'30 Years of Failure'

A conversation about the war on drugs with Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire


HBO's critically acclaimed drama The Wire wrapped up its final season in March. The show has been widely praised for its raw and cynical realism, its huge cast of multidimensional characters interweaving across complex story arcs, and above all its knowing look at the decline of a major American city. Over five seasons, co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns—a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a former narcotics officer with the Baltimore Police Department, respectively—explored Charm City's docks, labor unions, crumbling public school system, and troubled police department, along with the particular brand of political corruption that infects a dying city.

Although both are unreservedly men of the left, Simon and Burns created a show that eviscerated Democratic governance, capturing the futility and spectacular failure of local institutions. The Wire serves as a primer on unintended consequences, public choice theory, and the way politics poisons civil society. Characters showing even a hint of nobility are almost inevitably punished by indifferent, plodding bureaucrats, overly ambitious politicians, or the damaging actions of well-meaning public employees. The results can be heartbreaking, as when broken policies drive a promising circle of middle school students to bleak destinies.

The Wire's greatest accomplishment may be its unprecedented, painfully accurate portrait of the drug war. Never before has television so honestly captured the brutality of black markets, the folly of statistics-driven law enforcement, and the twisted incentives that confront cops and drug merchants alike. This may be why, as Simon told Reason in 2004, the show is beloved by street-level police officers and drug dealers.

Ed Burns, 62, came to writing late in life, after a tour in Vietnam and two decades working homicide and narcotics in the Baltimore Police Department. He also taught seventh grade in Baltimore's public schools, an experience he has said compared psychologically with Vietnam. In 1997 Burns and Simon, who met when Simon was covering cops, co-wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, the acclaimed true story of a single intersection in drug-plagued West Baltimore that later became an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries. In January of this year, as The Wire was closing out its run, Burns and Simon finished shooting a new HBO miniseries based on Evan Wright's book Generation Kill, an account of the first days of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Senior Editor Radley Balko interviewed Burns via telephone in February.

Reason: This season of The Wire has focused pretty heavily on the media. What do you think the media do well when it comes to covering criminal justice issues, and what do you think they do poorly?

Ed Burns: I think a lot depends on who's doing it. In specific cases, you can do extremely well as a reporter. My problem is more with the basic philosophy of how it's done. It's like a laser beam. They cover a specific aspect, or a specific trial, or a specific murder in a way that simplifies things, that makes them very stereotypical. It only takes one sentence to name the victim of a crime and the street where the crime took place. So they're really only reporting something that we know is going to happen—because the conditions are there to make it happen—but they don't go beyond that. There's no context in crime reporting. That's the problem.

Reason: Slate's media critic, Jack Shafer, has said that the media are at their absolute worst when covering the drug war. Do you agree with him, and if so why do you think that is?

Burns: Take just the term "war on drugs." I mean, they're not warring on drugs. They're warring on drug addicts and the users and the small-time dealers. They're warring on neighborhoods. They're warring on people who can't stand up to them. They're not warring on major dealers.

You can follow it in any city; I don't care how small it is or how big it is. If the paper is pretty avid about covering who's getting locked up, you'll notice that they're not getting the big guys. They're not getting the big stakeholders.

I think their whole approach is almost as if they were trying to separate us, trying to separate the classes by saying, "Look what's happened down there. Look at these people down there, these people and what they're doing."

When I was teaching, you'd have a kid in, say, his junior year of high school. And you'd give him a list of things he could possibly do when he gets out. He could be a doctor, lawyer, all this kind of stuff. We'd make one of the options "drug addict," and there are kids who always check it off.

The media report as if these kids have all of these options, and they consciously make this decision to become a drug addict, and to risk the consequences of going up to the corner and getting themselves killed. That decision was made for him long before that kid got to be in the 11th grade. A lot of guys don't even get that far.

This idea that there are lots of options for these kids and they choose a life on the corner, that's too simplistic. But it's the way these things get covered.

Reason: We interviewed your co-producer, David Simon, just before The Wire's fourth season. He said that though The Wire may be cynical about institutions, it treats its characters with a lot of affection. But the last two seasons seem to have gotten even more cynical. Many of the characters who show promise seem to either succumb to character flaws or actually get punished for doing the right thing. Are viewers to take anything away from The Wire other than that our major institutions are failing and there's little reason for hope?

Burns: Well, I don't think there's much reason for hope if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, even though you know it'll never work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that if you get on the wrong train, running down the aisle in the opposite direction really doesn't help. Basically that's what we've done, we've gotten on entirely the wrong train, and we keep sprinting down the aisle in the other direction, trying to pretend that if we run fast enough, we can get it together and turn things around. We're losing more than we're winning, and there's no reason for it.

I mean, if you go into West Baltimore, or East Baltimore, or any of these cities in the ghettos, and you pick up a stone and you throw it, you're probably going to hit a nonprofit. They're all over the place. They aren't working, because again we're all on the same wrong train. The nonprofits are fragmented. The whole thing is fragmented. It just doesn't work.

So no, I don't think we're being cynical. I think we're being factual. We've been fighting the drug war for 30 years. Thirty years of failure. But there's some reason that we persist in this. What is it? We never explore why that is. But you just can't spend this much money and get these few results and continue on like this. Someone has to start wondering what the fuck is going on.

Reason: Critics have said the city of Baltimore is really the central character in 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 was under 500 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 jump-start 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, Det. 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 where 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 mind-set 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 mind-set.

Reason: How common do you think that is, drug dealers taking tips from the entertainment world? I've 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 guys 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 are 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'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?

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, you're not getting any information. That's a bad situation.

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 are 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 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.

: 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 mind-set 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: 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.