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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.