David Simon discusses how crime statistics are manipulated and weaponized to inflate police budgets
The Wire creator David Simon took a circuitous journey back to putting Baltimore on screen with his new series about real life police corruption, We Own This City.
Simon was following the real-time news reports in the Baltimore Sun about the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a unit lauded for knocking down doors and seizing drugs, cash and weapons – never mind what harm they caused along the way. But in 2017, those cops were busted for pocketing cash and selling the drugs back to other dealers. Simon called journalist Justin Fenton, who worked the same beat he once did at the Baltimore Sun, and encouraged him to write a book about this latest chapter in a futile and destructive drug war, which he once covered in The Wire. “I had evaluated what I was reading journalistically and not in terms of television depictions,” says Simon on a Zoom call with NOW. Simon even hooked Fenton up with his book agent, helping the younger reporter sell what would become We Own This City: A True Story Of Crime, Cops And Corruption.
About a year later, HBO got their hands on the manuscript and approached Simon’s producing partner George Pelecanos about doing a limited series. “This made a big circle,” says Simon. And that’s how the kings of prestige television, who together worked on Treme and The Deuce, brought the cameras back to Baltimore, creating what Pelecanos describes in an email to NOW as a coda to The Wire.
There are stark differences between the two series, not limited to the length and breadth, and the fact that they take place in distinct eras divided by the introduction of smartphone cameras and social media, which meant that what happened between a cop and his detainee didn’t always just leave the former with the last word.
But there are also those aspects in We Own This City that scream Simon and Pelecanos; moments that peel away from the crooked GTTF cops brutalizing and robbing criminals and citizens, to absorb the bigger picture. The series looks at the decisions made by opportunistic politicians who manipulate crime statistics for re-election bids or argue for bigger police budgets, and the trickle-down effect those policies have – like when a beat cop is rewarded for dragging a Black man guilty of sitting on his own stoop in a drug-free zone behind bars. Ultimately, both series make the argument that the war on drugs must end. “I think nobody in America in authority is yet ready to say that out loud,” says Simon.
In a conversation with NOW, Simon digs deep into the evolution from The Wire to We Own This City, the freedom to spill off-the-record truths in the fictional series, the crooked reward structure that leads to harmful policing, where he stands on arguments to defund the police and how crime statistics are manipulated to inflate police budgets or for political gain. Is it a coincidence that outlets are reporting heavily on higher crime rates in Toronto and Mayor John Tory responded to violent attacks in New York City by increasing law enforcement on the TTC, while police budgets are criticized?
Listen to the whole conversation with David Simon on the NOW What podcast (out Friday) or read an edited and condensed version below.
David Simon (left) on the set of The Wire season three.
NOW: It’s been 20 years since The Wire premiered. That anniversary is about to sneak up on us. That show was way ahead of the game in terms of depicting police brutality and the social conditions that lead to crime in Baltimore and that type of policing. That was before Freddie Gray, cellphone videos and all the stuff that came out during #BlackLivesMatters. With everything that went down in the last 10 years, did that change the way you see The Wire? Are there things that you feel like you missed? Or conversely, are there things that you’re just glad you got right?
David Simon: The Wire was after the same thing in that it was a critique of the drug war and mass arrest. All the criticisms of filling prisons based on the drug prohibition and on the militarization of police, that’s all in there. The Wire was not about the intricacies of police corruption. We showed you police stuffing cash into their raid jackets and we showed you police casually brutalizing people, as just a matter of course. But what we were really criticizing was the mission, the corrupting mission of the drug war. That stands.
I think things did get worse. You always knew that not all the money might make it down to evidence control. If you kicked over a mattress and you found $10,000 in drug money, $700 might make it downtown. You always knew that there were cops who would take advantage of that moment. The idea that a unit would go up the street and start robbing people indiscriminately – whether they were drug dealers or whether they were not proven drug dealers or whether they were absolutely citizens – and then just keep the money and then take the drugs and sell the drugs back on the street to other dealers, that’s a level of dystopia and cynicism and collapse that can only come from another generation of fighting this war.
With each successive generation, the level of cynicism and the level of existential crisis becomes greater. The cops that you knew in The Wire who were the fuck ups – the Hercs and the Carvers – they’re now colonels and majors. They train the next generation in Baltimore. They’re training the sergeants and lieutenants today, who are training the guys coming on from the academy. The institutional memory of a police department that actually has to hold the ground, protect and serve and make your post better not worse, is like ancient history.
NOW: It occurs to me now that a lot of the characters in We Own This City might have watched The Wire.
DS: If they did, they saw a war that was unwinnable and intractable. It was corrupting everything it touched.
Being a police officer and doing functional police work, particularly high-end police work, the levels of skill sets are pretty impressive. You need to know how to use informants and not be used by informants, how to write a search warrant for probable cause and not screw it up, how to testify in court without perjuring yourself, understand the Fourth Amendment, when you can have a Terry Stop and when you can’t. It’s actually hard to be a good cop.
But in my city, what happened was, you were told you were a good cop if you made 30, 40 drug arrests a month, which [meant] going down to the corner and jacking everybody up and giving this guy that ground stash and this guy gets the two pills you found on top of the tire. You made your stats. You look good on paper.
Meanwhile, the guy who’s out on his post trying to figure out who’s robbing people with a gun, if he works the thing for three or four weeks and manages to put something together, he makes one arrest. He goes into the police computer with the weight of a feather. One arrest versus 40. That inability to even assess what good police work was anymore destroyed the police department in Baltimore.
We Own This City investigates crooked cops and a futile war on drugs.
NOW: When you look at the difference between The Wire and We Own This City. The Wire is a fictional show that has a lot of truth in it. I’m thinking of this anecdote, when you’re reporting, you can get a lot of off-the-record comments from people that you can’t print. The police officers will tell you something when recorders are turned off and you write it on a napkin. And those are details, I feel, that you could then put into something like The Wire because it’s fictional. Whereas with something like We Own This City, [which is based on fact,] did you feel like you couldn’t necessarily have that same freedom that you had before with the show?
George Pelecanos (by email): In We Own This City, we stuck to the facts and avoided conjecture. All of our scripts were vetted by the HBO lawyers because we’re identifying real individuals. The Wire often had characters based on real people, but because those people were renamed we could drift, as a writer does with a novel. But in both cases we’re talking about a dramatization. Naturally, through the performances and the basic elements of cinema, you’re going to get viewers more emotionally involved in the issues than you are with a newspaper story.
DS: I felt the difference when I started writing fiction television. With The Wire, we could write anything we wanted. And I do remember sitting down for drinks with any cop in the city who I wanted to talk to, who might have been belligerent about talking to me if they thought it was going to go to the Baltimore Sun and they were going to be quoted as part of a news article. But now they would sit there and let me write scene after scene of potential stuff on a cocktail napkin, because it was going in a fictional television show. There is in some respects a liberating theory to writing fiction. And we were in this current thing constrained by the reality of events.
In The Wire, we were incredibly liberated. When I was a reporter, I was able to get as far as saying: “The drug war is unwinnable and we’ve committed too much resources to it; and there’s not enough resources to do these other things the police used to do, and do at least competently in Baltimore.” I got as far as saying that in my last long series of articles I ran before I before I left the paper. But it was a long journey and I couldn’t say the definitive that I will say now, that the drug war destroys everything it touches.
NOW: One of the big conversations that came out [of George Floyd’s murder] is “defund the police.” I know that’s a loaded conversation.
DS: It’s self-defeating. Watch politicians, political parties, political factions, watch them run away from you at lightspeed. Do you want to change anything or do you want to have the best slogan?
NOW: Are there variations or degrees where some of that sentiment is right? I think you touch on that in We Own This City, cutting some of the police budgets, demilitarizing them at least, and using those funds for social programs.
DS: Oh, sure. This is about mission. What are you funding the police to do? If you’re funding them to lock everybody up, alienate everybody, fill the courts with untenable casework that doesn’t go anywhere and actually not solve any crime, and fund unlimited overtime for that, then yeah. Defund that. Defund the hell out of that. You may well have money at the end of the day to do not only the things that a police department has to do in order to make the city safer and functional, you may have money for other social services that are competing with that.
We’re spending an extraordinary amount of treasure on the wrong stuff. Fifteen years ago, Ed Burns said if you could get the assistant U.S. state’s attorneys to not sign overtime slips for bullshit cases that they’re going to dismiss, you’d start to fix the police department. Change the metrics. Change what you value. Defund the drug war. I’m in.
But the idea that you’re going to park the police cars, and abolish the police, which is another slogan for a time… I’m sorry, but you go to the toughest neighbourhoods, and I know this to be true elsewhere, and you talk to the residents there, they don’t want the police abolished. They want the police to come when somebody is shot and to take the right guy away before he shoots somebody else. They want to be policed where policing actually matters and makes their neighbourhoods better. And that’s the great equivocation on which all these people with slogans rely: that all policing is the same. If all policing is the same, then all these neighbourhoods are over-policed. Because they are. They’re policed brutally, excessively, without nuance, without regard to who lives there and how they have to exist and how the neighbourhood has to be viable for families and for people.
Jon Bernthal is on the beat as a crooked cop in We Own This City.
They’re also under-policed because when somebody hurts someone else, steals their car, rapes their wife or daughter or puts a gun to their face and robs them, the police don’t come. They don’t do anything.
Definitely defund parts of policing. Overtime to chase people around the streets and make crap drug arrests, humbles [inconsequential charges that won’t stick, aiming to land someone in jail for a night or two before they get to see a court commissioner] and loitering in a drug-free zone. Don’t pay that. Don’t prosecute it. Pay for the good police work.
But that stuff’s also going to cost. I understand the logic of what they’re trying to say. But that slogan is politically lethal. Maybe the thing is to address mission. Say, here’s what we want the police to do. Here’s what we don’t want them to do. It’s high time they listened. If voters could be energized to do that, that would be a great victory in my country.
NOW: Alec Karakatsanis, the founder of an organization called Civil Rights Corps, posts these really incredible Twitter threads where he calls out stories that will appear in the New York Times and L.A. Times – stories that tend to be regurgitated in tons of newspapers. He reveals that you have police PR departments feeding newspapers stories about porch thefts on the rise or some crime wave happening here or there. And he reveals how these are just police PR departments feeding the press. These stories are being printed unchecked only to help the police PR departments then increase the police budget.
DS: I am a devoted student of how police agencies can corrupt statistics. There’s even things they can do to make the police response look better than it is in terms of their arrest stats. A robbery can become a larceny. A rape can be unfounded. An assault by shooting where the bullet doesn’t hit somebody, you can get rid of that pretty easily. An aggravated assault where a lead pipe or a knife is used to cut somebody can become a common assault, depending on what the police force was up to. Do they want to make crime go down? Do they want to go back up, make everything a major assault? I became a connoisseur of how they play those games.
But the one stat that you can’t actually cheat is shooting victims. People who were hit with bullets in your city, particularly homicides. The primary reason being it isn’t up to the police agencies to arbitrate who is the victim of an assault by shooting. If it’s a murder, it’s a homicide, that’s the health department. That’s an autopsy done by a pathologist who works at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It’s not within the purview of their agency to lower the crime rate or to advance the crime rate when it comes to murders.
There’s one other stat you can’t cheat: unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. You can’t cheat theft of an automobile. Because when they drive a car away, the insurance companies have to know. There’s actually a third party that really wants to know if it was really a car theft because they’re going to pay.
But you cannot come to me and tell me Baltimore is not as violent as it’s ever been in its modern history because 340 or 350 people hitting the ground every year in a city of 600,000 is the worst we’ve ever done with the best trauma care that medical science has ever been able to provide in the history of my city; and with the smallest population we’ve ever had since the mid-19th century. That’s just reality.
(Editor’s note: The Toronto Police keep their major crimes data separate from homicide data. Recent reports on an increase in the crime rate to date in 2022 compared to 2021 did not mention the lower homicide rate. Despite calls to defund, the Toronto Police Board approved a budget increase to $1.1 billion for 2022.)