Baltimore's Top Cop Disses The Wire


Last week Baltimore Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld described the HBO series The Wire as a "smear on this city that will take decades to overcome." Shortly afterwards, Wire creator David Simon wrote a reply. Here's an excerpt:

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III

Commissioner Bealefeld may not be comfortable with public dissent, or even a public critique of his agency. He may even believe that the recent decline in crime entitles him to denigrate as "stupid" or "slander" all prior dissent, as if the previous two decades of mismanagement in the Baltimore department had not happened and should not have been addressed by any act of storytelling, given that Baltimore is no longer among the most violent American cities, but merely a very violent one.

Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility. That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when [former Mayor Martin] O'Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work. Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.

You should read the whole thing, which has some kind words for Bealefeld's record as commissioner along with the harsh words for his record as a TV critic.

I might as well add that I met Bealefeld before he was commissioner, first when he spoke to a neighborhood meeting in South Baltimore and then at another community event. While I didn't always agree with him, he struck me as a no-bullshit sort of guy—certainly far franker than the other city officials who sometimes showed up at those meetings—and not a man who was eager to defend the general state of affairs at his department. Now that he's running the place, he's tearing into a show with a similar no-bullshit approach. I'm sorry to see that, but I'm not surprised.

Elsewhere in Reason: I interviewed Simon back in 2004, and I wrote some more about The Wire a few years later. Radley Balko interviewed another Wire writer, Ed Burns, in 2008.

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  1. Now that he’s running the place, he’s tearing into a show with a similar no-bullshit approach. I’m sorry to see that, but I’m not surprised

    I see we got the be nice memo from Obama.

  2. The Wire is a damned good show. And Simon’s response is just as good.

  3. looks like he came straight out of the cast of The Wire.

  4. I’ve never seen The Wire. Is it a documentary or a crime drama?

    1. It’s a crime drama, but the first season was based on true events.

      If you like crime shows it is actually very good, worth Netflix’ing.

      1. Each season sometimes drew on actual events, but none of it was “based on a true story.”

        It’s definitely worth Netflixing.

        1. Best goddam show on tv ever.

    2. Crime drama, but not a traditional police procedural. I don’t even normally like crime shows, and The Wire is far and away my favorite show of all time.

      Probably the strongest theme running through all five seasons is institutional disfunction, and for that reason it should be particularly appealing to anyone with a libertarian bone in his body. The show portrays a series of failures and half-victories by the cops. Not because the cops are particularly stupid, lazy, or incompetent, but because of bureaucratic infighting and perverse incentives. There’s no way to watch the show and come away with the idea that the solution to crime or poverty is more government.

      If the show stopped there, it would be good enough. But on top of that, The Wire is probably the best depiction of the futility of the War on Drugs.

  5. Anybody who has lived in Baltimore has to laugh at clowns like Bealefeld. Baltimore is a shithole. Somebody give me a call when that changes.

  6. The schadenfruede that I get from watching cops whine like ten year olds is staggering.

  7. Baltimore City absolutely sucks. My father-in-law used to take our older son down there to bounce around the Inner Harbor and generally just fuck around for a day. They enjoyed it. It used to be relatively safe during the day.

    Not anymore. I won’t let him take my younger sons down there at all. The gang activity is right out there in the open; kids get in fights all the time and prey on people they think are defenseless; and the cops only give a shit about the skateboarders. Or being video taped. Bonus if they can combine the two and really get their authoritarian rocks off.

    What Episiarch said–Baltimore really is a shithole. We should nuke it from orbit, just to be sure.

    1. Nuke it from orbit… I’m going to use that in my next project.

    2. At the Inner Harbor? I don’t go there very often — I moved from Baltimore City to Towson a few years ago — but I do have cause to visit from time to time, and I’ve never seen it like that.

      I was in Federal Hill with my young daughter last weekend, and it didn’t feel unsafe at all. Baltimore has a serious crime problem, but don’t overstate it.

      1. I live in the county, and trust me, there are plenty of safe places in the city. There are plenty of neighborhoods I wouldn’t go near, but the Inner Harbor is like EPCOT.

      2. I also moved from the city to Towson a few years ago. I moved for the added safety and good schools for my kids. But I still work in Baltimore, and certainly don’t fear for my own safety. The high crime/murder rate of Baltimore is really focused in the bad neighborhoods, and more specifically to those individuals also participating in the violent crime. It’s actually somewhat rare and becomes big news when those outside of the drug-dealing world get caught up in the violence. On a side note, I actually had high hopes for Bealefeld….and still think he’s quite an improvement.

  8. to: Fred Bealefeld

    ‘fuck did I do?

    1. It’s all the Republicans’ fault.

    2. Sheeeeiiiitttt!

    3. You’re not getting off that fuckin’ boat, McNulty.

    4. You gave a shit when it wasn’t your turn to give a shit.

  9. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

  10. So how long will it take Reno to overcome “Reno 911!”?

    1. They just voted Spanish Mike Alvarez mayor.

  11. The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern.

    Good shit.

  12. As someone who is frequently in Baltimore on business and is forced to sometimes do marathon training runs on the road even in Baltimore City. I can tell you that The Wire is probably one of the most accurate portrayals of the city and its problems to come out in a long time.

  13. I didn’t have any interest in this show before now, but if a bureaucrat is offended by it, I’ll check it out.


    1. As I said above, it’s pretty much impossible for a libertarian not to love this show. Give it four episodes and you’ll be hooked.

      Season 2 is probably the best. Comes with Special Bonus Union Corruption!

  14. This is like the Chicago PD complaining that there aren’t really any gangsters riding on running boards wearing fedoras shooting at people with machine guns – it completely misses the point.

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