David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish
An interview with David Simon (author of The Wire) by Bill Kelle in The Marshall Project:
David Simon is Baltimore’s best-known chronicler of life on the hard streets. He worked for The Baltimore Sun city desk for a dozen years, wrote “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” (1991) and with former homicide detective Ed Burns co-wrote “THE CORNER: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN INNER-CITY NEIGHBORHOOD”1 (1997), which Simon adapted into an HBO miniseries. He is the creator, executive producer and head writer of the HBO television series “The Wire” (2002–2008). Simon is a member of The Marshall Project’s advisory board. He spoke with Bill Keller on Tuesday.
BK: What do people outside the city need to understand about what’s going on there — the death of Freddie Gray and the response to it?
DS: I guess there’s an awful lot to understand and I’m not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.
Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous thing. It’s a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse. When I came on, there were jokes about, “You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue? You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds too long.” Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.
Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on the part of the government. And they basically decided that even that loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn’t even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones. They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well wanted.
How does race figure into this? It’s a city with a black majority and now a black mayor and black police chief, a substantially black police force.
What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.
What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.
In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfucker in the 80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If the cop came up to clear your corner and you’re moving off the corner, and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfucker, you’re not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfucker, that’s within the realm of general complaint. But the word “asshole” — that’s how ornate the code was — asshole had a personal connotation. You call a cop an asshole, you’re going hard into the wagon in Baltimore. At least it used to be that way. Who knows if those gradations or nuances have survived the cumulative brutalities of the drug war. I actually don’t know if anything resembling a code even exists now.
For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in THAT STORY THE SUN PUBLISHED LAST YEAR2 about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There’s no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees – and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.
The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was MARTIN O’MALLEY3. He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart. Everyone thinks I’ve got a hard-on for Marty because we battled over “The Wire,” whether it was bad for the city, whether we’d be filming it in Baltimore. But it’s been years, and I mean, that’s over. I shook hands with him on the train last year and we buried it. And, hey, if he’s the Democratic nominee, I’m going to end up voting for him. It’s not personal and I admire some of his other stances on the death penalty and gay rights. But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.
Originally, early in his tenure, O’Malley brought Ed Norris in as commissioner and Ed knew his business. He’d been a criminal investigator and commander in New York and he knew police work. And so, for a time, real crime suppression and good retroactive investigation was emphasized, and for the Baltimore department, it was kind of like a fat man going on a diet. Just leave the French fries on the plate and you lose the first ten pounds. The initial crime reductions in Baltimore under O’Malley were legit and O’Malley deserved some credit.
But that wasn’t enough. O’Malley needed to show crime reduction stats that were not only improbable, but unsustainable without manipulation. And so there were people from City Hall who walked over Norris and made it clear to the district commanders that crime was going to fall by some astonishing rates. Eventually, Norris got fed up with the interference from City Hall and walked, and then more malleable police commissioners followed, until indeed, the crime rate fell dramatically. On paper.
How? There were two initiatives. First, the department began sweeping the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month. They actually had police supervisors stationed with printed forms at the city jail – forms that said, essentially, you can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed that form.
My own crew members [on “The Wire”] used to get picked up trying to come from the set at night. We’d wrap at like one in the morning, and we’d be in the middle of East Baltimore and they’d start to drive home, they’d get pulled over. My first assistant director — Anthony Hemingway — ended up at city jail. No charge. Driving while black, and then trying to explain that he had every right to be where he was, and he ended up onEAGER STREET4. Charges were non-existent, or were dismissed en masse. Martin O’Malley’s logic was pretty basic: If we clear the streets, they’ll stop shooting at each other. We’ll lower the murder rate because there will be no one on the corners.
The city eventually got sued by the ACLU and had to settle, but O’Malley defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day. Never mind what it did to your jury pool: now every single person of color in Baltimore knows the police will lie — and that’s your jury pool for when you really need them for when you have, say, a felony murder case. But what it taught the police department was that they could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause, and the drug-free zones and the humbles – the targeting of suspects through less-than-constitutional procedure. Now, the mass arrests made clear, we can lock up anybody, we don’t have to figure out who’s committing crimes, we don’t have to investigate anything, we just gather all the bodies — everybody goes to jail. And yet people were scared enough of crime in those years that O’Malley had his supporters for this policy, council members and community leaders who thought, They’re all just thugs.
But they weren’t. They were anybody who was slow to clear the sidewalk or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think I’m exaggerating look it up. It was an amazing performance by the city’s mayor and his administration.
The situation you described has been around for a while. Do you have a sense of why the Freddie Gray death has been such a catalyst for the response we’ve seen in the last 48 hours? . . .