I owe BJ commentor Phoebe many thanks for the link to Guernica‘s excellent Bill Moyers interview with David Simon, MacArthur ‘genius grant’ fellow and the man responsible for Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, and Treme. A sampling:
David Simon: One of the themes of The Wire really was that statistics will always lie. Statistics can be made to say anything. You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America: school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, fifty people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-backed securities were actually valuable, and they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning and that they’re solving crime. That was a front-row seat for me as a reporter, getting to figure out how once they got done with them the crime stats actually didn’t represent anything.
Bill Moyers: It’s also clear from your work that you think the drug war has destroyed the police.
David Simon: That’s the saddest thing in a way, again, because the stats mean nothing. Because a drug arrest in Baltimore means nothing. Real police work isn’t being done. In my city, the arrest rates for all major felonies have declined, precipitously, over the last twenty years. From murder to rape to robbery to assault.
Because to solve those crimes requires retroactive investigation. They have to be able to do a lot of things, in terms of gathering evidence, that are substantive and meaningful police work. All you have to do to make a drug arrest is go in a guy’s pocket. You don’t even need probable cause anymore in Baltimore. The guy who solves a rape or a robbery or a murder, he has one arrest stat. He’s going to court one day. The guy who has forty, fifty, sixty drug arrests, even though they’re meaningless arrests, even though there’s no place to put them in the Maryland prison system, he’s going to go to court forty, fifty, sixty times. Ultimately, when it comes time to promote somebody, they look at the police computer. They’ll look and they’ll say, “This guy made forty arrests last month. You only made one. He’s the sergeant” or “That’s the lieutenant.” The guys who basically play the stat game, they get promoted….
The people most affected by this are black and brown and poor. It’s the abandoned inner cores of our urban areas. As we said before, economically, we don’t need those people; the American economy doesn’t need them. So as long as they stay in their ghettos and they only kill each other, we’re willing to pay for a police presence to keep them out of our America. And to let them fight over scraps, which is what the drug war, effectively, is. Since we basically have become a market-based culture, that’s what we know, and it’s what’s led us to this sad denouement. I think we’re going to follow market-based logic right to the bitter end.
Read the whole thing, you will not regret it.