“Warring Against a Neighborhood”: A Conversation With David Simon on Police Brutality and the War on Drugs

Editor’s Note: David Simon is a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, which enabled the research for his book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. He is best known for his Emmy Award-winning show “The Wire,” which detailed the institutions and lives of Simon’s native Baltimore. He spoke at Williams on Wednesday, September 14, as part of the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum on Inequality. While visiting, he set aside some time to speak with the Alternative. Below is an unedited transcript of that conversation.

Williams AlternativeWell, let’s just begin. Obviously you’re a police reporter from from Baltimore. So my first question is how do you feel that Black Lives Matter has affected Baltimore and the way you think about Baltimore?

David SimonI don’t feel any different about it. It’s a city I live there still. It’s complicated. I think we all knew that–I mean one of the big arguments of The Wire, one of the things that compelled me to work on The Corner and to write that book was the feeling that the drug war had led to a lot of bad things. The militarization of the police department, mass incarceration as a policy, and certainly in Baltimore we felt that it had fallen entirely or–not entirely, but had fall in disproportionately on the black community. That they were excessively policed, and for less and less violent offenses, jailed. 

We always – that was already part of the argument even before we got to the issue of police violence in Ferguson and everything since. Police violence is an added element, you know I covered a lot of police shootings. I covered more than 100 police shootings probably. And most of them were of a necessity. They had to happen. They were supposed to happen. We live in an heavily armed society where there’s almost a ridiculous amount of firearms. And we ask people to police in that culture. And then you overlay a drug war where you’re literally fighting an entrenched industry that has means and necessity to resort to violence, because of the excessive amount of incarceration. 

So it was almost inevitable that you were going to have the need to arm. We’re not Britain. We’re too gun loving. We can’t–we have to arm our police. So most of the shootings I covered were, I would say most, 60, 70 percent, didn’t raise any questions. The witnesses were all–the narratives were all cohesive. And then there was the other 30 percent. And of those maybe 25 percent or 20 percent or 25 percent–it was one person’s word against another. 

And you wanted to believe that there wasn’t any perjury. You wanted to believe there wasn’t any manufactured evidence. You wanted to believe there were no dropped knives, dropped guns, that you know that what happened happened. But there was no way to know, because it happened in such a way that there were no witnesses. There were no standing witnesses who could not be impeached. It happened in the dark of an alley. And I covered some of those. And you would wonder if the police narrative was correct. But one person was often dead. And if not dead sometimes they – it was a sworn officer’s testimony in court in front of a grand jury versus the claims of somebody who had a criminal history. And so the lack of corroboration for an account in which police had done the wrong thing was nonexistent. So it would pass. 

And then there were the five or ten percent where witnesses would say, “No, the police did the wrong thing.” And those became controversies. And you covered those too. 

What’s changed now is this [picking up his iPhone].

What’s changed, this is the revolution right here. There’s first generation evidence on every street corner. So that if the police narrative is bogus, and we always suspected that could be at points, I mean there’s famous stories about dropped knives and dropped guns, there’s an old joke in Baltimore City, One of the police–well, there’s plenty of old joke–but this really became corroborative in a way that didn’t exist when I was a police reporter. 

So it’s not as if I feel differently with the city though. But it is as if the currency, the evidentiary currency has changed. Suddenly there’s something fresh to spend in terms of what you bring to the claims of both sides, police and people in the street. And what we’re experiencing as a culture is the awareness that African Americans in particular, but I think people of color generally–and also because we have this in Baltimore, poor whites, white working class, you know the white underclass as we have in places in Baltimore.  It’s a class thing too. But since there’s an awful lot of poverty in the inner city it involves people of color–they’re incredibly vulnerable. And we’ve always known this. But now it’s being documented at a higher rate. That’s notable. 

Having said all that, there are cases that I’ve seen happen since Ferguson where I’ve known from everything I know about policing and about legal standards that are not “Murders” and that word gets thrown around a lot. They’re not even manslaughters. And then there are other cases that genuinely are murders and manslaughters. But I guess what I’m saying is you’ve got to go case by case, because sometimes even a cop doing the right thing, or not doing the wrong thing, will nonetheless have a bad outcome and have a bad shooting. A good cop can give you a bad shooting. And a bad cop, you know somebody who has ample history of being abusive, can nonetheless in the given moment do the right thing with a police shooting. 

So you got to look at each case as sort of evidentiary. And that’s no fun for anybody, because if you’re into ideology or slogans or you know if you’re looking for evidence for one thing or another, you’re not going to want to have the patience or the inclination to parse any of that out.

WASo you seem to be saying something that I agree with, which is that the behavior of the police or the people who are being–are dealing with the police hasn’t necessarily changed as much as the technology that’s recording all of it has?

DSA little bit, yeah. Although I think in some ways, let’s–how do I say this? In the 1960’s it was a cop named Glass who famously shot four African American people all of them unarmed. And all of them nothing resulted in anything. It was the early 1960’s. 

WA: Right.

DSAnd it was Baltimore and it was a corrupt police department. And it was a police department in a majority white city that was using it’s police department to exert social control over African Americans. So you know he would raid a crap game and if you didn’t leave the money and run, if you tried to pick up the money, he would shoot you in the back. And then he was famous for it. And he retired on full pension. Nobody ever put anything on that guy. But he was you know this is what the police department was in 1962, ’63. 

And then there was a brief moment where the department started – the department of Baltimore is 50 percent black now. And maybe even a little bit higher. But it basically where they were trying to turn the corner on civil rights and come to a new perspective. 

And that was thwarted by the drug war. By a policy that basically made entire communities into–not into places that you protected, but places where you hunted stats and hunted arrests and where mass incarceration was a means to your paycheck and to promotion. 

And so you had a police department that was actually learning how not to be racist. And the Baltimore Police Department right now you can’t even call–it’s classic in the sense that 50 percent of the officers, and some of the most brutal officers when it comes to the drug war are African American for reasons that I cannot begin to parse, but like when I went to do The Corner as early as the 1990’s at the height of the crack epidemic, the cops who were the most feared for brutality on the street were black. Maybe because they didn’t have to think about what the visual implications were when they were beating the shit out of a guy. The same way that a white officer might have–maybe the white officer had to look over his shoulder a little bit in a way that a black officer didn’t. 

But what was true is they all became sort of blue. You know black, white, the contempt for this factory that was the drug trade in a place like Baltimore, where most of the violence was emanating from and where most of the illegality, the declared illegality of the drug war, it’s like just when we were trying to figure out race and move the police department passed that as a means of controlling the poor and abusing the poor, we inherited this new drug prohibition that was a whole entire fresh overlay of reasons to over-police. Reasons to militarize. Reasons to kick in a door. Reasons to jack everybody up. Reasons to pretend the Fourth Amendment doesn’t exist. Reasons to fear and to shoot a little bit more quickly. 

And so it’s like the police – like we never got a break as a society– there was never a moment where we actually had a moment where a police department that was respective of its community in Baltimore had a moment where they could say, “All right, well, how should we police our community?”  This police department that is now close to majority or majority black, how do we do the job and do right? That moment never came. And the thing that arrested development of the police department, in terms of maturation, racially, was the drug war. 

WASo do you think that if you were writing The Wire now then you would have been able to incorporated something about police brutality as it’s currently talked about or do you think that’s for a different show? 

DSI think we did. I mean I think it’s there. From the third episode it’s there. We’d have use of cell phones. Listen, I don’t know if you know what happened in Baltimore, but since the indictment of those officers, and the Freddie Gray case was overcharged and we all sort of sensed it. You know a charge of second degree murder against the wagon man was problematic at best. 

But since then cops all decided, well, if I can go to jail for making a bad–and I think there was a negligence case to be made. They rode him around for 45 minutes and didn’t attend to him. There’s a negligence case there. But there are people in Baltimore calling it a murder right now. 

As a matter of sort of protest language and social activism, which I understand that this is all right for the rhetoric, but what the Baltimore Police Department said was, you know rank and file black officers, white officers, was “let me understand this?” Because they also charged the Fourth Amendment case a false arrest. And that was a hideous mistake, because at that moment every cop in Baltimore working a post said I’m not getting out of my car. I’m not going to clear that corner. I’m not going to go looking for guns on that corner. I’m not getting out of my car. 

And from the moment of the Freddie Gray indictment our murder rate has gone to the highest levels we’ve ever seen, from what was relatively small before Freddie Gray, I’m talking about the weeks up to Freddie Gray we were low on the year. And we were coming off of two years earlier we had our absolute lowest number of murders since–in 20 years; to we’re not policing anymore to an absolute police slow down. And people said I’m not getting out of the car. Why would I get out of the car when I can go to jail if I make the wrong decision on the Fourth Amendment? 

And I’m not sure–understanding police work–I’m not sure I could argue with them, because the freaking Supreme Court four times every session adjusts probable cause as a concept. Supreme Court can’t come to a definitive conclusion about when you can stop somebody, when you can search somebody, when you can do a– when you can do a pat down. When you can do a full search. Every session, every year, the Supreme Court makes four changes in the law. So you’re telling me a guy making $50,000 a year after five year on the street is going to guess right every time. And if he doesn’t guess right he’s going to go to jail. He’s going to get–I’m not talking about administrative sanctions from making a bad arrest. I’m talking about go to jail. 

Well, cops heard that and they said, “I’m not getting out of my car.”  And so the violence rate in Baltimore right now is out of control. 

WASo then there’s a total tension and disconnect between being able to police effectively and being able to respect and protect private citizens.

DSRight. Worse than that. And the drug war taught a generation of them how not to do police work the right way. And that’s even more complex.

WAAnd what would you–briefly what would you say is doing police work the right way?

DSLocking up the right motherfucker. They’re the guys that shoot people. The clearance rate in Baltimore is 30 percent right now. They don’t know how to make a case, because all they know how to do is make stats. Jack up guys in the corner. Make drug cases. Easiest fish in the barrel. That’s all they know how to do. They don’t know how to actually work a case. And police work is very, very nuanced, very complicated. And to do it in such a way that you can go into court with a legal case, with legal probable cause, with a search warrant that won’t be knocked down, with informant information that’ll stand up in court where you were–you used the informant. Or you used my informant. To do that kind of police work you need to be trained in it. And there’s nobody left in fact Baltimore Police Department. All they know how to do is fight the drug war. So they’re not even good at their jobs. 

So you know what’s happening in the black community of Baltimore is–you know when I’m speaking to groups in Baltimore, I say, do you think your neighborhoods are over-policed or under-policed? And a lot of people raise their hand for both. And they’re right. It’s under-policed in the sense of: When something bad happens the police don’t come and take the asshole away. They leave him on the corner. And he does something bad. And that’s driving our rate of violence which is among the worst in the country, worse than Chicago. You know way worse than Chicago per capita. 

But they’re being over-policed in the shit that doesn’t matter, which is to say here’s two pills you’re going to jail. You’re loitering in a drug free zone. You’re going to jail now.

WASay drugs were dealt with in an healthy way, then–or the drug problem were dealt with in a healthy way, would that necessarily solve the problem of police brutality? What would be the effect of that?

DSIt would free the police department up to do police work, to again reemphasize that which the police department is absolutely necessary for. Also it would free up the police department not to have to war on the corners, because if you have to fight a war, then you have to fight a war. Then you need soldiers. You don’t need police officers. You need soldiers. And when they made drugs–the idea of making a drug prohibition if only the people–if in a given neighborhood of intense poverty only a handful of people are involved in a narcotics trade, then maybe you can be Draconian and fight a war against them, against this handful of people. But when all the factories have left town, and the only people–the only industry–left hiring hundreds of people, thousands of people every day are the corners. And so that you know you’re basically warring against a neighborhood. It’s literally like warring against steel workers in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960. This is the predominant hiring force. 

So you go house by house. There’s somebody who works in the drug trade in that house. There’s somebody who is in the game in that house. There’s somebody in the game in that house. And when you go down the line you realize you’re at war with the neighborhood. Maybe not everybody, but with 30, 40 percent of the neighborhood in terms of families, maybe even more, and you’re going to police that? So that means when you walk, you get out of your car, you walk up on a corner, because you’ve gotten a complaint that there’s drug dealing, and you get out of your radio car and you walk up and you say, “This corner is indicted. Everybody go home.”  And you get back in your car. And you drive past 15 minutes later. And there’s still a couple guys out there selling drugs. Maybe you don’t see them selling drugs, but they’re standing there, they’re loitering, and you say, “I told you guys. The corner is indicted tonight. Everybody go home.”  And the guy says, “Fuck you.”  Well, in the reality of a drug war, as opposed to a normal policing situation where we’re not chasing the shit, but you told the police it’s his job to police the unenforceable drug prohibition, he’s got to get out of his car. He’s got so say this corner is indicted. And when the guy says, “Fuck you.”  He’s got to fight. 

If he doesn’t fight he loses control of the post for the rest of the night and for the rest of his career. And the guy behind him coming on the midnight shift loses control. So now you’re at a war footing. So now it’s–everybody is–you know there isn’t a sergeant on urban police force who doesn’t know this, which is you look at your six guys in your squad. And you say, “Will any of them not fight? Will any of them not back each other up? I need guys who will fight.”  That’s what a war does. 

So you got to get rid of the drug war. You’ve got to take that away. Just medicalize the problem. And focus on violence. And make it so that you start turning the neighborhoods back on the people who are violent. Because right now the phone doesn’t ring–somebody shoots somebody and the phone doesn’t ring in the homicide unit, because everybody hates the police. They’ve been policing like as if it’s Gaza. There’s nothing else they can do, because we basically made the community into the enemy with the drug prohibition. It wasn’t–it wasn’t going after two or three drug dealers. It was going against the neighborhood that was drug saturated and where it was the last industry left.

WA: Thank you for sitting down with us.

2 thoughts on ““Warring Against a Neighborhood”: A Conversation With David Simon on Police Brutality and the War on Drugs

  1. David Simon is naive about how drugs impact a community, especially its children. You can’t end the war on drugs without doing grave damage to a community. A better approach is to insist that people stop dealing in drugs and then apply the force necessary to make drug dealing stop.

    Singapore has figured out how to do this. We will learn more about how to turn around Baltimore by interviewing government officials in Singapore and discounting the views of our entertaining but ultimately feckless crime reporters and/or screen writers.

    See, https://www.opendemocracy.net/drugpolicy/kirsten-han/how-discovering-truth-about-singapore-s-war-on-drugs-led-me-to-campaign-to-abolish-death

    See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Singapore

    • First – Singapore is hardly a fitting case study for Baltimore to learn from and you know that. You’re smart enough that I shouldn’t have to enumerate their dissimilarities, but I’d say it’s a 50/50 shot that you challenge me to. I happily will, but would rather save us both the energy.

      Second – The whole “kill people to make them stop dealing drugs” (“apply the force necessary”) strategy is simply not how we in America operate. Duterte is probably a hero to you, but seems like a psychopath to the rest of us. And in case you missed it, we’re already incredibly putative in our drug-policing regime. Your advocacy for not just the War on Drugs but an even more intense one seems ill-advised given the demonstrably terrible effects it’s had. Again, will provide sourcing if you so choose to push on that as well.

      Third – Call Simon what you will, but feckless hardly seems appropriate. On that I think we can both agree.

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