The best TV show of all time to me is The Wire, a five-season drama about the city of Baltimore and the battles on its streets between the police and the drug dealers. The drama is crisp, the dialogue is authentic and there are no simple answers offered.
The same people who did the Wire have a new show on HBO called We Own this City, a six-part series about corruption in the Baltimore Police Department based on real events. The series follows cops who get indoctrinated into a corrupt system, and many learn that as long as they do the work — get drug and gun seizures to stack on a table to show the world — they can get away with whatever they want, including making illegal arrests, robbing drug dealers of their money, and sometimes confiscating their drugs only to resell them, and abusing overtime by putting in for hours not worked. Theirs is a nasty job and they reward themselves lucratively, and while they put some bad guys away, there is a hell of a lot of collateral damage to citizens who get their rights trampled and lives destroyed. In the end, the courts have a hard time impaneling juries because few in the city trust the cops.
The series makes a compelling argument for ending the war on drugs. In the last episodes, a civil rights lawyer who, along with others, has been investigating corruption in the department and who has been charged with writing a judicial consent decree to force the city of Baltimore to improve its policing, has two conversations with a retired police officer, who now teaches law. The ex-officer, played by Treat Williams, tells her how it is:
“Waging a war against citizens by definition is separating us into two opposing camps...
“With a war comes police militarization. SWAT teams, tactical squads, stop-and-frisk, strip searches, a complete gutting of the fourth amendment. It’s like we’re fighting terrorists on foreign soil. And you can’t just blame the cops. We serve the politicians, who thrive on being tough on crime. Zero tolerance. Quality of life arrests. Having a beer on your own stoop Loitering, spitting on the sidewalk, existing. Existing…
“In 2005, they made 100,000 arrests, most of them black, most of them poor, That’s almost one arrest for every six Baltimoreans in one year. They jacked up people six, seven times, maybe 12 times, And many of those arrests were illegal, never made it to court, but they got their stats…I come off as angry sometimes, aren’t you angry?
Later he tells her, “Political will always falters where real money gets used to solve real problems.
“What is the justice department unwilling to admit? What are the police trying to do?
“(Arrest everyone) But why? What’s the mission? The drug war.
“In a war, you need warriors. In a war, you have enemies. In a war civilians get hurt and nobody does anything. In a war you count the bodies, and then you call them victories.“
Then he challenges her: “Is the justice department or even the office of Civil Rights ready to declare that we long ago lost this war? That we’ve achieved nothing but full prisons, and routine brutality, and a complete collapse of trust. Between police departments and their cities?
“I fought this war and I was good at it, but it was lost when I got there and I did nothing but lose in my time, and the guys who are out there right now, they all know it’s lost, on the street they all know it’s lost. Are you people ready to say that out loud? Is anybody?“
The woman lawyer, who is the moral center of the series, a black woman who has had family members victimized by racial profiling, and who has held herself up above the corrupt cops and above the drug dealers, is shaken by his words. The real culprit is the very department she works for. When she goes back to her bosses to question their approach, this is the reply she gets:
“We do what we can, we address what we can, but even in the Office of Civil Rights, as high-minded as we think ourselves to be, is still a part of the justice department. And at this point federal drugs laws are what they are. You don’t think we’ve had these same conversations all the way to the top?”
Recently I stood up in front of a panel that included the Governor of Connecticut (he left before I spoke) a U.S. Senator, a U.S. Representative, the mayor of Hartford, and two high ranking federal officials involved in the drug war. I told them we needed to think about decriminalization, safe supply and safe injection sites. I told them we needed new approaches because the war on drugs has been a failure. Their eyes glaze over. They were respectful to my views to me, but I knew they thought what I was advocating just wouldn’t fly. Even if they believed what I said was true, I was naïve to think these things could be accomplished in today’s political climate.
I know where they are coming from. If they appear soft on crime, they may get voted out and then even harder asses will get voted in and the situation will get way worse.
But it’s hard to stand there and accept that. Politicians say what they can to get elected and then do what they think is right to the extent they can be successful at it without jeopardizing their re-election chances. They know getting elected does not give them a magic wand that enables them to say “Make it be so.”
They don’t trust Americans with the vote. I can see their side of it.
They may be good politicians, but they are not generational leaders. Until that changes, the war on drugs will continue with casualties on all sides. The death toll will continue to mount. No end in sight.
The hotel housekeeper lets me in the door. A young woman is on the made bed cold and stiff, a foam cone on her mouth, not uncommon in opioid overdoses. There is no ID, no drugs, no sign of anyone else. Whoever was there before cleaned the scene and left. The drug laws didn’t keep her from using, didn’t keep the drugs that killed her off the street. Didn’t stop someone from selling them to her. All the times I’ve seen police cars, lights whirling, and undercover cops in bullet proof vests standing over handcuffed suspects did not prevent her death. All the photos in the papers of drugs, guns and money lined up on tables have made no dent. The drugs are cheap and more plentiful than they have ever been. And with fentanyl’s complete replacement of heroin, far more dangerous than ever. I don’t know the young woman’s origin story. Was she abused as a child? Was she injured in an accident? Did a partner pressure her to use with him? I don’t know. Was it her first time using or more likely the end of years of use judging from her dead face and arms? I am pretty certain she didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become an opioid addict. I’m pretty sure a day didn’t go by that she didn’t wish for a different life trajectory, a trajectory that has ended here in this hotel room, in a hotel where I have called the time on others before her and will no doubt be here again on the same grim task.
Hear the drumming.