There is a moment in the final episode of season one of The Wire, when the police are about to raid drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s headquarters, a low-rent strip club. A SWAT team in full military regalia arrays itself on the street, to the contempt of both the criminals inside, and the cops outside. “Look at these Delta-Force motherfuckers, man,” scoffs Barksdale as he watches the SWAT officers on his security cameras as they scurry around outside with their assault rifles. “This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be,” gripes Jimmy McNulty as he watches from the car, to which Lieutenant Daniels responds, “The SWAT guys do love to break out their toys, don’t they?” “They think they’ve got Tony Montana up there?” McNulty asks, and after a moment he and Daniels leave the car and walk up to the door over the protests of the SWAT members, enter the building, and arrest Barksdale (who knows perfectly well what’s coming) without any fuss.
None of which is to suggest that highly-trained and heavily-armed police aren’t sometimes a necessary evil; but the mockery on display in this brief scene is remarkable for being more or less sui generis in film and television today. Not all cop shows celebrate the paramilitary dimension of law enforcement, but it is practically unheard-of for it to be openly derided. And more and more, this militarization of police forces has become a prominent feature in the depiction of police, whether in the all-too-frequent recourse to assault weapons in shows like Hawaii Five-O, or as the focus of shows like Flashpoint. Since 9/11, the line between films and series about counter-terrorism, and police procedurals has grown quite blurry.
Sadly, this does seem to be one of those cases in which popular culture, as opposed to creating a delusional fantasy about the nature of police forces, is actually just reflecting the current reality, at least in part. On one hand, the diabolical, conspiratorial villains that require Steve McGarrett and company to suit up every week in Maui (who knew Hawaii was such a hotbed of organized paramilitary crime?) are in fact delusional fantasies; but the reflexive recourse by American police to military weaponry is all too real. The New York Times recently posted an interactive map showing counties to which the Pentagon has sold surplus military firearms, armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, helicopters, assault rifles, and other gear. It is truly disturbing.
Alyssa Rosenberg has a very astute blog post about the gradual transformation in popular culture of the depiction of the police and policing. In particular, she considers that utopian gem of small-town nostalgia, The Andy Griffith Show, in which Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sage sheriff of the idyllic small town Mayberry. She writes:
Even when it began, executives acknowledged that The Andy Griffith Show was a nostalgic portrait of small-town life. But it expressed an ideal that has leached out of American pop culture and public policy, to dangerous effect: that the police were part of the communities that they served and shared their fellow citizens’ interests. They were of their towns and cities, not at war with them.
In case it’s not painfully obvious from this quotation, the impetus for Rosenberg’s post is the current dire state of affairs in Ferguson, Missouri, which has seen the county police there respond to the civil unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown with what can only be called disproportionate force. What has been most striking—and disturbing—about the images proliferating across the media is not just police militancy, but police militarization: assault rifles, armoured vehicles, and, bizarrely, camouflage fatigues. As comedian John Oliver ironically noted, military camouflage is not exactly functional in an urban space (if they want to blend in with their environment, he snarks, “they should dress like a dollar store”).
The ongoing events in Ferguson are deeply depressing, not least because they are bringing so many issues plaguing the U.S. into stark relief, issues that flare up into the public eye from time to time but tend to disappear unless one makes a point of paying attention: racial inequality, systemic racism, police brutality and an increasing lack of accountability for it, the rampant militarization of police departments across the country, and the general obliviousness of white America to all of the foregoing. If Ferguson seems at times bewildering, I suspect it is (in part) because all of these ugly factors are on full display.
I am hardly an expert on any of this. What professional interest I have in writing this post is the same as Alyssa Rosenberg’s, which is to say how popular culture reflects and inflects what we’re seeing on the news. Her point about Andy Griffith and Mayberry admittedly deals with a utopian image of America that likely never actually existed for anyone but oblivious prepubescent white boys in rural towns, but her central observation is spot on: that what we’re missing in the present day is the conception of police as being of their communities as opposed to against them.
In a trio of blog posts about Ferguson, David Simon quotes Orson Welles’ terribly apposite adage that police work is only easy in a police state; I’m tempted to say that “police state” is in fact a contradiction in terms, as what it really refers to is a state in which martial law is the status quo, and that is the antithesis of policing. And I cite David Simon here, because I don’t think there has been a more eloquent and trenchant argument for this principle than The Wire. In what is perhaps my favourite moment from the show, police Major Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) dresses down Sergeant Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) for not understanding this basic principle of policing. He tells Carver that he’s a good man and a decent administrator, “But from where I’m sitting, you ain’t shit when it comes to policing.” Why? Because Carver is all about making petty arrests, cracking heads on the corners, and keeping his numbers up … but he knows nothing of the neighbourhoods, about who is running things, or what is generally going on. He has no informants and no allies. “Don’t take it personal,” says Colvin. “It’s not just you, it’s all our young police … the whole generation.”
The speech that follows—which happens toward the end of season three, just past the midpoint of the series as a whole—is as close to an articulation of The Wire’s main thesis as we get. Click the link above and watch the clip (embedding, unfortunately, is disabled on it), but it is worth writing it out:
This drug thing, this ain’t police work. No. It ain’t. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners to jack a crew and grab vials … but policing … I mean, you call something a war, and pretty soon everyone’s gonna be running around acting like warriors. They’re gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you’re at war, you need a fucking enemy! And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner’s your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighbourhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory …
Soldiering and policing, they ain’t the same thing. And before we went and took a wrong turn and started up with these war games, the cop walked a beat. And he learned that post. And if there were things that happened up on that post, be they a rape, a robbery, a shooting—he had people out there helping him, feeding him information. But every time I come to you, my DEU sergeant, for information, for finding out what’s going on out in those streets? All that came back was some bullshit. You had your stats, you had your arrests, you had your seizures. But don’t none of that amount to shit when you’re talking about protecting a neighbourhood, now.
The Wire is, specifically, about the War on Drugs and its lamentable failures, but it is also a show about the dissolution of community bonds that begins to negate the very concept of community. What’s happening in Ferguson right now has little to do specifically with the War on Drugs, but everything to do with the way in which that transformation of the relationship between police and neighbourhoods has made the current unrest not so much possible as inevitable.