'The Wire' Creator on Freddie Gray's Death: The Drug War Turned Baltimore Police Into an Occupying Army

News & Politics

The death of Freddie Gray is another example of the corrupting influence of the drug war on police work, according to “The Wire” creator David Simon.

“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,” Simon told The Marshall Project.

The former newspaper beat reporter said Baltimore police officers became essentially an occupying army in their own city as draconian drug policies encouraged them to make arrests instead of serve and protect their community.

“In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, they weren’t policing their post anymore, they weren’t policing real estate that they were protecting from crime,” said Simon, who watched the transition take place in the 1980s.

“They weren’t nurturing informants, or learning how to properly investigate anything,” he continued. “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.”

He compared the situation to Israeli patrols in Gaza or Afrikaners in apartheid-era Soweto – a dehumanizing situation where everyone is 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,” Simon said. “There’s no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There’s no reason to solve crime.”

He blamed former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley – a likely Democratic presidential candidate – for pursuing unfair arrest policies in an ultimately successful effort to become Maryland governor.

“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,” Simon said. “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.”

Even so, Simon said he would probably vote for O’Malley for his stance on issues such as gay rights and the death penalty.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but we (have to) end the f*cking drug war,” he said. “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.”

He recommended making the drug problem a medical issue, not a criminal one – and he said real change could happen now, if a Baltimore state’s attorney told his assistants he would no longer authorize overtime pay for officers who take minor drug offenses to court.

“Nobody gets paid for that bullsh*t — go out and do real police work,” Simon said. “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.”

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