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It’s the same thing they discovered in Iraq, oddly enough. Once they got away from the idea of suppression, they started getting much more information from Iraqis. The soldiers and Marines in Iraq basically use many of the techniques developed by law enforcement. They do the same type of searches. They gather the same type of information. They collate it the same way. They use cell phone data. They’re doing everything that law enforcement normally does. But they’re only successful when they’re connected with the people. In Baltimore, they’re not connected to the people because they’ve alienated everyone in the neighborhood.
So when you need to know something, when you need information, where do you go?
reason: What do you make of the "Stop Snitchin'" movement, the street campaign that discourages people from cooperating with police, which seems to have started in Baltimore?
Burns: Well, again, it’s something that’s incidental. It’s a symptom. If the police were connected, if the police were actively involved with the people in the neighborhood, the amount of information they would be getting would be so great that the whole idea of snitching wouldn’t be important. When I was a cop, having informants was a rare thing. They were looked down upon. I had sometimes as many as 50 guys working for me. I didn’t have to go out on the street. I could sit by the phone and just wait for the information to come. But you got that by being decent to people, working with them, helping them out on their little charges, stuff like that. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money comes out of your pocket to keep them happy and cooperative, but the amount of information you get back is profound.
Cops aren’t taught to do that anymore because today it’s all about numbers. You can get a number by just going up on the corner and grabbing somebody and getting a bag off of him. That’s the easy thing. If taking a guy in for drinking a beer on the street is a “1,” and catching the kingpin is a “1,” well, it takes two minutes to catch the guy with the beer can. It could take you two years to catch the kingpin. If numbers is all the department cares about, then the guy who pursues the kingpin is wasting his time.
And it is all about numbers. It’s how they talk, how they rate themselves. The fact that the murder rate in Baltimore stays constantly above the norm would be seem to be an indication that maybe they should try something different. But they’re bankrupt. They don’t have any idea what they need to do because they’re separated from the people. They’re not of the people. You’re policing as an army of occupation, not as police in the community. And that just doesn’t work.
reason: David Simon once wrote that you are “the living manifestation of lost wars,” since you were a soldier in Vietnam, a cop fighting the drug war, and a teacher in the public school system. Do you agree those three wars were or have been lost? Are there any institutional similarities you’ve observed that contributed to those three failures?
Burns: Well, we definitely lost Vietnam. And we lost Iraq. And we’ll lose any war where we allow an insurgency to exist. As for the war on drugs, I don’t think we’ll ever recover from the mindset we’ve gotten into to fight it. The educational system is an absolute and total disaster. And that of course is fueling the drug war, because there are so many kids who have no alternative but to spend their time on the corners.
The failure is institutional because no one sets out to lose these wars. This is dangerous stuff, self-defeating stuff. Education has no relevance. It doesn’t mean anything to these kids because they can’t connect to it. They spend those eight years or nine years in school because they have to. Of course, they have to learn something. And what they learn is how to sit quietly in a corner and make the school become a kind of training ground for the corners. The administration and the teachers basically become surrogate cops. And the kids play through these fantasies with the stand-in “cops” until they’ve tested their mettle enough to go up on the corners and try it with the real guys.
We’ve had 20, 30 years of this stuff, and 20, 30 years of spending billions of dollars on failed systems. And if you go to one of the private schools and see these kids in action and then go to an inner city public school, you can see the chasm. There’s separation even in the way of being, in the way they think, in how they operate. It’s profound, but it’s nothing new. We’ve been doing this for a long time.
reason: What reforms do you think are necessary? What can policy makers do to make public schools more effective?
Burns: Five years ago I couldn’t have given you an answer to that question. But I’ve learned about a program right now in Harlem. It’s been around for 12 years now. It’s called the Harlem Children’s Zone. The basic philosophy is so logical and so obvious. What works in the middle class is that you have input, the healthy positive input into an infant every day of that child’s life, as an infant and as a young child. Somebody’s always there. That’s how we raise our kids, and the success rate is very, very high. There are some failures in the middle class and the upper middle class, but the success rate is high.
That’s what they do in Harlem in the Children’s Zone—with about 35,000 kids. From birth, someone is with that kid until he gets out of college. They’re normal kids—not geniuses or anything—but they will be able to break the cycle of poverty and of drugs in those neighborhoods because those kids are not focused on drugs and poverty. They’re focused on the positive aspects that come from traditionally raising kids where you expect things from them. You tell them how good they are, you boost their egos, and you light the fires under them. That’s how you do it. That’s how it’s done in most middle class homes. I mean, that’s how simple it is. In Harlem, it cost them $4,500 a child.
And in talking with Geoff Canada, who runs the program up there, they’ve had 2,200 different groups—around 2,200 groups that have come to see their program. People who come to watch are impressed and want to go back to other states, to other countries, with the hope of implementing the program. Yet there isn’t another Children’s Zone that I know of anywhere in the country.
reason: Is that from a lack of funding?