Police Abuse

David Simon on How Civil Rights Were Destroyed in Baltimore And Why He Might Vote For One of the Men Responsible Anyway

Behold how intractable tribalism can make a problem


"The Wire"/HBO

The Marshall Project has an interview with advisory board member David Simon, a veteran Baltimore reporter who covered the police beat from the early '80s to the early '90s and is best known for creating the HBO series The Wire, which chronicled inner city life, and many of its problems, in Baltimore.

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, interviews:

BK: What do people outside the city need to understand about what's going on there—the death of Freddie Gray and the response to it?

DS: I guess there's an awful lot to understand and I'm not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war—which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city—was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Simon explained, for example, how you used to be able to get away with calling a Baltimore cop a motherfucker, but you might get thrown for a rough ride in the wagon if you called him an asshole. Sound like assholes, don't they? But that, explains Simon, was what they considered a code. And it's gotten worse since then. Now, Simon notes, the cops beat up on teenagers and elderly grandmothers.

Keller asked if having a black mayor, a black police chief, and a substantially black police force may have affected this slide into ever more egregious police conduct.

Simon explains, as others have, that black cops are certainly not guaranteed to be less brutal to black residents. The interview:

When Ed [Burns] and I reported "The Corner," it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I'd say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they're supposed to be policing, and there isn't a white guy in the equation on a street level, it's pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered…  You take out your nightstick and you're white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn't know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

Simon also explains how Baltimore's last Democratic mayor, Martin O'Malley—there hasn't been a Republican mayor in Baltimore since the 60s—helped create this toxic environment where the rights of an entire population in Baltimore are systematically trampled:

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O'Malley.  He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart.

But despite the damage O'Malley appears to have done to the constitutional rights of Baltimore, Simon insists there's no hard feelings. And he illustrates why, despite the upswell in expressed concern and awareness of the problem of police brutality, meaningful change is a long way away. Simon, apparently, would vote for O'Malley despite a record that ought to disqualify him as a choice for anyone concerned about civil rights. The interview:

Everyone thinks I've got a hard-on for Marty because we battled over "The Wire," whether it was bad for the city, whether we'd be filming it in Baltimore. But it's been years, and I mean, that's over. I shook hands with him on the train last year and we buried it. And, hey, if he's the Democratic nominee, I'm going to end up voting for him. It's not personal and I admire some of his other stances on the death penalty and gay rights. But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore's mayor was that he wanted to be governor.

A frustrating bit to find buried in a fascinating interview (which you should read in its entirety), but this is the political reality we live in—where mayors who are blamed for putting a "stake through the heart of police procedure" (to attain higher office!) still get the support (to attain higher office) of people concerned about civil rights, because they belong to the right party, because they're signaling the right things. It makes real life seem more fatalistic than The Wire.

Check out Reason TV's interview with David Simon here:

And Reason TV's interview with Bill Keller about the Marshall Project here: