How Accurately Does David Simon’s The Wire Reflect Baltimore’s Reality?

Here on the West Coast, we don’t often give much thought to what might be happening on any given day in Baltimore.  I don’t mean this as a slight on the city or its people, but Baltimore, like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and any number of cities back east, just doesn’t get much play in the press out our way.  Anything that might happen in Baltimore gets lost in the flood of news coming out of New York City and Washington, D.C., where every story is amplified by the media concentrated in those cities.  I suspect something similar happens on the East Coast, where people are far more aware of events in the media capital of Los Angeles than those that occur in, say, San Diego or Seattle.

But every once in a while something happens in Baltimore that tickles the antennae of reporters up and down the I-95, who then deliver it to us way out here in California (and to the rustics in the howling wilderness in between).  The death of Freddie Gray, who died under mysterious circumstances after being arrested in Baltimore, is one of those stories.  I’ve written previously on the Freddie Gray case, and nothing I’ve seen reported since has shaken my belief that none of the six officers accused in the matter will ever be convicted of a crime.  (And by the way, at the time I wrote that earlier piece, which was posted on May 7, the murder count for this year in Baltimore stood at 81. The number as of this writing is 95, with 37 people having been shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death in the last 30 days.  You can be forgiven if you thought Baltimore’s only homicide victim in the last year was Freddie Gray.)

One thing I’ve found interesting about this sudden focus on Baltimore is the re-emergence of David Simon as a voice for the city that has been his professional home for most of his life.  Mr. Simon was a police reporter at the Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1995, from which role he produced what I still consider one of the finest books on American policing I’ve ever read, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.  The book may be 24 years old, but if you want to learn about detective work as it’s actually practiced, you’ll find no better place to start.  I recall sitting down to read my copy and, after a few pages, realizing that Mr. Simon understood cops and the work they do on a level few outsiders can even hope to achieve.

Mr. Simon went on to write, with former Baltimore homicide detective Ed Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, an unflinching look at the people living in a troubled West-Baltimore neighborhood not far from where Freddie Gray was arrested.  (The book was made into a superb HBO miniseries.)   He has a number of other television credits, but the one I’m most grateful for, and the one that has prompted the most discussion in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, is The Wire, which ran for five seasons on HBO.

In the reporting on Freddie Gray’s death and the rioting it engendered, a sub-genre has emerged, one devoted to asking how closely The Wire reflects reality in West Baltimore (one example of this sub-genre is here, in the Washington Post).  I’ve never been to Baltimore so I won’t pretend to know the answer, but I’ve been a cop for more than 30 years, most of it spent in parts of Los Angeles similar to those in Baltimore portrayed in Mr. Simon’s work.  Having read his books and watched the television shows he created, I have no doubt that The Wire, for all the dramatic license employed here and there through the five seasons, is as real as any television drama ever will be.  (I’ve written in praise of the show previously, here, here, and here.)