x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Wire is still attracting ire

The Wire's creator David Simon is involved in a war of words with the police commissioner of Baltimore, where the series was set

David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, maintains television is not to blame for Baltimore city’s poor profile.
David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, maintains television is not to blame for Baltimore city’s poor profile.

They say all publicity is good publicity, but is that really the case? Frederick H Bealefeld III, police commissioner of the US city of Baltimore, certainly doesn't think so.

He claimed this month that the HBO show The Wire, which ended in 2008, created a "smear on this city that will take decades to overcome". The gritty drama depicted not only Baltimore's police service as rife with bureaucracy and corruption, but also its political and school systems. Now, the Peabody Award-winning series' creator, David Simon, has hit back, claiming The Wire "owes no apologies".

Bealefeld, who became commissioner in 2007, lashed out at the makers of the much-revered drama at a public event earlier this month and said that The Wire differs crucially from cop shows set in other cities.

"You know what Miami gets in their crime show? They get detectives that look like models, and they drive around in sports cars," he said.

"You know what New York gets? They get these incredibly tough prosecutors, competent cops that solve the most crazy, complicated cases."

But on The Wire, Bealefeld said, "what Baltimore gets is this reinforced notion that it's a city full of hopelessness, despair and dysfunction. There was very little effort... to highlight the great and wonderful things happening here, and to indict the whole population, the criminal justice system, the school system."

The show, which boasted a huge cast, including Dominic West and Michael K Williams, focused primarily on the social ills that developed as a result of the city's illegal drugs trade. As well as struggling to cope with an appalling murder rate, police officers were shown stuffing wads of confiscated money into their pockets and manipulating crime statistics by downgrading offences. What's more, those officers with ambitious plans to break criminal networks using surveillance were invariably thwarted because of budgetary and manpower shortages.

Simon, who worked as crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun for more than a decade, wrote much of the series alongside Ed Burns, a former police detective (under Bealefeld) who also worked as a public school teacher in the city. Both men drew from personal experience when conceiving the storyline.

In 2010, murder levels in the city dropped to their lowest since the late 1980s, before the crack cocaine epidemic hit its streets. But the lower crime rate has been mirrored in a number of US cities, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and Baltimore's murder rate still remains six times the US national average.

In a letter published in the Sun last week, Simon accepted that crime had fallen in the city and suggested this was because its police force had "finally chosen to emphasise the quality, rather than the quantity of arrests". But even his praise was barbed: "It is a long time coming. Too long, in fact."

He went on to blame an "institutional dynamic" that led "big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern."

Less than three years after the show left the airwaves, The Wire is now considered worthy of academic study, with professors at Harvard, Berkeley, Duke and Middlebury universities now offering courses on the show. There has also been a wealth of essays and journals dedicated to it. But Bealefeld hit out at the show's status as essential viewing for those learning about crime and social issues in contemporary America.

"Now it's all de rigueur in college universities to study The Wire. I'd rather they studied Family Guy. If [the show's creators] want to examine our country and what at the core drives us, I don't think you smear an entire city to make your point."

Simon responded that "it is not 60 hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome", as the commissioner claimed. "A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility."

But Bealefeld is not the first in a position of power to attack The Wire. The former mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, publicly criticised it for being "overly negative" - before ironically being indicted for charges that included theft and misconduct in office. In 2005, The New York Times reported that a Queens drug ring "honed their trade and learned to evade arrest" by watching the ultra-realistic show.