"Someone Has To Start Wondering What the F Is Going On."

The Wire co-creator Ed Burns talks about failure in the drug war, public education, the war in Iraq, and police strategies.

(Page 4 of 4)

Burns: From what Geoff surmises, it’s more about turf. If I come into your turf and let’s say you’re running a rehab center, or you’re running a day care program or whatever, that’s your little fiefdom, you know what I mean? That’s your little piece of the pie. You’re not going to give that up easily. You’re going to fight anything that tries to change that. You don’t want to be beholden to some bigger process, where you’ll then have to belong to something bigger and show results. No one wants to do that because they’re already not showing the kind of results that these types of processes require.

Maybe you’re showing anecdotal results. You know, “I saved this kid but I lost those 20 others.” These kinds of little empires are all over the place, and unfortunately, they have the ears of the politicians. It’s something where you have to almost come in and cut the Gordian knot and just do it. It makes absolute sense, but of course, we’re not focused on this, so we’re focused basically on surviving and shorter-term goals.

reason: You just finished shooting an HBO miniseries based on Generation Kill, Evan Wright’s book on the early stages of the Iraq War. You said earlier you believe Iraq is going to be a failure just as Vietnam was. Did you draw on your experiences in Vietnam at all in that project? Do you see many parallels between the two wars?

Burns: Just knowing the military was a big asset for me in helping to shape the series. The thing about Iraq is that it is the same scenario as Vietnam. There’s an insurgency that’s taken hold in the population, and once that happens, you might as well leave. There’s nothing you can do. And Iraq is getting ready to explode on us. Actually, it’s already exploded on us, but it’s going to continue to explode on us and we’re going to eventually be forced out. Or we’ll retire to these super bases and just try to drain the country of its oil. But we will never win the hearts and minds of those people. Fundamentally that was what we set out to do, to bring democracy to that country.

The same thing happened in Vietnam. These insurgencies are national movements. These people don’t want us in their country. And once that happens, once that mindset’s there, you know you’re in trouble. What we’re doing now is paying the Sunnis not to kill us. That only lasts for so long.

reason:
How would you describe your personal politics?

Burns: Liberal. Liberal to radical. I’m pretty fed up with what’s going on.

reason:
Is there any concrete policy you can think of that would lead to the more community oriented style of policing you’ve described?

Burns: You would have to change the nature of the institution. You’d have to stop making it a numbers game. Now, how do you do that with people who've been inculcated with this idea that it’s all about numbers? These guys have got computers, they've got charts, they’ve got all this kind of stuff, and it all revolves around locking people up. Clearly, that’s not the way to go. But it's how they sell themselves to politicians, and how they sell themselves to these community relation groups. This stuff is about locking people up.

The police should be focused on the most serious crimes, and in Baltimore the most serious crimes are murder, rape, and robbery. So you try to diffuse the other stuff, but you have to start putting your resources into those. Because if a person kills someone in the neighborhood, the neighborhood knows who did it. If the police don’t catch that person, and that guy’s walking around having beaten a murder, all the police credibility goes out the window.

It’s the same thing if you go up on the corner and you roust an addict while the guy sitting across from the addict has a gun. Everybody in the neighborhood knows he’s got the gun because he’s the bodyguard. And you don’t grab him. The people are thinking, well, maybe the dude is paying the police off. Why else would they grab the harmless addict but not the guy with the gun? Again, the problem is that the police are operating without information, and playing to the numbers. If I’m locking you up for petty stuff, you’re not going to be telling me shit. If I’m locking you up two and three times a month, you’re especially not going to tell me anything.

So how do you change all of this? You change the numbers game. You require police to reconnect with the people, and you start focusing everybody on the major crimes, the ones that make living very, very difficult—murder, rape, and robbery.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.

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  • TallDave||

    I started watching this recently, courtesy on-demand from comcast, after hearing how great it was. I watched the first couple episodes of Season 5, and frankly didn't see what all the fuss was about.

    Did I just pick it up at a weak point in the series?

  • kinnath||

    TallDave, I started with seasons 1 through 3 on DVD. There is no way you're going to understand season 5 without starting at the beginning.

    I need to pick up season 4, then I'll have to wait patiently for season 5.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    I gotta admit, it's been pretty great. Basically season 1 is about the cops and the drug dealers (and in a way, so is every season). Season 2 is about the dockworkers' unions, season 3 is about the politicians, elections, and drug legalization, season 4 is about the school system and the kids, and season 5 has been about the newspapers and the homeless.

    It's been great and like the article posted here the other day, Omar Little is one of the greatest characters on TV ever (along with Spock, Barney Fife, Archie Bunker, Al Swearingen, George Costanza, Livia Soprano, and probably the greatest ever: Andy Sipowicz).

    On second look, my list seems a bit sexist. Who are the other great characters I'm missing? Not looking for catchphrasey-kinda things, but characters whose writing and acting somehow combines to make the character more real than other TV characters, and probably more real than most movie characters could be.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    OK: Eric Cartman's absence was an obvious slip-up.

  • kinnath||

    Dexter only has two seasons, but he is clearly a future candidate for your list.

  • kinnath||

    Hawkeye Pierce & Hot Lips

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Oh yeah, I've heard about that show - on SHOWTIME, right?. It sounds cool, but I haven't seen it yet. Speaking of the actor who plays the main role in Dexter, I'd like to add someone from Six Feet Under, but although I think it was a great show, I'm not sure that any of the characters were quite to that level.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Though if any were, it was his character, David, probably.

  • kinnath||

    It sounds cool, but I haven't seen it yet.

    Buy or rent the DVDs; you won't be disapointed.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Calamity Jane might deserve a spot from Deadwood along with Swearingen.

  • ||

    OT regarding "The Wire" but here goes:

    Dr. Johnny Fever, Les Nessman, Bailey Quarters (WKRP)

    Emily Newhart (Newhart 1)

    Larry, Darryl and Darryl (Newhart 2)

    If mini-series count: Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call (Lonesome Dove)

  • kinnath||

    Deadwood, Wired, Dexter . . Best TV in the last 5 years.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    and Mal Reynolds from Firefly...I can't believe I forgot him. They managed a lot with that character in just thirteen episodes.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Duvall's performance in Lonesome Dove may be the best acting job ever.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    I still want to do Bailey.

  • ||

    I never seen The Wire, but it struck me as being like The Sopranos;
    just interesting and intelligent enough to force you to follow the plot and characters, but so dry that it becomes a pain in the ass to sit through.

  • kinnath||

    . . . but so dry that it becomes a pain in the ass to sit through.

    I was home ill a week or so ago. I watched 7 straight hours of the Wire and was disappointed that I had to stop because I had finished season 3.

  • ||

    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    I still want to do Bailey.


    Run Ron, Run!!

  • ||

    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    Duvall's performance in Lonesome Dove may be the best acting job ever.



    Thumb's up from me - and I think the rest of the cast gave him plenty of support.



    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    I still want to do Bailey.



    Me too... and Emily Newhart... together or separately.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Emily Newhart was...wait...let me think of it...Suzanne Pleshette, right? Oh, yeah. She was really unbearably hot too.

    I have a girls in glasses "thing", though.

    Thumb's up from me - and I think the rest of the cast gave him plenty of support.

    The scene where he hangs Jake is maybe the best performance ever.

  • ||

    Finally someone at Reason came to their senses and revised the swear word that was front and center on the home page. It's a shame though, that someone actually thought the F-word was acceptable usage for Reason's home page.

  • ||

    It's a shame though, that someone actually thought the F-word was acceptable usage for Reason's home page.

    I did...

  • Mrs Manners||

    Reason sucks

  • ||

    Hit & Run needs to follow Fark's lead, and create a filter that changes "reason sucks" to "I'm a sheep-molesting douche".

  • NP||

    The Wire is a third-rate crime drama that occasionally rises to the second-rate tier when it ceases, if only for a while, taking itself too seriously. How any sane person would give it a tenth of the respect it's been accorded so far is simply beyond me.

  • LarryA||

    So how do you change all of this? You change the numbers game. You require police to reconnect with the people, and you start focusing everybody on the major crimes, the ones that make living very, very difficult-murder, rape, and robbery.

    Once again:

    The [London] Metropolitan Police's founding principles and, de facto the founding principles of all other modern (post 1829) UK police forces, was summarised by Sir Richard Mayne (the first commissioner) in 1829 in the following terms:
    The nine principles by Sir Richard Mayne

    1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

    2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

    3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

    4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

    5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

    6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

    7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

    8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

    9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

    http://www.magnacartaplus.org/briefings/nine_police_principles.htm

  • ||

    The Wire is a quality show with good, believable characters much like the too short Deadwood.

    One thing that really stands out with The Wire is, it clearly dramatizes the epic fail on every level that is the war on some drugs. From the cops, to the politicians, from the dealers to the users, The Wire pulls no punches and lays the hard realities of the war against drugs with all its unintended consequences.

    /Need a dramatic show about medical cannabis.

    //Weeds is more comedy than drama.

  • economist||

    I noticed that they censored the title. What the fuck is up with that?

  • ||

    I'd like to add someone from Six Feet Under, but although I think it was a great show, I'm not sure that any of the characters were quite to that level.

    Sarge

  • ||

    It's been great and like the article posted here the other day, Omar Little is one of the greatest characters on TV ever (along with Spock, Barney Fife, Archie Bunker, Al Swearingen, George Costanza, Livia Soprano, and probably the greatest ever: Andy Sipowicz).

    No love for TGIF? Steve Erkel, Michelle Tanner, and Balki Balkokovitch(sp?) all deserve a spot on that list. And what about Fox "MF'in" Mulder? And if Cathy Young were posting on this thread, I'm sure she'd say Xena Warrior Princess, and I'd agree. Jack Bauer too.

  • some guy||

    It's just pop culture. Transitory, disposable.
    Pay your cable bill. More tomorrow.
    Move along now.

  • ||

    What the fuck is with the title?

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    OK I was wrong. Michael isn't the new Marlo.

    I won't say much else, at the risk of spoiling it for someone.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Except I'll say that the end of the Michael storyline was really cool.

    If that makes me a spoiler, then so be it.

  • ||

    Y'all forgot to mention Doogie Howser, if it weren't for him typing away on his computer at the end of each episode this blog wouldn't exist. True story.

  • Culprititus||

    I've been downloading episodes of this great Canadian show that is sort of a cross between Weeds and BBC show IT Crowd. It is extremely geek/nerdy at times with lots of social commentary. Never watched The Wire myself, but I have been interested in looking at it from all that I've heard and read.

  • Culprititus||

    oh yeah, the Canadian show is called JPod

  • ||

    The majority of the comments seem focused on the gritty entertainment 'the Wire' has provided, rather than Mr. Burns' useful, though baleful insights based on his experience in the real world. Maybe entertainment and real life are indistinguishable in our culture any more. He describes a program in Harlem designed to redeem the lost and disadvantaged children of the welfare state called the 'Children's Zone', whose 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."

    What quaint middle-class phenomenon is so logical and so obvious that social services professionals and educators and government aid workers have been missing all these years? By any other name they're called parents. Nothing is going to fix the intractable problems on the streets and in the schools except parents (caregivers or whatever euphemism you want to use) who are accountable to the community and take responsibility for raising the children that they, after all, have produced.

    Related References:

    Theodore Dalrymple in the City Journal

    Christopher Lasch, 'The Culture of Narcissism' (Among other things, the book describes how, beginning with the Progressive era around 1900, professional social services workers educators, therapists, and gov. bureaucrats have undermined the authority and accountability of parents.)

    CDL

  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good

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