How come people are obsessed with stories about police work and law enforcement? Isn’t the crime rate actually falling?

I believe that the main reason that people are obsessed with stories about police work and law enforcement is because they trust in the fact that the media acts as the 4th estate, playing the role of watchdog over government, police, and judicial matters.  They want to have faith that the press are doing their job and protecting everyday citizens from injustice, police brutality, and high crime rates.  Since the 1970’s following the Watergate scandal, the public eye has looked towards journalism entirely differently.  While sensationalist journalism still remains omnipresent in our materialistic and fleeting society, a lot more respect has been given to investigative journalists and their role as protectors of public justice and civil rights and liberties.  As Time Magazine reports, crime rate has indeed been falling since in the last 40 years:  “Then, a breakthrough. Crime rates started falling. Apart from a few bumps and plateaus, they continued to drop through boom times and recessions, through peace and war, under Democrats and Republicans. Last year’s murder rate may be the lowest since the mid-1960s, according to preliminary statistics released by the Department of Justice” (  Time‘s article continues on to explain that the reasoning for such a dramatic drop in crime statistics has to do with a mix of factors.  Namely, the increasing number of cops on the street combined with the highest ever number of Americans in state and federal prisons are believed to be among the main causes for such an unexpected drop.  However, despite the falling crime rates since the 1970’s and 80’s, obsession with stories surrounding police work and law enforcement continues to pervade our society, which I believe has a lot to do with the often unavoidable mass media entertainment revolving around police stories, court hearings, criminal sentencing, etc.  Shows like Cops, Law and Order, Criminal Justice, and even The Wire allow the viewer to engage in these often fictional investigations, trials, and punishments.  By making such highly debatable and contentious issues the subject of television programming readily available for masses of Americans to consume, it is almost inevitable that the inquisitive and suspicious minds of our society will be drawn to such drama.

An example of the falling crime rates since the 1970s, according to the Gallup census survey.

Another example of a popular crime-based television program, enabling viewers to personally engage in the outcome of investigations.

A prime example of the manner in which television programs revolving around crime actually seek to actively involve their audiences in the pursuits on the screen. A COPS I-phone app? The obsession continues...

Aside from simply being pulled in to the crime-related drama that unfolds on television and big screens around the country, viewers and average citizens often feel that they have a sense of agency in the matters.  Just like a baseball game or boxing match, I feel that the audiences and readership of crime television programs and daily newspapers have a tendency to form their opinion regarding which side they support in a story, and stick to it heavily.  As Christopher P. Wilson explains in Cop Knowledge, the rise of television dramas depicting the world of crime and police work has believed to have created a sort of “community watch” over viewers’ local environments: “The public image of the police, meanwhile, seemed on the rise: in television melodramas like NYPD Blue, Homicide, or Law and Order; in live-action shows known as “cop TV”; and finally in the heralding of what has become known as the philosophy of “community policing,” claimed to be responsible for reducing urban crime rates in the late 1990s” (Wilson, 3).  Whether this community policing has actually factored into the decline of crime rates throughout the last few decades is hard to exactly isolate, but experts such as Christopher Wilson believe strongly in the idea that the news media has become an enormously powerful watchdog over police activity in general: “In one influential study of recent crime reporting, the news media are described as ‘as much an agency of policing as the law-enforcement agencies whose activities and classifications are reported upon.’ ‘Crime reporter,’ it is sometimes said, is a misnomer; it should be ‘police reporter'” (Wilson, 5). Thus, through an amalgamation of pervasive television crime dramas and heavily read and highly popular print media stories on violence and death, the American public has indeed become obsessed with the practice of police work, and the nature in which it significantly effects the streets that surround their homes and places of work.  However, even though crime rates have been falling in the last 40 years, we often only see reports of murders and scandals, which I believe has a lot to do with the rising interest in such mediated angles of drama and violence.  For instance, we don’t see a lot of reports on the cases that are solved in Oakland, or the way in which certain officers may handle situations bravely or in a noble manner.  Instead, we are saturated with tragic stories like the Oscar Grant shooting, or violence outbreaks at protests, etc.  The press understands that controversial issues sell papers and online ads, thus rendering these kinds of stories much more significant in terms of their inevitable capitalistic motives.  If a reporter had the option to write on a story about a police officer saving an old lady from a car wreck as opposed to a similar story in which an elderly person was shot by an Oakland gang member, they would almost undoubtedly choose the latter.  At the end of the day, drama sells, and in our 21st century culture and society in which violence, crime, and drama defines a majority of our visual media, it is only logical that the press and television networks would focus on those kinds of stories,  which can understandably cause a surge in public interest and obsession over similar issues.

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Is The Wire a fair depiction of the American culture of violence at its logical end? What did your field work teach you? What did the guest speakers have to say?

For the most part, I feel that The Wire is a very fair depiction of the American culture of violence that defines urban life in the United States.  However, this culture of violence is definitely not at its logical end.  While crime rates have been falling over the years, the issues that characterize The Wire are still largely evident in urban crime environments. Drugs are still being sold, people are still being shot and killed in gang-related feuds, and the police hierarchy is still as debilitating as ever.  Investigative reports detail the manner in which certain police officers juke the stats, or simply ignore certain situations as a result of their higher-ups pulling rank and commanding certain quotas or expectations.  While engaging in field work on our ride-along with officer Stonebreaker of the Richmond PD, it was abundantly clear that many of the same issues depicted in The Wire are present even in the Bay Area of California.  While on the ride-along, Officer Stonebreaker scared off groups of adolescents that he believed were slinging drugs in the alleyways of Richmond parks and public spaces.  Just like Carve and Herc would roll up on Bodie and other numerous hoppers on the corners of Baltimore’s West and East sides, Stonebreaker displayed a very similar technique.  While he couldn’t get out of the police car and chase anyone down with us riding along as passengers, he did use a process of intimidation to send a message to these dealers and suspects.   We also asked him whether he had ever participated in any wiretaps, and he said he had only sat in on one session where nothing turned up and he was extremely bored.  In that sense, The Wire does dramatize a lot of the pithy dialogue and fast-paced witty banter between the cops, but the actual plot lines of the show seem to be based on real events for the most part.  I feel that the biggest difference between the way that The Wire depicts police work and the reality of what we saw on the ride-along is the numerous hours of driving which are actually void of any significant action.  Not every police officer has a buddy-cop to gripe with, or to joke around with in the down-time.  The high-intensity car-chases that the American public sees on TV are also exaggerated given the fact that most police officers (especially murder police) don’t usually engage in such dramatic displays of police-work: “Television has given us the myth of the raging pursuit, the high-speed chase, but in truth there is no such thing; if there were, God knows the Cavalier would throw a rod after a dozen blocks and you’d be writing a Form 95 in which you respectfully submit to your commanding officer the reasons why you drove a city-owned four-cylinder wonder into an early grave. And there are no fist fights or running gun battles: The glory days of thumping someone on a domestic call or letting a round or two fly in the heat of some gas station holdup ended when you came down-town from patrol” (Simon, 16).  Although The Wire does depict scenes throughout its series in which officers do indeed chase down dealers and criminals and engage in gunfire battles, it seems that this is much, much more rare than portrayed in crime-based television programs.  In Stonebreaker’s case, it seems that he has to create ways to keep himself entertained when the job gets a bit dull, and he said it definitely did.  As guest speaker Henry Lee (of the SF Chronicle) explained, his job is “hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror”.  This seems especially synonymous with the job of a police officer too.   While The Wire does make an attempt to depict scenes where the police are simply bored and frustrated, I was struck by how real that inactivity can be when simply riding in a cop car on barren city streets.

Real police-work is not always as witty and exciting as the day-to-day routines of Herc and Carver in The Wire...

High-speed chases don't occur as often as one would think.... In fact, Officer Stonebreaker and journalist Henry Lee explain how the job of police work is often dull and tedious...

Perhaps the most significant way in which The Wire does act as a fair representation of the American culture of violence is the way in which inner-city urban youth are truly born into a certain lifestyle of crime.  While “The Game” may be a bit dramatized by larger than life characters such as Omar Litte and Brother Mouzone, it is nonetheless true that children and teenagers who remain in that kind of environment don’t know anything else in life.  If their parents or older siblings dealt drugs or participated in gang warfare as a means to survive and pay the rent, chances are that they will do the same.  Just as Avon Barksdale says to Stringer, “I’m just a ganster, I suppose” in the middle of the third Season, many gangsters and inner-city slingers feel the same way.  They feel that there is no other life for them out in the real world, and that they simply aren’t fit for anything else.  The fact that these slums and ghettos force young men and women to feel that way is tragic, but also very real.  There are real-life Bodies, Poots, D’Angelo’s, and Avon Barksdales.  Sure, they may not be as verbally heavy-handed or dramatic in their dealings, but they are out there, fighting the same fight that we see reflected back to us on the silver screen.

With it's run-down brick buildings and abundance of gang violence, Oakland doesn't seem so different from West Baltimore...

Some of Oakland's accused drug dealers: Just like in The Wire, slums and impoverished ghettos across the country create environments where minority citizens often feel they have no other choice but to participate in situations not dissimilar from "The Game".

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David Simon says The Wire is “political.” Do you agree?

I agree with this statement in every single way.  Even upon watching the entire series a few years ago, the politics of every group of characters stuck out at me like a sore thumb.  Obviously, politics completely defines the inner-workings of the Baltimore police command within the series.  McNulty, Greggs, and Lester have to respect their chain of command and cater to what Daniels orders (despite the fact that McNulty often ignores the hierarchy of power), just like Bodie and Poot have to follow the exact orders of D’Angelo Barksdale, who follows Stringer Bell, who in a way follows Avon Barksdale.  Believe it or not, even the gangsters follow a certain law of politics and chain of command.  However, what struck me as perhaps the most political characteristic of the gangsters’ daily dealings was the way in which appearance had such an effect on their decisions.  For instance, when Marlo’s crew begins to steal Avon’s corners and take out some of his men in Season 3, Avon’s primary concern is not appearing weak in the face of his enemies as well as on the street.  This is political in its very nature.  Furthermore, it is fact that political campaigns spend most of their time protecting secrets and information that would cause their candidate to appear weak, inferior, and unfit for office.  Just as Tommy Carcetti makes strategic moves in order to pit himself against the multiple black candidates and make himself appear as worthy of the mayor seat, so too do Avon and Marlo conduct their business in order to make clear who really runs the street, and who maintains ultimate authority and power.

The Merriam Webster dicitonary offers multiple definitions for the term “politics”, many of which align so closely with the nature of the characters within The Wire.  For instance, one definition states that politics is: “political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government)” (  While the gangsters in the series are not directly involved in government (aside from Stringer Bell in the 3rd season), they can easily be seen as individuals competing for power and leadership.  In perhaps an even more appropriate definition, politics is also defined as: “the total complex of relations between people living in society” ( This is exactly what The Wire sets out to depict even from the beginning of the series.  In Season 1, episode 1, we are introduced to over 25 characters both on the street and behind the curtain of the police hierarchy and governmental offices in the city of Baltimore.  What is even more amazing about the series and how it is almost completely defined by this trope of “politics” is the way in which both environments often cross paths and work together in some instances to make the relations between people living in Baltimore even more complex, dramatic, and totally involved.   Even early on in the series, we see the way in which Clay Davis practices dirty politics, often aligning himself with the gangster world in an effort to dominate politically and secure an immense profit for himself.  Similarly, we see Tommy Carcetti manipulate Burrel in an attempt to further his campaign, and we see the political motivations that factor into Daniels’ complex relationship with his wife.  In almost every scenario of the show, politics rears its ugly head.  From time to time there are characters who simply ignore the political aspect of the police and street realms, but they are few and far between, and often face negative consequences in defying such an ancient code of municipal business.  For example, Bunny Colvin defies the norms of his position and purposely braves possibilities of being blacklisted within his command in order to make a real change on the streets, and actually single-handedly decreases the stats for his district.  Similarly, McNulty is seen throughout the series to go behind the backs of his superiors, even creating an elaborate lie in the 5th season in order to make a real, tangible difference as coincides with his case, and the state of crime in Baltimore in general.  However, as we see time and time again within the series, these decisions lead to negative consequences and severe punishment, making clear the dominant role of the overwhelmingly powerful upper hand of politics over every one of the show’s characters.

(A wonderful scene from Season 3 in which Carcetti calls out the political incentives behind Burell and Rawls’ castigation of Bunny Colvin.  Meanwhile, Carcetti’s speech itself is a political move in its very nature… EVERYTHING in The Wire is political!)

Bunny Colvin's "Hamsterdam" initiative is one of the few plot-lines throughout the Wire's that is seemingly unmotivated by politics. However, it ends up causing intense political strife for the higher ranking officials above Colvin, thus reminding the viewer that no decision is made in this series without some hint of politics at its very core.

As Christopher Wilson explains, David Simon’s book and series “turns out to be a labor-centered account, focusing on the tension between the underpaid, overworked, but dedicated calling of the detective and politicized department that values the quantity of cases over the quality of work” (Wilson, 157).  This tension between the quality of work and quantity of cases  is perhaps the most poignant characteristic of the intense political nature of the series. However,  perhaps the most crucial way in which The Wire remains political in each of its episodes relates back to this ominous and looming conflict between the murder police and the higher ups.  As Wilson explains, The Wire is labor-centered in every way.  As anyone who has ever worked a job knows, labor is never ever void of politics.  Chains of pay, command, and reputation are seen throughout the series’ five seasons to completely dominate over real strides in effective police work.   However, as George Lipsitz explains, it is not just the cops that are caught up in bureaucratic nightmares:  “It is not just the cops and the criminals who are trapped in The Wire. Every significant institution in the city has its own form of corruption that contributes to Baltimore’s urban nightmare. The same kinds of conundrums that confront police officers and drug dealers vex union officials and business executives, elected officials and their appointees, teacher and journalists.  Institutional pressures inside bureaucracies encourage people to prefer the appearance of solving problems to actually solving them” (Lipsitz, 98).  This emphasis on “appearance” is what is key in analyzing the political nature of the series in general.  Politics is so intertwined with appearance in every circumstance that it pervades.  Thus, the plethora of scenarios and characters within the series inevitably fall prey to the heavy hand of politics given the fact that almost everyone within the series- drug dealers, gangsters, and politicians included, are just trying to maintain their appearance of power, whether it be genuine or not.  The Wire is political almost down to every shot, and that is what makes the show so compelling.  Real life is political, police work is political, and David Simon makes no attempt to cover that unfortunate truth up with smoke and mirrors.

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Is West Baltimore a fair representation of underclass crime and violence elsewhere in the country. How about the Bay Area? What is your sense of the context of crime and violence as you observed it in your field work?

Having toured the country over 25 times with past heavy metal and punk rock bands that I’ve played in, I’ve seen a lot of slums, ghettos, and poverty-stricken cities across the entire nation.  While I currently live in the Bay Area and grew up in the suburbs of San Mateo County, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in cities not dissimilar to the West Baltimore represented throughout the five seasons of The Wire.  I’ve stayed in the run-down ghettos of Indianapolis, New York City, Michigan, Los Angeles, and countless other decimated inner-city environments.  From what I’ve gathered over my years traveling with a band combined with what I’ve witnessed growing up in the Bay Area, I can say that the depiction of West Baltimore in The Wire doesn’t really exaggerate the reality of similar cities in other parts of the country.  I’ve seen similar corners where questionable figures are slinging drugs.  I’ve heard gunshots and seen people thrown into police cars heading downtown.  While West Baltimore definitely seems a bit more impoverished than the Bay Area or any other heterogeneous metropolis-type area, the realities of its crime and violence ring true for most of America’s slums.  Having spent a lot of time in Oakland, it sometimes feels just like The Wire in its ominous atmosphere.  As I explained previously, it is obvious that David Simon and HBO took some slight liberties in making the conversations between gangsters and police so fast-paced and attention-grabbing. However,  the fact remains that the actors and actresses that appear in The Wire are fantastic at what they do, which can make such a dramatic and frightful setting seem so real when viewing from the comfort of your own home.  However, I get the sense that the actual manner in which crimes are committed is much less polished and a lot more dirty, void of any witty dialogue and edge of your seat-type moments.  As a whole though, I believe that the series is indeed a fair representation of similar tragedies across the nation.  Politics and the struggle for reputation and power is sure to characterize most police districts throughout the country. Furthermore, I’m sure that drugs are dealt in a similar fashion in real life as they are in The Wire, involving levels of command as relates to the selling, distribution, leadership, and ultimate authority of the entire operation.

Drug-corners exist in most urban cities in America- This is an example of a drug corner in New York City... Looks familiar, doesn't it?

A public response to the violence that defines Flint, Michigan and the larger Detroit area... Gang violence has come to ruin the safety of cities such as Flint all across the country. West Baltimore is not the only area suffering from a similar trauma.

While such larger-than-life characters like Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell may not exist in impoverished ghettos in the Bay Area, there is no doubt in my mind that similar operations exist not only in the Bay Area, but all across the country.

While on the ride-along with officer Stonebreaker, it did at times feel like a scene straight out of The Wire.  The corners and alleyways of Richmond were much less noisy and far less populated, but we still saw people running from the flashing lights of our police vehicle, scurrying into distant and dark getaways to escape a potential arrest or questioning.  From what I gathered through our conversations with officer Stonebreaker, it seems as if Richmond has experienced waves of crime and violence. In contrast, it seems to never let up in the West Baltimore portrayed in The Wire.  A key difference between our first-hand experience with the Richmond PD and the scenarios acted out in The Wire is the fact that we weren’t riding along with a murder police like Bunk or McNulty.  Instead, it felt more like taking a backseat to an expedition alongside Herc or Carve, despite the lack of action that we experienced on our particular night.  Throughout the two-hour ridealong I couldn’t help but feel a bit letdown by the anticlimactic nature of the experience as a whole.  It was interesting to see Stonebreaker scare off questionable figures with his sirens and use of intimidation, but there was a definite disconnect between what our group had been inundated with through watching numerous episodes The Wire, and what we were seeing first-hand on that night in Richmond.  I don’t doubt for a second that extremely violent crimes are committed in the urban ghettos of the Bay Area on a daily basis, but The Wire just makes it seem so normal, as if you enter West Baltimore and can’t help but be completely consumed by crime and violence.  That’s not how the ride-along felt, and that’s not how I’ve ever really felt while living in the Bay Area.  There are certainly areas of the Bay that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in for a long period of time, but that doesn’t mean that infamous gangsters exist behind the curtains, ordering young hoppers to sling their product.  The fact remains that I am a white, 23 year old male from the suburbs, and simply haven’t been exposed to these things in an intimate way while living in the Bay Area.  Although it seems unlikely that such eccentric and fascinating characters exist in the poverty-stricken slums of the Bay Area, It is hard to believe that the depiction of West Baltimore within The Wire is that far off from the realities of similar settings in the Bay Area and throughout the rest of the country. While speaking with officer Stonebreaker, there was no confusion as to how serious the drug-trafficking and violence is in cities like Richmond, but he didn’t exude that air of hopelessness and jaded fatigue that McNulty, Bunk, and Herc seem to carry with them on their numerous crusades against corruption and violence in West Baltimore.  Thus, through my real-life experiences as a young adult and my first-ever ride along as part of this class’s field work assignment, I can confidently say that The Wire does a great job at representing the cut-throat nature of impoverished and violent inner-city ghettos. While the series seems to takes obvious and understandable liberties in making the drama so compelling and fit for the medium of television, it nonetheless stays remarkably true to the realities of underclass crime and violence throughout the entire country…at least from what I can tell!

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