‘The Wire’s’ David Simon on the drug war and why he hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’

It’s impossible to talk about the depictions of police officers in popular culture without considering David Simon. Simon’s books “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and “The Corner,” written with Ed Burns, and their television adaptations, told groundbreaking stories about policing and the drug war. And “The Wire,” his masterful drama about decaying Baltimore institutions, was one of the most remarkable shows of the Golden Age of Television, casting a long shadow over every cop story that’s followed it.

In September, I went to New York to interview Simon on the set of “The Deuce,” his new show for HBO about the rise of the legal pornography industry. We spoke for two hours. This outtake of our conversation, and the video excerpts from it, have been edited for length and clarity.

(Oliver Munday For The Washington Post)

I wanted to start by asking you a craft question, because you’ve told stories about the police in a couple of different mediums, and I was wondering how you arrived at the voice for “Homicide” and later for “The Corner” and the TV adaptations [of both books].

I didn’t arrive at that. That really was the voice that I’d heard for years. You’ve got to remember, I was a police reporter, I started doing cop shifts for the Sun in the summer of ’83, and I didn’t go into the unit until ’85. And one of the daily stops that you made was the Homicide unit.

Back then, the general order was you could talk to any cop. And there was no reason that you had to go through the [public information office]. So you used to go up to the Homicide unit. And these guys, you needed to deal with them because it was a city with 250 murders a year, if you were the police reporter, and you were working the 4-to-12 shift, you needed to have them give you some synthesis of their case work, if they caught a murder. … I used to go up on Christmas and bring them all a couple bottles of scotch and thank them for, like, taking my calls all year long. “Hi, this is Simon from the Sun. Anything going on now? Okay, thanks, call you back in two hours.” Because you didn’t want to get beat. You didn’t want to get beat by the 11 o’clock news, or by the evening papers the next day. …

Whenever police were portrayed, particularly in film and television, particularly in television, they were not only unequivocally heroic, not really honorable or functional, or competent, but they cared. They cared. You know the greatest lie, the thing I never saw happen at any crime scene in Baltimore when I was out there following them, or reporting on stuff, the thing I never saw in their demeanor in the squad room, which I encountered a lot of, was these sort of, um, “Oh, my God, what a waste, what a human tragedy.” Why would they? It’s complete [b——-]. That’s no negative reflection on them. They have the same demeanor as an emergency room nurse, or a physician, or a mortician or anybody who’s dealing with death, where death is the currency. … You pick up the phone, you expect to acquire moments where you’re clinically and chronically engaged with death. …

In fact, the only time I saw [that kind of emotion while reporting “Homicide"] … was the case [of] the young girl, Latonya Wallace, the rape-murder. … There was some distance. I don’t know if it was racial, or just the distance that cops acquire, but there was a moment where [a cop] was theorizing about the case, he had his feet up in the office, and he was talking, looking at the case file and talking to Jay Landsman [one of the detective squadleaders who was a major subject of the book] — I think it was Jay Landsman — and he said, “And so what I’m thinking is this broad.” And he said “this broad.” … It hit my ears, because she’s 12 or 11, I can’t remember. But there was this moment of like, “Yeah, that’s distance.”

But I’d gotten used to that. I knew that going in from four years of police reporting. So I knew I was going into not a world of “murder is an extraordinary act.” I was going into the assembly line of urban violence, which is, “We do this two out of every three nights, and it’s not a big deal.”

What was the reaction to [the first Simon episode wrote for television, an installment of “Homicide" starring Robin Williams, which deals with that distance] like, if you got any?

I was still at my newspaper, so it got good reviews, and they asked us if we wanted to write some more. It won the WGA award, so [Simon’s co-writer, former Washington Post writer] David [Mills] immediately left The Post and went to work for, I think, “Picket Fences,” he got a job on it, and then he moved from there to “NYPD Blue.”

But I didn’t take it seriously, because to me it was kind of a lark, I wasn’t trying to write television. … [After Simon turned down an opportunity to write the pilot for “Homicide: Life on the Street"] I said, “It’s interesting, maybe I’ll learn a new skill set. I’ll certainly be interested in seeing how you guys do this. When you have several scripts together, show them to me, and if you want to give me one then I’ll try to do it.”

And then when they showed me a couple of the beat sheets and a couple of the scripts, for the existing ones, I called David, because he was always the one at the Diamondback at the University of Maryland who, we would have to stop putting out his pages at night when “Hill Street Blues” or “St. Elsewhere” were on. He made me watch a couple of episodes, and it was like, it’s really smart, much smarter than I remembered television. I understood it to be a narrative leap forward, what [Mary Tyler Moore Productions] had done with those. But it wasn’t my milieu. I was a newspaperman. …

It sounds like as you were learning to write for TV, you didn’t necessarily have to make a huge number of compromises in terms of tone or submitting to TV cliche, which must have been really nice.

Yeah, I mean, I think I was a little bit insulated by Tom [Fontana, who adapted “Homicide" for TV]. Nobody was really paying attention, or if they were, if the network was, he would know about it, he would know if they were trying to fight him on that stuff. I mean, they bought the book, and the book had at least transmitted some of the tone of the detectives. …

Even seeing them walk around, and I actually went out that night, that was the first scene they shot, I think it was. I was like, oh, they’re making a TV show of my book, in my town, I’ll take a lunch hour, I’ll go out and watch. So I watched them film a little of that, and I was pleased to hear, like … they’re not even really talking about the murder they’re on, they’re talking [b——-] to each other in the alley. And having spent a year of standing around talking about [b——-], everything from the Oriole game to someone who’s getting a divorce to where we going to eat tonight, it felt very quotidian and real to me. …

That was one thing I was curious about, whether you had watched cop shows growing up, whether you’d read cop novels at all. 

I did. I read a lot of nonfiction cop books when I went to write “Homicide” because I needed to know what was on the market to sell. And there were a few that had been out there recently. And they all had an earnestness that was the limited POV of somebody who’d spent a week or a month with a unit, or a detective or a squad. There was a lot of that, because — they’re giving an Oscar to Frederick Wiseman right now. Frederick Wiseman, like, watching some of his movies when I was just out of college, I think, or just in college, I became a little bit of a fan of his. I remember I saw some of them in College Park in Maryland, they showed a little mini film festival. He doesn’t put film in the camera for the first few months, did you know that about him?

I didn’t. That’s interesting. … So folks get used to the camera.

Right! Which, of course, I watched like an episode of “Cops,” and I’m like, this is [b——-]! They’re all performing! I can tell they’re performing. They’re performing. “Hey, the documentary crew is going out with us tonight. You want to let them ride with you? Yeah, let them ride with me.” You know. … When I got into the Homicide unit, if somebody really wanted me to follow them, it’s like, yeah, it’s okay if you’re welcoming. But if you’re really trying to guide me to the interior of what you think about the world, there’s something wrong here.

Donald Worden [one of the detectives Simon profiled for “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"], he just kept calling me a piece of [s—] for the first two weeks, and then finally I went out drinking with him, and he was like, “You’re still a piece of [s—].” And I was like, “Okay, Donald, can I go out with you tomorrow?” “Yeah, alright, fine.” … He’s barely performing. To the extent that he was performing, he was being overly nasty.

We’ve been talking a little bit about what you saw as the difference between TV and what you saw reporting, and in “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” there are a couple of sections about how people react, how people think they’re supposed to react when they’re shot, or what juries want to see.

I was just explaining that to a stunt guy for a scene we have coming up. I’m like, “No, no, no, people don’t fall down because bullets hit them.”

Did [the cops you covered] resent the impact [pop culture had] on juries at all?

I started hearing that with “CSI.” “CSI,” they thought, was a little bit of a mini-disaster in terms of the cultural iconography of science, which it’s not as if science doesn’t exist, and science certainly has made more of an impression since I wrote the book. … To this day, I’m pretty convinced [the obsession with DNA evidence is] all [b——-]. Not that it’s not evidence. It is. The way you solve murders is you go down to the street and you talk to everybody. And you jack up the right people, and you bring the right people back, and you talk to them further, and you try to leverage people into telling you a little more truth than they want to, and then with what you have, then you go out and you see if you can corroborate. If you did a good crime scene, if you recovered what you recovered, then once you developed a suspect, all of the science may be corroborative. …

Re-reading “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” watching “The Wire” before coming up here, one thing I noticed … [is] the pushback against the idea that police work is about car chases and gunfights and taking doors.

The only police shootings we had were [f—]-up.

I wanted to ask you whether there was sort of a rule about gun use on the show. Were there defined conditions under which the characters would even unholster their weapons, just as like a writing guide?

There were, there were, I think, in our heads. And at a certain point, story ideas would come up and we’d say, “Nah, I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to validate that.” And we would have these moments where we would realize that we were trying not to validate certain things that were already in play, even a decade ago.

The drug war was destroying police work. It was making it so doing street-level drug enforcement was becoming the skill set, and solving crime was falling by the wayside. And you could see it in the clearance rates for all felonies in Baltimore, and you could see it in the skill set of the police officers and their ability to make cases, and the conviction rate, the clearance rate, everything was vulnerable suddenly. Not suddenly. Over time. Because what happens is, a police department’s only as strong as its sergeants and lieutenants. Those are the guys who train the next generation. You’re a patrolman now, I’m going to show you how we do this job. When those guys have been promoted because they’ve just made a bunch of [f——] drug arrests, and they couldn’t testify in court without perjuring themselves, and they don’t know how to use an informant, they don’t know how to build a case file, then you have sort of the weak sisters are training weaker sisters in a job that actually requires an incredible amount of skills. Ed Burns could see that, and I could see that. …

Maybe I’m blind to some things. But, like, Black Lives Matter is right about certain things, and wrong about certain things. Their understanding of police work is skewed by their sense of legitimate outrage, coupled with, sort of, a half-aware perspective of what police work has to be. And the police are utterly blind to the legitimacy, a lot of them are blind to the legitimacy of what is the revelation in this. …

This is a horror show because we are a heavily armed society that has lost control of just, we have no sense of gun control, and because the militarization of police surrounding the drug war has made an us-against-them mentality. You see the fear on cops, the one with the woman sitting in the car next to the guy. He shouldn’t be a police officer. Or you see the contempt that leads to an illegitimate shooting. Ferguson is the worst traffic stop in the history of police work.

We’ve talked some about the drug war as policy, but I was wondering if you thought there was sort of a feedback loop between the drug war and Hollywood.

Yes. We loved that [s—] for too long, yeah. We loved that [s—] for too long. …

On a less-metaphorical level, though, it seems like the drug war and Hollywood’s needs for increasing stakes in police stories kind of locked onto each other and it gave Hollywood police stories a way to keep pace with science fiction.

And it was the organized crime of the city. And you’ve got to remember, gangsterism has always been a great trope, going back to Paul Muni and Jimmy Cagney. The idea of sort of kingpinism and crime lords has always had an incredible allure, and is its own genre. So, and the tyranny of that, and the scene it exploited have always been a trope for Hollywood. Listen, the later generations of Westerns. The idea of the corrupt culture that has to be mowed down en masse. Great films, “The Wild Bunch,” or “Once Upon A Time in the West.” But the gangster, they’re borrowing from the idea of the bad gang that needs to be wiped out. …

“Scarface” had a huge amount to do with this, the remake of “Scarface” that was so hyperbolic about Miami and “Miami Vice” and all that stuff. But, like, there was an element of truth in it. Ed Burns did wiretap cases, the case he did on Warren Boardley, there were 14 shootings and seven murders, 21 acts of violence in a single summer in ’86 in one high-rise project. “The Wire” wasn’t being hyperbolic about that. But not every drug dealer was that violent. And certainly the vast majority of people were caught up in addiction, not violent at all.

And the reason that level of violence, and that level of gangsterism was achieved, in some ways, has its origins in the stakes that we placed on narcotics trafficking. For every action there’s a reaction. Which is to say, if you can go to jail for 30 years if you’re caught with weight, then you’re going to kill any witnesses that can ruin your life. You mean I’m not going to get four years, I’m not going to get five years, I’m going to get 30 years federal and you’ve eliminated parole? With good time, it’s really 24 years. I don’t want spend 24 years in prison. Let me kill every witness I can before they testify. You mean if I’m caught, I’m getting 10 years because it’s my third time? Okay. Here’s a 12-year-old. He’s only getting a juvenile charge. The reason the juveniles were brought into the narcotics trade to work the corners was they were not exposed to the same level of risk. …

Yeah, it’s, I don’t know if you’ve heard the Lee Brown maxim, we preach service and hire adventurers, but one thing I’ve heard is that a lot of training and recruitment videos have become very influenced by ’80s action movies. And there are some efforts to pull that back.

I mean, the best cops I knew didn’t gravitate to that. But every cop I knew who had survived in the department and was a good cop had done street work. And here’s the other thing about the drug war that nobody wants to acknowledge. Which is that if you’re going to be adversarial with an economy, with an entire economy, that is the only economic engine left in some of these communities, so it’s always hiring, and the corners are always hiring, and you’re going to drive out to the corner and you’re not just saying stop dealing drugs here in some moralistic way that you or I would recognize as being a moral imperative, stop selling drugs.

You’re literally saying shop is closed. Think about that. Please shut the factory down. Everybody stop making money, everyone stop doing the only job that you were ever trained for. Stop right now, because I’m taking this corner back. Cop gets out of his car. And he says I’m taking the corner, the corner is indicted, I’m taking it back. If you were going to work a one-man radio car in Baltimore, you were going to have to get out of your radio car and do that.

And if you were going to have to get out of your car to do that, eventually, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the third day you go up on the corner, somebody on that corner is saying “[F—] you. [F—] you, [m———–]. I ain’t moving.” He’s going to be clean that moment, he’s not selling drugs, he’s walking through. But he’s just said it in front of the whole corner. And here’s the truth about policing. If you get back in your car and drive away and leave him and everybody else in that corner, you’ve lost control of your post. You are done. …

Ding your job … at some point, you’re going to be down to, “You’re loitering, I told you to leave 10 minutes ago, get up against the wall.” “[F—] you.” Now you’re fighting. Now you’re fighting. … Even cops I respect, who came up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. If you had a reputation in the squad as “He won’t fight” or “He won’t get out of the car.” Everybody has to fight, and we can’t lose. Because if you lose then the next three guys on the post, we lose the post. So if the midnight guy’s weak, and you’re going to come on at nine, they’re going to try you now, because he let them have the corners. And that’s like a war. So if you want to fight a drug prohibition, then that’s the battlefield, and understand there’s got to be a moment where your troops are going to come up against the other guys. And that it’s going to be absolutely adversarial because you’ve made it a war. …

You haven’t just declared war on one or two or three drug dealers. Forty percent of the neighborhood households, in the neighborhood, maybe 60 percent, we sort of lost track for a while, you could go house by house. This one’s son, this one’s father. It was like telling people not to make steel in Dundalk [Maryland] or in Birmingham, Alabama. Don’t go to work for the steel factory in Birmingham. Don’t be in the steel industry. That’s literally what it was telling people to do in the drug war, in neighborhoods like, in some of the neighborhoods in Baltimore. It was the only factory still open.

So you want to declare war against that, then you’re going to come down to this moment of you and me on a corner, I say the corner’s mine, you don’t want to give it up, or you’re just tired of being shoved around, or it was just your time to call me a [m———–] because I locked you up two weeks ago and you’re still pissed about that or whatever. I guess what I’m saying is there is no act of policing, there is no category of policing, even good policing, in that environment that isn’t at some point violent. …

I want to sort of close with a philosophical question. Obviously “The Wire” gets an enormous amount of praise for accuracy and authenticity, both factually and spiritually. And there’s a lot of value in accuracy for accuracy’s sake. But do you think there were things you could do or say because you had the credibility that came from being accurate about police work? Were there arguments you could make about the drug war, or other Baltimore institutions that you could say and be heard because you got the basics of the work right?

I thought we could critique the drug war negatively if we respected the tenets of good police work. ….

At the same time, if you made the drug dealers human, and you gave them all the practicality of human beings and all the idiosyncrasy of real people, you could take the onus off of selling drugs. Which is certainly a negative thing and a destructive thing to the community, but it’s not the work of, it’s not necessarily the work of a uniform brand of sociopath who all need to go to jail. …

You can’t see the barbed wire around West Baltimore, but it’s there, socioeconomically, it’s there and it’s been there for generations. So, like, you know, everybody had to be human. I had to care about every character right down to … drug dealers …

I had nothing but contempt for “Law & Order,” because the criminals were all just chow. They were just there to lie to the police and then either get away or not get away. But they were held in contempt and the only good point of view was the police point of view or the prosecutor point of view. … This is the thing that I can’t forgive them for, and it bothered me when we were doing the crossovers on “Homicide,” I was in a room with Dick Wolf and I wanted to yell at him.

You would look at the actual racial breakdown of, like, murder victims in New York. And it’s black and brown people. White people don’t die very much in New York. But in this show, they would have more murders than they were actually having in the borough of Manhattan, which was the most moneyed borough. And nobody was black or brown. They were all, like, rich white people who were, as my wife would say, little girl panty cases. It was all degenerate, like, he was sleeping with so-and-so, he was trying to hide this secret and we found out this. And it was always, nobody got shot for [f——] standing in the wrong bus stop and getting jacked because they were riding the bus and it was 4 in the morning and there was nobody around and they got jacked. That’s a real murder victim. …

That’s the other thing it felt like I could do. It felt like, I’m doing Baltimore, and I know that 92 percent of my victims are black, and I know that 90 percent of my shooters are black. … I’m not saying black people are more violent or more pathological. I’m saying the drug trade is in the most desperate and abandoned parts of our culture, and this is a story about our war against that, and it’s about the people who are actually occupying that strata of society. … And we got a little of that from the black community, like, why do all the drug dealers have to be black? Because in West Baltimore, they are, and because the street trade is all in black communities. Why is that? Because that’s where the poverty is, and that’s where they can put it, and that’s where it all got pushed to. When everybody else asserts their economic imperative and says not in my neighborhood. It ends up in the poorest places in America.

photo ‘The Wire’s’ David Simon on the drug war and why he hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’ images

photo of ‘The Wire’s’ David Simon on the drug war and why he hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’

Article ‘The Wire’s’ David Simon on the drug war and why he hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’ compiled by Original article here

Relax ‘The Wire’s’ David Simon on the drug war and why he hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’ stories

More stories