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David Simon Talks About Where the Baltimore Police Went Wrong

"...even in the vernacular of what cops secretly think is fair, this is bullshit, this is a horror show."

This story was co-published with the Marshall Project.

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 (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), and a member of The Marshall Project's advisory board. He spoke with Bill Keller on Tuesday.

Bill Keller: 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?
David Simon: 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.

I know I sound like a broken record, but we end the fucking drug war.

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 wanted.

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.
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.

My own crew members [on The Wire] used to get picked up trying to come from the set at night.

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 year 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.

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was [former Mayor and Maryland Governor] 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. 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.

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 [location of the notorious Baltimore City Detention Center]. 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 thugs.

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.

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.

They cooked their own books in remarkable ways. Guns disappeared from reports and armed robberies became larcenies.

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?

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 seven or eight 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 jaw-dropping.

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?

Two things get your ass kicked faster than anything: one is making a cop run.

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.

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 disaster.

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 King could've quoted that much of it to you.

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 with 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 wagon.

This interview was conducted by Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the US criminal justice system. Keller worked for the New York Times from 1984 to 2014 as a correspondent, editor, and op-ed columnist. From July 2003 until September 2011, he was the executive editor of the Times. You can sign-up for the Marshall Project's newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.