Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The One Thing You Should Read About Baltimore

As you know, HBO's series The Wire takes place in Baltimore because it's creator - David Simon - lives there. Today Bill Keller at The Marshall Project interviewed Simon. It's a tough read. Simon is as eloquent as always, but it's a depressing story. My takeaway from it is that - if anything - he went easy on Baltimore's mayor and police department in the television series. Here's a taste just to get you started:
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.
It has been widely known for a long time now that the mayor depicted in The Wire was loosely based on Martin O'Malley - who is now running for president. I was initially interested in his candidacy, but became concerned when this former DLC member suddenly started basing his campaign on running to "the left of Hillary Clinton" and criticizing the work of President Obama. Something just didn't feel right about all that.

O'Malley comes in for quite the skewering by Simon, even though he says that he will vote for him if he's the Democratic candidate. Simon goes into a lot of depth about the former mayor, but here's the introduction.
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...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.
I'm fine with everyone making up their own mind about O'Malley, but that line I bolded answered the question for me about why I've been having a hard time supporting him. I don't mind people having ambitions for higher office. That is expected. It becomes a problem for me when they do stupid stuff with no regard for the consequences in order to fulfill those ambitions.

A lot of Democrats made some awful decisions in the 80's and 90's when it comes to law enforcement and the criminal justice system (including folks like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden). We have to reckon with those mistakes as part of the problem Simon describes so powerfully in this interview. The injustices were certainly there before, but much of what was done made the situation a whole lot worse.

And so I am reminded of something President Obama said recently:
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
We've got some work to do, folks.


  1. Well, if he wants to stay to the left of Hillary, given the statements made by her today, then he'll have to evolve on this topic. Let's hope he listens to smart people and adapts.

  2. I just hope Hillary doesn't pick him for the Veep slot.