively a legal arrest. I’m not saying it was the best police work or that they needed to make that case for a pocketed knife, but they did. They were white. They were white officers who made the arrest.

By charging the Fourth Amendment case criminally — which is to say false arrest or they in some way abused his civil liberties and denied his due process by arresting him — she got a mixed-race group of defendants. Three and three. Which was important for her politically. 

Unfortunately, what that did was, the entire police department watched what she did and said, “Wait a second. It’s one thing to start debating about what happened to this guy in the back of the van … the fact that they weren’t around for 45 minutes. If you’re telling me that even if I make a mistake on a Fourth Amendment case and when I can do a Terry stop (stop and frisk) or when I can detain a suspect…” 

The Supreme Court changes Fourth Amendment stuff every term. They come up with different rules every term. If you’re the average cop, you know, the chance of you making an arrest that will be thrown out in court on probable cause is pretty high. Eventually it’s gonna happen. Some judge is gonna say “No, that isn’t probable cause.” It’s not a distinct fine line every time.

And Gray — he ran. He looked at the cops and he ran. Now, do I think that should be probable cause — that you can’t run from a cop without being chased? I don’t, but unfortunately the U.S. Supreme Court does. That is reason to pursue and detain. Look up the law, which Mosby, of course, was unwilling to acknowledge. 

So these cops, they were gonna beat it in court anyway. It was a legal arrest. But she basically sent a message to … the Baltimore Police Department that if you make a mistake, if I decide you made a mistake, even a good faith mistake on probable cause, I’m gonna charge you criminally. I’m gonna try to put you in jail and take away your pension. And so a lot of cops said, “Hey, why am I getting out of my car?”

We also saw exorbitant overtime pay in your series, which the Reformer has covered here. How big of a problem is that?

That’s a huge problem and that comes hand-in-glove with having positions empty. They can’t fill the post cars, they can’t fill the radio cars some nights without having guys work doubles.

So part of it is legitimate in that they’re down so many positions because of the exodus and because it’s (Baltimore) a poor city and they’re not throwing academy classes through at the rate they used to. 

So some of the overtime is legitimate, but a lot of it is overtime fraud… In Baltimore, you get paid overtime for a couple of things: Obviously, if you get involved in something and you have to work over, and then also for court pay, meaning you’re working (4 p.m. to midnight) and you have to come in at nine in the morning to go to district court on your arrests.

That creates an incentive to do a couple of things, one of which is make a cheap, shitty CDS (controlled dangerous substance) arrest 40 minutes from the end of shift and then make sure you spend two hours processing drugs down at evidence control, processing a prisoner, and you’re gonna get paid extra.

Or even better, make a bunch of shitty, meaningless arrests — failure to yield, loitering in a drug-free zone, whatever. It doesn’t matter whether it goes to court; you’re not trying to actually convict anyone of anything. But they all gotta show up in court. And if you fill the day’s docket, you’re gonna get paid for whatever the prosecutor signs your slip for, saying that (the officer) was in court on his cases. 

And then if you’ve arrested so many people on such bullshit, then you get three days, four days, five days (OT). Meanwhile, the guy who’s actually working on his post to try to solve whoever’s robbing people with a gun, burglarizing churches and he makes one arrest for the month because he actually solved the case, he gets paid for going to court one time. 

So there’s actually an incentive to do bad police work to get paid more. And that’s the overtime demon actually transforming police work into the worst possible thing.

Jon Bernthal, a police officer Wayne Jenkins, goes to jail for abusing his position. The character also trained other officers right out of the academy in the show. | Paul Schiraldi/HBO

You’ve said on other podcasts that if there’s a solution, it’s about revaluing those law enforcement jobs. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?

Well, you’ve got to end the drug war… It’s not as if police work was devoid of violence or devoid of racism or any of these things. But tellingly, the police department in 1980 and certainly in 1970 was majority-majority white. It was run by white guys, the mayor was white, the power structure was white. 

And now the Baltimore department is majority-minority. The command staff’s African American and the mayor’s African American. The power structure is now no longer white, and yet the levels of police violence and corruption and dysfunction are worse. Think about that. I mean, that’s probably very different from Minnesota.

It’s not that the department of 1970 wasn’t capable of considerable police violence against neighborhoods of color and people of color. I know that they were capable of predatory policing. 

So we start from a position where of course it was bad. But in 1970, 1977, 1980, all the way through those years, the clearance rate for things like murder, robbery, rape, assault — they were at or above the national average. We solved more of our crimes. And that’s kind of one thing you want police to do — it’s the one thing that a police department can do for a city is when people hurt people and there’s actual crime as opposed to drug warring.

There is a linkage between the clearance rates for felonies and and the rate of crime, and you can point to Boston in 1991, what they did. It’s actually been demonstrated that if you lock up the right people for the crimes that matter, you can actually affect the quality of life in your city. 

Well, the clearance rate when I was in the homicide unit to write a book in ‘88 was 71 or 72%, somewhere in there. In the end, and of course, that doesn’t mean 72% went to jail. It means like four out of 10 people who committed murder – once you shake it out at the courthouse, and rightly so, not everyone should be convicted, there are not guilty verdicts and there are cases that are dropped because of insufficient evidence, but by and large four out of 10 people, if you killed somebody in Baltimore, you saw the inside of a prison cell for some length of time. 

Right now, the clearance rate is about 38%. It’s probably one in 10 (in jail after committing murder). So the difference is back then you had 230 murders a year in a city of 730,000. Now, we have about about 120,000 less people, and we have 350 murders a year. 

Because we trained two generations of cops how not to do the things that solve crime. They can’t do retroactive investigation. They can’t write a search warrant that doesn’t get thrown out. They can’t testify on the stand without perjuring themselves. They don’t know how to properly interview people. They can’t write a f***in’ report. 

What they can do is go up on the street and grab bodies and throw them against the wall and decide who’s going to go in the van for the ground stash. Or not even the ground stash — for loitering or whatever.

We train them in the policies of mass arrest and drug war, which doesn’t fix anything. Not only did it destroy neighborhoods and lives and the people being policed were over-policed brutally — it destroyed law enforcement, it raised a generation of cops who can’t actually do the f***ing job you need them to do and that’s the police department now. … Those skill sets don’t exist anymore. So the drug war destroyed us. 

And I would argue that that is why there was no peace dividend. If you think about the fact that the police department went from being majority white… to being majority-minority Black command staff, Black city hall, and yet it’s worse? It should have gotten better. Instead, racial integration had been achieved in a fundamental way and yet it’s worse. 

And the only thing that can explain that, to my argument, is the mission got worse. We’ve committed to a mission that is incredibly destructive and alienating. Everyone has been locked up for something. My own film crew kept getting locked up whenever we finished filming and tried to drive out of the ghetto. 

The Fourth Amendment ceased to exist under the last 20, 30 years of the drug war. It just got worse and worse. Until you had this Gun Trace Task Force that created this racially mixed group of officers who had come together to create the perfect predatory machine to just rob the shit out of people under the cover of the drug war. 

And until we change that, until we get rid of drug prohibition and return the mission creep that that’s created for law enforcement, police reform is doomed.  

We have to accept that the drug war has brought us to this point.

We’ve also heard your scorn for simple solutions, or what you call “slogans.”

How many slogans can I sneer at? All cops are not bastards. I know cops who have done credible and worthy police work that made my city better and weren’t shit who would go into people’s pockets. I knew guys who were just playing the stat game and didn’t care about the people they are policing. I’ve known all kinds of cops. All cops are not bastards. 

However, the drug war will manufacture more bastards out of young cops than anything I’ve ever seen. So there’s some truth in what people were feeling. Although the slogan itself is alienating from anybody who’s ever known a cop who ever tried to do the job the right way. 

I don’t believe you can back the blue unequivocally, in any sense if these are the policies that the police are being asked to enforce.

On the other hand, I don’t believe in defunding police as an agency. I would certainly love to take away the money they spend on trying to do drug interdiction prosecution and give that to social programming. But I’d also like to see the actual investigative, retroactive felony investigation enhanced to get the clearance rates back up to where there’s an actual deterrent to violence. Because that, as I said before, that matters. 

There was a great experiment done in Boston in 1991 where the police department went around to all their investigative units and they basically asked for police intelligence. Who were the 100 worst badasses in Boston, right? Who are the 100 guys a week that keep showing up in our files, keep showing up in our lineups? But that we can’t – every time we make a case, the witnesses end up intimidated. Who are the guys basically who keep showing up in case after case of violence and we know their names. Let’s make a list and then they went out for those 100 guys, just 100 guys, and they got them on everything from parole violations to weapons violations. They basically targeted the people who were their repeat violent offenders. And they dropped the murder rate by 40%. … Did anyone pay attention? 

Some places have tried versions of decriminalization, for instance San Francisco, and the results have not always been great. And that’s something that’s shown as the “Hamsterdam” experiment by a lone ranger major in Season 3 of “The Wire.” Can such safe areas for open air drug dealing and prostitution work?

When we did Hamsterdam, we assumed, I mean, obviously, no one’s ever tried it. They tried it in Zurich, in Amsterdam and Portugal and they’ve had no increase in crime. In areas where you … practice this level of tolerance for drug use, it becomes untenable for normal people. You don’t want anyone living there. Huge amounts of human degradation. And your overdoses probably do go up, especially during this time of fentanyl.

But you’re basically practicing harm reduction. You’re saying, “We can’t arrest our way out of this. And maybe by putting it all in place, we can direct all of our social services into that quadrant… If you had someplace to push it, to practice, not to make some glorious libertarian moment of free love and drug use, but just harm reduction and it’s never been tried because no politician would dare stand behind them.”

Especially since George Floyd’s murder there’s been an assertion among progressives that people who have undergone generations of trauma should not face incarceration for their crimes. But you wrote specifically in “The Corner” about the responsibility of both society and the individual in crime and other bad outcomes. Where do you land on this now?

When you say progressives, are they white? Do they live in the inner city? Do they live in the area where crimes are occurring? Because let me tell you something, I still know a lot of people who live in east, west Baltimore … they do not want to be unpoliced. That’s not what they want. 

If you ask them what they want out of their police department, they say they want to not be harassed. They want to get treated with dignity when they’re trying to get from the car to the curb. They want to be respected… They want to not be over-policed. They want no predatory police. 

And then when you talk to them about what’s wrong with their neighborhood and why it’s unbearable to them, they say “I’m scared.” … They want the police to come and lock up the badasses who are shooting people or robbing people or breaking into the houses. That’s what they want. And I am absolutely and firmly convinced progressives aren’t talking to them.

They want the police to do the job, the only job that police are good at – and (criminologist Ernest) Burgess called that taking out the trash. And by that he meant the guys who were hurting other people. Not the guys who are hurting themselves with drugs, not the guys who were selling contraband so somebody could hurt themselves.

But everybody you talk to who’s trying to make a life and in the hardest places in Baltimore, they want the police to do the one job they can do. And the police can’t do it anymore. They learn to do the wrong f***ing thing.

Change the goddamn mission, and then from there, there’s a basis for reform. But that’s not satisfying enough to the lefties who want all police vanquished. Invariably, they don’t live in these neighborhoods. They just imagine what it’s like… but they don’t actually live there. And it doesn’t satisfy the people on the right who are convinced every time they read of a drug overdose or drug-related murder that the dysfunction of the drug war has to be applied harder and longer and more brutally. The people in either extreme are f***ing useless. They just are.

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Scott Winter
Scott Winter

Scott Winter is a professor of journalism at Bethel University. He teaches high school and collegiate journalism workshops throughout the U.S. and leads students on international reporting projects, including January 2017's Project Guatemala with graphic design professor Jessica Henderson. He advises "The Clarion," Bethel's national award-winning student news outlet.