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<nettime> Marshall Project: Bill Keller interviews David Simon
nettime's_ex-journo on Wed, 29 Apr 2015 18:08:25 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Marshall Project: Bill Keller interviews David Simon


David Simon in Baltimore in 2010. JOSHUA ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE

FILED 7:32 a.m. 04.29.2015 Q&A David Simon on Baltimore's Anguish
Freddie Gray, the drug war, and the decline of "real policing." By BILL

David Simon is Baltimore's best-known chronicler of life on the hard
streets. He worked for The Baltimore Sun city desk for a dozen years,
wrote "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" (1991) and with former
homicide detective Ed Burns co-wrote "THE CORNER: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF
AN INNER-CITY NEIGHBORHOOD"1 (1997), which Simon adapted into an HBO
miniseries. He is the creator, executive producer and head writer of the
HBO television series "The Wire" (2002-2008). Simon is a member of The
Marshall Project's advisory board. He spoke with Bill Keller on Tuesday.

		"The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood"
		by David Simon and former Boston homicide detective Ed Burns,

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.

Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous
thing. It's a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high
crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse. When I came on, there
were jokes about, "You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue?
You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds
too long." Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie
about when you got into district court.

Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot
of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on
the part of the government. And they basically decided that even that
loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street
level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn't
even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance
that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones.
They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city
Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were
loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think
about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become
truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well

BK: How does race figure into this? It's a city with a black majority
and now a black mayor and black police chief, a substantially black
police force.

DS: What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That's a
line in "Bonfire of the Vanities." When Ed 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. Back then, even before the advent
of cell phones and digital cameras -- which have been transforming in
terms of documenting police violence -- back then, you were much more
vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. 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.

What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social
control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war
footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of
procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over
to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what
are known on the street in the previous generation as 'humbles.' A
humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy
a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can
arrest people on "failure to obey," it's a humble. Loitering is a
humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the '60s
in Baltimore. It's the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn't like
somebody who's looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day,
there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you
knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really
ornate, and I'm not suggesting in any way that the code was always
justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.

In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfucker in the
80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If
the cop came up to clear your corner and you're moving off the corner,
and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfucker, you're
not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played
according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfucker, that's within
the realm of general complaint. But the word "asshole" -- that's how
ornate the code was -- asshole had a personal connotation. You call a
cop an asshole, you're going hard into the wagon in Baltimore. At least
it used to be that way. Who knows if those gradations or nuances have
survived the cumulative brutalities of the drug war. I actually don't
know if anything resembling a code even exists now.

For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in
that list in THAT STORY THE SUN PUBLISHED LAST YEAR2 about municipal
payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent
pattern. There's no code at all, it's just, what side of the bed did I
get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a
function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating
on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees -- and you aren't even managing
to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you've lost
all professional ethos.

		Sun published a breakdown of money awarded to settle claims of
		police brutality, totaling $5.7 million.

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of
police procedure in Baltimore was MARTIN O'MALLEY3. 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. 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. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with
his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in
real policing.

		O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, governor of
		Maryland from 2007 to 2015, and may seek the Democratic
		nomination for president in 2016. "The drug war began it,
		certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure
		in Baltimore was Martin O'Malley."

Originally, early in his tenure, O'Malley brought Ed Norris in as
commissioner and Ed knew his business. He'd been a criminal investigator
and commander in New York and he knew police work. And so, for a time,
real crime suppression and good retroactive investigation was
emphasized, and for the Baltimore department, it was kind of like a fat
man going on a diet. Just leave the French fries on the plate and you
lose the first ten pounds. The initial crime reductions in Baltimore
under O'Malley were legit and O'Malley deserved some credit.

But that wasn't enough. O'Malley needed to show crime reduction stats
that were not only improbable, but unsustainable without manipulation.
And so there were people from City Hall who walked over Norris and made
it clear to the district commanders that crime was going to fall by some
astonishing rates. Eventually, Norris got fed up with the interference
from City Hall and walked, and then more malleable police commissioners
followed, until indeed, the crime rate fell dramatically. On paper.

How? There were two initiatives. First, the department began sweeping
the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass
arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night,
thousands in a month. They actually had police supervisors stationed
with printed forms at the city jail -- forms that said, essentially, you
can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false
arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until
you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed
that form.

My own crew members [on "The Wire"] used to get picked up trying to come
from the set at night. We'd wrap at like one in the morning, and we'd be
in the middle of East Baltimore and they'd start to drive home, they'd
get pulled over. My first assistant director -- Anthony Hemingway --
ended up at city jail. No charge. Driving while black, and then trying
to explain that he had every right to be where he was, and he ended up
on Eager Street. Charges were non-existent, or were dismissed en masse.
Martin O'Malley's logic was pretty basic: If we clear the streets,
they'll stop shooting at each other. We'll lower the murder rate because
there will be no one on the corners.

The city eventually got sued by the ACLU and had to settle, but O'Malley
defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day.
Never mind what it did to your jury pool: now every single person of
color in Baltimore knows the police will lie -- and that's your jury
pool for when you really need them for when you have, say, a felony
murder case. But what it taught the police department was that they
could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause, and the
drug-free zones and the humbles -- the targeting of suspects through
less-than-constitutional procedure. Now, the mass arrests made clear, we
can lock up anybody, we don't have to figure out who's committing
crimes, we don't have to investigate anything, we just gather all the
bodies -- everybody goes to jail. And yet people were scared enough of
crime in those years that O'Malley had his supporters for this policy,
council members and community leaders who thought, They're all just

But they weren't. They were anybody who was slow to clear the sidewalk
or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer
tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew
people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think
I'm exaggerating look it up. It was an amazing performance by the city's
mayor and his administration.

BK: The situation you described has been around for a while. Do you have
a sense of why the Freddie Gray death has been such a catalyst for the
response we've seen in the last 48 hours?

Because the documented litany of police violence is now out in the open.
There's an actual theme here that's being made evident by the digital
revolution. It used to be our word against yours. It used to be said --
correctly -- that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force
was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there
were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that
were between him, you, and the street. The smartphone with its small,
digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.

And if there's still some residual code, if there's still some attempt
at precision in the street-level enforcement, then maybe you duck most
of the outrage. Maybe you're just cutting the procedural corners with
the known players on your post -- assuming you actually know the corner
players, that you know your business as a street cop. But at some point,
when there was no code, no precision, then they didn't know. Why would
they? In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, they weren't policing their
post anymore, they weren't policing real estate that they were
protecting from crime. They weren't nurturing informants, or learning
how to properly investigate anything. There's a real skill set to good
police work. But no, they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting
stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods -- which were indeed
drug-saturated because that's the only industry left -- become just
hunting grounds. They weren't protecting anything. They weren't serving
anyone. They were collecting bodies, treating corner folk and citizens
alike as an Israeli patrol would treat Gaza, or as the Afrikaners would
have treated Soweto back in the day. They're an army of occupation. And
once it's that, then everybody's the enemy. The police aren't looking to
make friends, or informants, or learning how to write clean warrants or
how to testify in court without perjuring themselves unnecessarily.
There's no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There's no
reason to solve crime. In the years they were behaving this way, locking
up the entire world, the clearance rate for murder dove by 30 percent.
The clearance rate for aggravated assault -- every felony arrest rate --
took a significant hit. Think about that. If crime is going down, and
crime is going down, and if we have less murders than ever before and we
have more homicide detectives assigned, and better evidentiary
technologies to employ how is the clearance rate for homicide now 48
percent when it used to be 70 percent, or 75 percent?

BK: Because the drug war made cops lazy and less competent?How do you
reward cops?

Two ways: promotion and cash. That's what rewards a cop. If you want to
pay overtime pay for having police fill the jails with loitering arrests
or simple drug possession or failure to yield, if you want to spend your
municipal treasure rewarding that, well the cop who's going to court 7
or 8 days a month -- and court is always overtime pay -- you're going to
damn near double your salary every month. On the other hand, the guy who
actually goes to his post and investigates who's burglarizing the homes,
at the end of the month maybe he's made one arrest. It may be the right
arrest and one that makes his post safer, but he's going to court one
day and he's out in two hours. So you fail to reward the cop who
actually does police work. But worse, it's time to make new sergeants or
lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who's doing the
most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and
this other guy's only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant? And
then who trains the next generation of cops in how not to do police
work? I've just described for you the culture of the Baltimore police
department amid the deluge of the drug war, where actual investigation
goes unrewarded and where rounding up bodies for street dealing, drug
possession, loitering such -- the easiest and most self-evident arrests a
cop can make -- is nonetheless the path to enlightenment and promotion
and some additional pay. That's what the drug war built, and that's what
Martin O'Malley affirmed when he sent so much of inner city Baltimore
into the police wagons on a regular basis.

The second thing Marty did, in order to be governor, involves the stats
themselves. In the beginning, under Norris, he did get a better brand of
police work and we can credit a legitimate 12 to 15 percent decline in
homicides. Again, that was a restoration of an investigative deterrent
in the early years of that administration. But it wasn't enough to
declare a Baltimore Miracle, by any means.

What can you do? You can't artificially lower the murder rate -- how do
you hide the bodies when it's the state health department that controls
the medical examiner's office? But the other felony categories? Robbery,
aggravated assault, rape? Christ, what they did with that stuff was

BK: So they cooked the books.

Oh yeah. If you hit somebody with a bullet, that had to count. If they
went to the hospital with a bullet in them, it probably had to count as
an aggravated assault. But if someone just took a gun out and emptied
the clip and didn't hit anything or they didn't know if you hit
anything, suddenly that was a common assault or even an unfounded
report. Armed robberies became larcenies if you only had a victim's
description of a gun, but not a recovered weapon. And it only gets worse
as some district commanders began to curry favor with the mayoral aides
who were sitting on the Comstat data. In the Southwest District, a
victim would try to make an armed robbery complaint, saying , 'I just
got robbed, somebody pointed a gun at me,' and what they would do is
tell him, well, okay, we can take the report but the first thing we have
to do is run you through the computer to see if there's any paper on
you. Wait, you're doing a warrant check on me before I can report a
robbery? Oh yeah, we gotta know who you are before we take a complaint.
You and everyone you're living with? What's your address again? You
still want to report that robbery?

They cooked their own books in remarkable ways. Guns disappeared from
reports and armed robberies became larcenies. Deadly weapons were
omitted from reports and aggravated assaults became common assaults. The
Baltimore Sun did a fine job looking into the dramatic drop in rapes in
the city. Turned out that regardless of how insistent the victims were
that they had been raped, the incidents were being quietly unfounded.
That tip of the iceberg was reported, but the rest of it, no. And yet
there were many veteran commanders and supervisors who were disgusted,
who would privately complain about what was happening. If you weren't a
journalist obliged to quote sources and instead, say, someone writing a
fictional television drama, they'd share a beer and let you fill
cocktail napkins with all the ways in which felonies disappeared in
those years.

I mean, think about it. How does the homicide rate decline by 15
percent, while the agg assault rate falls by more than double that rate.
Are all of Baltimore's felons going to gun ranges in the county? Are
they becoming better shots? Have the mortality rates for serious assault
victims in Baltimore, Maryland suddenly doubled? Did they suddenly close
the Hopkins and University emergency rooms and return trauma care to the
dark ages? It makes no sense statistically until you realize that you
can't hide a murder, but you can make an attempted murder disappear in a
heartbeat, no problem.

But these guys weren't satisfied with just juking their own stats. No,
the O'Malley administration also went back to the last year of the
previous mayoralty and performed its own retroactive assessment of those
felony totals, and guess what? It was determined from this special
review that the preceding administration had underreported its own crime
rate, which O'Malley rectified by upgrading a good chunk of misdemeanors
into felonies to fatten up the Baltimore crime rate that he was
inheriting. Get it? How better than to later claim a 30 or 40 percent
reduction in crime than by first juking up your inherited rate as high
as she'll go. It really was that cynical an exercise.

So Martin O'Malley proclaims a Baltimore Miracle and moves to Annapolis.
And tellingly, when his successor as mayor allows a new police
commissioner to finally de-emphasize street sweeps and mass arrests and
instead focus on gun crime, that's when the murder rate really dives.
That's when violence really goes down. When a drug arrest or a street
sweep is suddenly not the standard for police work, when violence itself
is directly addressed, that's when Baltimore makes some progress.

But nothing corrects the legacy of a police department in which the
entire rank-and-file has been rewarded and affirmed for collecting
bodies, for ignoring probable cause, for grabbing anyone they see for
whatever reason. And so, fast forward to Sandtown and the Gilmor Homes,
where Freddie Gray gives some Baltimore police the legal equivalent of
looking at them a second or two too long. He runs, and so when he's
caught he takes an ass-kicking and then goes into the back of a wagon
without so much as a nod to the Fourth Amendment.

BK: So do you see how this ends or how it begins to turn around?

We end the drug war. I know I sound like a broken record, but we end the
fucking drug war. The drug war gives everybody permission to do
anything. It gives cops permission to stop anybody, to go in anyone's
pockets, to manufacture any lie when they get to district court. You sit
in the district court in Baltimore and you hear, 'Your Honor, he was
walking out of the alley and I saw him lift up the glassine bag and tap
it lightly.' No fucking dope fiend in Baltimore has ever walked out of
an alley displaying a glassine bag for all the world to see. But it
keeps happening over and over in the Western District court. The drug
war gives everybody permission. And if it were draconian and we were
fixing anything that would be one thing, but it's draconian and it's a

BK: When you say, end the drug war, you mean basically decriminalize or
stop enforcing?

Medicalize the problem, decriminalize -- I don't need drugs to be
declared legal, but if a Baltimore State's Attorney told all his
assistant state's attorneys today, from this moment on, we are not
signing overtime slips for court pay for possession, for simple
loitering in a drug-free zone, for loitering, for failure to obey, we're
not signing slips for that: Nobody gets paid for that bullshit, go out
and do real police work. If that were to happen, then all at once, the
standards for what constitutes a worthy arrest in Baltimore would
significantly improve. Take away the actual incentive to do bad or
useless police work, which is what the drug war has become.

You didn't ask me about the rough rides, or as I used to hear in the
western district, "the bounce." It used to be reserved -- as I say, when
there was a code to this thing, as flawed as it might have been by
standards of the normative world -- by standards of Baltimore, there was
a code to when you gave the guy the bounce or the rough ride. And it was
this: He fought the police. Two things get your ass kicked faster than
anything: one is making a cop run. If he catches you, you're 18 years
old, you've got fucking Nikes, he's got cop shoes, he's wearing a
utility belt, if you fucking run and he catches you, you're gonna take
some lumps. That's always been part of the code. RODNEY KING4 could've
quoted that much of it to you.

		RODNEY KING4 Rodney King was a taxi driver beaten by Los Angeles
		Police Department officers following a high-speed car chase in
		1991. The beating was caught by a TV camera, and the acquittal
		of the officers involved sparked riots in L.A.

But the other thing that gets you beat is if you fight. So the rough
ride was reserved for the guys who fought the police, who basically made
-- in the cop parlance -- assholes of themselves. And yet, you look at
the sheet for poor Mr. Gray, and you look at the nature of the arrest
and you look at the number of police who made the arrest, you look at
the nature of what they were charging him with -- if anything, because
again there's a complete absence of probable cause -- and you look at
the fact that the guy hasn't got much propensity for serious violence
according to his sheet, and you say, How did this guy get a rough ride?
How did that happen? Is this really the arrest that you were supposed to
make today? And then, if you were supposed to make it, was this the guy
that needed an ass-kicking on the street, or beyond that, a hard ride to
the lockup?

I'm talking in the vernacular of cops, not my own -- but even in the
vernacular of what cops secretly think is fair, this is bullshit, this
is a horror show. There doesn't seem to be much code anymore -- not that
the code was always entirely clean or valid to anyone other than street
cops, and maybe the hardcore corner players, but still it was something
at least

I mean, I know there are still a good many Baltimore cops who know their
jobs and do their jobs some real integrity and even precision. But if
you look at why the city of Baltimore paid that $5.7 million for beating
down people over the last few years, it's clear that there are way too
many others for whom no code exists. Anyone and everyone was a potential
ass-whipping -- even people that were never otherwise charged with any
real crimes. It's astonishing.

By the standard of that long list, Freddie Gray becomes almost plausible
as a victim. He was a street guy. And before he came along, there were
actual working people -- citizens, taxpayers -- who were
indistinguishable from criminal suspects in the eyes of the police who
were beating them down. Again, that's a department that has a diminished
capacity to actually respond to crime or investigate crime, or to even
distinguish innocence or guilt. And that comes from too many officers
who came up in a culture that taught them not the hard job of policing,
but simply how to roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the

          This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ORIGINALLY FILED Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 7:32 a.m. ET

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