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reason: Critics have said the city of Baltimore is really the central character in the The Wire. Recently, we’ve seen some interesting developments in violent crime statistics. Large cities like New York and Los Angeles have continued with improvements that started in the 1990s, but smaller and medium-size cities like Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis seem to be getting bloodier. Do you have any theories as to why that might be?
Burns: Yeah, sure, absolutely. I think New York’s murder rate is under 500 this year in 2007 and that’s out of a population of 8 million people. Baltimore’s murder rate was somewhere around 282 for a population of around 600,000 people. So we’re very close to New York just in raw numbers. The reason is that New York has an economy. There’s a vitality there. There are things happening. People have jobs.
In places like Baltimore, Detroit, and Cincinnati, the jobs that were there are gone. The manufacturing-based jobs are gone, and without that kind of job, it’s very, very difficult to jumpstart the economy. There’s no prospect for Baltimore having jobs in the near future. If you look at Baltimore now, what you’re seeing is a very decayed inner core. The east side of the city is being bought up by Johns Hopkins [the university and hospital]. They’re building a biotech park which is going to employ 6,000 people, but of those 6,000 people, you’ll be lucky to get three people who were originally from those neighborhoods. They just aren't qualified.
reason: You've said that too many narcotics police today have developed a gung-ho, cowboy mentality. You traced this trend back to the 1972 movie The French Connection. Could you elaborate?
Burns: Well, it’s just dumb. The Godfather, or The French Connection, which came out in the early '70s, those movies set the stage for both sides of the drug war. In The French Connection, [Detective] Popeye Doyle had this very cynical, harsh, rough, law-breaking type of drug style that sort of set the tone in how street narcotics guys work. Very flippant. What the movie didn’t pick up, and what you didn’t see, is all the intense surveillance and hard work that would go into a drug bust back then. But they put out the idea of this guy who cracks heads, especially in that scene they went and they shook the bar down. That became iconic. And that is the way the cops were afterward. I mean, you’d see white cops in black neighborhoods looking like Serpico, and they’re not undercover. It was just this mindset that took over of how you’re supposed to dress and act and the way you’re supposed to be.
The Godfather had a similar effect on the other side. It basically taught these emerging heroin gangs how to do business, how you set up your structure, with the code and the organization, the way you should have a boss, under-bosses—you know, capos. It got black, inner-city heroin dealers into the same mindset.
reason: How common do you think that is—drug dealers taking tips from the entertainment world? I’ve actually read that some dealers actually get advice from The Wire, particularly when it comes to communication systems they can use to evade police surveillance.
Burns: Well, if they’re looking at what we’re telling them, they won’t be learning much, because the technology has been out there. The Marlo Stanfields of today—those types of guys who I think of as mid-level drug dealers—there are just so many of them. They’re like the salmon going up the river. There’s really no way for law enforcement to stop all of these guys. There’s just too many of them. So the ones who take a modicum of precautions, the ones who are smart enough to stay low key, they’re completely under the radar screen, because it would just take too much work to even figure out who these guys are, and how to catch them. Only the really, really careless ones get caught.
reason: What effect do you think shows like Cops and Dallas SWAT have on police culture and police attitudes?
Burns: I can’t answer that question. I don’t watch any television.
reason: What’s your feeling on the militarization of domestic police departments, particularly as it relates to the drug war?
Burns: I think this whole thing was driven by the concept of numbers. You can quantify numbers, so if you’re in a war and you’re racking up numbers—numbers being arrests—it sets that military tone. Sort of like the way we’ve historically measured the success of wars in terms of casualties. The police departments that work in these hard neighborhoods are basically armies of occupation. Their job is to keep these people suppressed.
In Baltimore two years ago, they locked up 115,000 people from a population of 600,000. Now, let’s assume that they didn’t lock up anybody under the age of 8 or over the age of 70. They didn’t lock up that many white middle class people. That’s an awful lot of people from one particular group getting put behind bars. And many times, they’re getting locked up for things like sitting on the stoop drinking a beer, pissing in the alley, or just jaywalking in the street.
reason: The old “broken windows” theory, right?
Burns: [Laughs] Yeah. James Q. Wilson's trick. It doesn’t work. In fact, what it does do is alienate the police department from the community. So you’re an army of occupation, and because you’ve alienated the community, and you’re not getting any information. That’s a bad situation.