PJ Media

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.)

Mr. Simon is a man of the left, and proudly so, but it is to his credit that he doesn’t make this apparent in his work.  He is an outspoken opponent of the drug war, yet in both The Corner and The Wire, the viewer or reader will be reminded in stark terms of how destructive drug use is to individuals, families, and neighborhoods, even as he is reminded of how destructive has been the effort to eradicate it.

As I say above, Mr. Simon understands police work as few outside the profession do, which he made clear in a recent interview for the Marshall Project.  In the interview, he gives a rhetorical beating to former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, whom he blames for instituting a campaign of zero-tolerance arrests that may have reduced crime in Baltimore, but did so in disregard of such notions as reasonable suspicion and probable cause.  The distrust of the police made manifest in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death can be traced in large part to O’Malley’s tenure as mayor, says Mr. Simon.  (But if Mr. O’Malley is the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Simon will vote for him anyway, he says.)

I share Mr. Simon’s abhorrence for so-called zero-tolerance policing, a tactic I’ve always considered the equivalent of zero-intelligence policing.  When it’s been practiced in Los Angeles, it’s been every bit as counterproductive as Mr. Simon says it’s been in Baltimore.  But it’s odd that the crime wave now raging in Baltimore may well lead to similar tactics.  In the charges against the six officers accused in Freddie Gray’s death, the message to Baltimore’s cops is that doing police work can get you locked up.  Why chase a guy with a gun when you get paid the same to take a report after someone has been shot?  (Yes, I know Freddie Gray didn’t have a gun, but lots of people in Baltimore do.)  When enough murder victims have piled up, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby will be begging the cops to get back in the game and do something about it, just as Martin O’Malley did years ago.

Mr. Simon has his own blog, on which he had little to say until his city was thrust onto the national stage with the death of Freddie Gray.  Anyone wanting insight into what ails Baltimore would be well served to read it.  Again, he is a man of the left, so conservatives will find much to disagree with in his observations of Baltimore’s troubles and his recommendations on how to cure them.  But he is thoughtful in his opinions and, unlike many, he is informed on the topics he addresses.  Yes, you can learn a little about Baltimore by watching The Wire, but you can learn a lot by paying attention to David Simon.