On Wednesday, journalist, author and Emmy-winning television producer David Simon gave a lecture on the main stage at the ‘62 Center on policing and the war on drugs.
Simon is best known for creating HBO’s hit crime drama The Wire. The show looks at the Baltimore narcotics scene through the eyes of both law enforcement and organized crime.
Simon began his career as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun before writing Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, an account of his experiences shadowing the Baltimore Police Department homicide unit in 1988. Simon and co-author Ed Burns later wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a true account of the happenings at a single drug corner in west Baltimore.
Justin Crowe, professor of political science, introduced Simon, and summarized his achievements as an author and showrunner, noting the “cult-like acclaim” of The Wire.
“I think it’s clear we’re in for a lively and robust talk tonight,” Crowe said.
The lecture began with Simon’s scrutiny of the current state of the war on drugs.
“The war on drugs is all of our problems on steroids,” Simon said. “It ruins everything it touches.”
Simon expressed his grievances towards mass incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes, as well as recent failures to jail violent offenders.
“When I started as a police reporter in Baltimore, the clearance rate for felonies was fairly high, about 75 percent,” Simon said. “There’s a pretty good, functional deterrent to people shooting each other in my city.”
Simon said some urban areas, such as Chicago’s south side and southern-central precincts in Los Angeles, now lack that deterent.
“The clearance rate for murder those places right now is about between 25 and 30-percent. We’re not doing any police work anymore,” Simon said. “We’re not locking people up for the ultimate crime, which is to take a firearm or a blunt weapon or knife and take a human life.”
Simon attributes this failure to incarcerate violent offenders to a decrease in the quality of police work. This is the result of too much time spent pursuing drug offenders and incentives that encourage officers to make as many arrests as possible.
“Why would you waste your time as a police officer, working for three, four, five, six weeks to make an arrest in a shooting when you can go on the street, grab three bodies, four bodies a day … for a vial of coke, for a few grams of heroin … and get paid to go to court four times a week?” Simon asked the audience.
Simon elicited murmurs from the audience when he noted the 100,000 arrests made in Baltimore, a city of about 620,000 people, in the last year. He acknowledged that many people might have been repeat offenders.
“We empowered the police not to do police work, but to do the opposite of police work. To chase stats and to clear corners,” Simon said.
Simon recognized globalization as a factor in the war on drugs, and said that when factories closed down in Baltimore, people lost jobs and sought out drug dealing as means of employment.
“All the big grandiose factories that once used to employ thousands and thousands of workers … They’re all somewhere else,” Simon said. “And what remains in neighborhoods like west Baltimore or East Baltimore is one industry that’s always hiring, and that’s the drug trade.”
Simon took time to note the impact of journalism and social media on drug trafficking and incarcerations. Journalists are no longer impressed by “dope on the table.”
“There’s been a lot of good journalism on the drug war. I think the drug war has sort of turned a corner,” he said. “You’ve now seen the critiques against mass incarceration, against over policing of communities.”
Towards the end of the program, Simon took time to answer questions from the audience. Someone asked how Simon would change drug policy in the United States. His response focused on rehabilitation, not punishment.
“I wouldn’t incarcerate anybody for any drug crime that doesn’t involve an overt act of violence,” Simon said. “You want to make any prohibitive industry violent? Raise the stakes for getting caught.”
Simon criticized congress’s decision to remove federal parole with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Instead of incarceration, Simon would choose to focus taxpayer dollars on the recovery of the addicts themselves.
“I would take all that money, and I would heave it at drug treatment. I would heave it at a basic level of employment. Pay people for the most unskilled, semiskilled labor, whatever you have,” Simon said. “We’re going to have a treatment bed for you.”
Simon emphasized that recovering from drug addiction is no easy feat, but is necessary for the recuperation of those affected.
“Most of the guys I know that got off drugs … they did it in their thirties and forties, and it was often the seventh, eighth, ninth time through treatment. Okay, if that’s the efficacy, that’s the efficacy. At least you’re doing less harm.”
This lecture was the first of three in this year’s series called the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum on Inequality.