Radley Balko at Reasononline has a terrific, in-depth interview with Ed Burns, a Baltimore police officer for 20 yars, and former school teacher who, famously, is one of the co-producers of The Wire. (He was also a co-author of the book, The Corner, a detailed ethnography of drug addiction in West Baltimore.) Here are some thoughts on the war on drugs, on the "stop snitchin' " movement, and on community-oriented policing.
Take just the term “war on drugs.” I mean, they’re not warring on drugs. They’re warring on drug addicts and the users and the small-time dealers. They’re warring on neighborhoods. They’re warring on people who can’t stand up to them. They’re not warring on major dealers.
You can follow it in any city, I don’t care how small it is or how big it is. If the paper is pretty avid about covering who’s getting locked up, you’ll notice that they’re not getting the big guys. They’re not getting the big stakeholders.
reason: What do you make of the "Stop Snitchin'" movement, the street campaign that discourages people from cooperating with police, which seems to have started in Baltimore?
Burns: Well, again, it’s something that’s incidental. It’s a symptom. If the police were connected, if the police were actively involved with the people in the neighborhood, the amount of information they would be getting would be so great that the whole idea of snitching wouldn’t be important. When I was a cop, having informants was a rare thing. They were looked down upon. I had sometimes as many as 50 guys working for me. I didn’t have to go out on the street. I could sit by the phone and just wait for the information to come. But you got that by being decent to people, working with them, helping them out on their little charges, stuff like that. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money comes out of your pocket to keep them happy and cooperative, but the amount of information you get back is profound.
Cops aren’t taught to do that anymore because today it’s all about numbers. You can get a number by just going up on the corner and grabbing somebody and getting a bag off of him. That’s the easy thing. If taking a guy in for drinking a beer on the street is a “1,” and catching the kingpin is a “1,” well, it takes two minutes to catch the guy with the beer can. It could take you two years to catch the kingpin. If numbers is all the department cares about, then the guy who pursues the kingpin is wasting his time.
And it is all about numbers. It’s how they talk, how they rate themselves. The fact that the murder rate in Baltimore stays constantly above the norm would be seem to be an indication that maybe they should try something different. But they’re bankrupt. They don’t have any idea what they need to do because they’re separated from the people. They’re not of the people. You’re policing as an army of occupation, not as police in the community. And that just doesn’t work.
reason: Is there any concrete policy you can think of that would lead to the more community oriented style of policing you’ve described?Sphere: Related Content
Burns: You would have to change the nature of the institution. You’d have to stop making it a numbers game. Now, how do you do that with people who've been inculcated with this idea that it’s all about numbers? These guys have got computers, they've got charts, they’ve got all this kind of stuff, and it all revolves around locking people up. Clearly, that’s not the way to go. But it's how they sell themselves to politicians, and how they sell themselves to these community relation groups. This stuff is about locking people up.
The police should be focused on the most serious crimes, and in Baltimore the most serious crimes are murder, rape, and robbery. So you try to diffuse the other stuff, but you have to start putting your resources into those. Because if a person kills someone in the neighborhood, the neighborhood knows who did it. If the police don’t catch that person, and that guy’s walking around having beaten a murder, all the police credibility goes out the window.
It’s the same thing if you go up on the corner and you roust an addict while the guy sitting across from the addict has a gun. Everybody in the neighborhood knows he’s got the gun because he’s the bodyguard. And you don’t grab him. The people are thinking, well, maybe the dude is paying the police off. Why else would they grab the harmless addict but not the guy with the gun? Again, the problem is that the police are operating without information, and playing to the numbers. If I’m locking you up for petty stuff, you’re not going to be telling me shit. If I’m locking you up two and three times a month, you’re especially not going to tell me anything.
So how do you change all of this? You change the numbers game. You require police to reconnect with the people, and you start focusing everybody on the major crimes, the ones that make living very, very difficult—murder, rape, and robbery.