Comstat: numbers-driven policing.

Anti-terrorism seminar: “Brownie, you're doing one heck of a job.”

Teaching seminar: IALAC on screen = “I Am Lovable And Capable.”

The decline of community: Omar and Bunk lock horns.

Landsman: dominating a dark corner of an Irish bar.

Detective Ray Cole: a life in pictures.

Ray Cole.

Ray Cole.

McNulty: He needs more than prayers at this point.


"Juking the stats"

The political structure, as portrayed in The Wire, has adopted the priorities of finance capitalism. Commodity value is consistently prioritized over use value. The public sector has become increasingly impoverished — to the point where it cannot meet basic needs — while money accumulates in other sectors, particularly in the drug trade, beyond any possible need or use. For example, drug lord Marlo has no idea what to do with all the wealth he has amassed, although he does invest in the future loyalty of his prospective workers by handing out money for new school clothes in the manner of a feudal lord dispensing favors. Meanwhile the public sphere remains stripped of resources. Politicians cut budgets, and police and teachers cut corners on the job and go into debt at home.

To defend their declining position, educational and legal institutions adopt prevailing modes of justification so that public services appear to produce little in the way of real results. The school system struggles but fails to educate, and the police force strives but fails to reduce crime. This environment seems to produce nothing of market value, so how is performance in the social sector to be measured? Paradoxically, the measurement that exists cloaks the lack of meaningful performance. Even further, producing the metrics disincentivises meaningful performance. The street rips drain time and energy from policing, which should be targeting the powerful players and the causes of crime. Teaching to the test does the same with respect to education, which should be opening the mind to the world.

From the first episode, this kind of dilemma is made starkly clear. McNulty, after talking to a judge, unwittingly brings to the bosses’ attention a series of related murders linked to the Barksdales. The detective is reprimanded in the harshest terms for violating the chain of command. However, what most disturbs the head of the homicide division, Major Rawls, is the fact that McNulty uses as evidence one of the murders from the previous year, which would therefore have no bearing on the current year’s case-solved statistics.

The massaging of crime figures is clearly illustrated in The Wire, where it is regularly described as "juking the stats." In season three we are introduced to COMSTAT meetings. Via Powerpoint slides, police give figures to suggest there are now decreases in crime. Since police at all levels, from the commissioner down, are often berated and even demoted for their failures, they defend themselves by finding ways to reclassify crimes, making aggravated assaults into common assaults, and effectively doing everything but make bodies disappear. Sometimes policemen even try that. When the bodies concealed by the Stanfield gang are discovered, the homicide sergeant suggests to the detective that he might want to leave them where they are, as there are only three weeks left in the year and the unit clearance rate is already under 50%.

Other relevant metrics play a role, as well as the year and body count. For example, some dead bodies are discovered in a location with a zip code that doesn’t matter — a statistic with strong undercurrents of race and class. As the cops put it, dozens of black, poor bodies in Baltimore count for less than one white suburban ex-cheerleader in Aruba. Such a conversation takes place in the local newsroom as well. In other instances, overtime pay can become a metric, as one lazy detective insists that "cases go from red to black via green."[34][open endnotes in new window]

The tyranny of numbers extends beyond the police department. When Roland Pryzbylewski is dismissed from the police force for accidentally shooting a black officer, he becomes a public school teacher. Sitting in a meeting to discuss how to "teach the test" for the forthcoming "no child left behind" standardized tests, he experiences a flash of recognition. "Juking the stats,’ he comments to a colleague, explaining:

"You juke the stats and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before."

Manipulating teaching procedures just to achieve adequate test scores parallels manipulating crime statistics at COMSTAT. The progress made by Pryzbylewski's own unconventional teaching methods, and by an experimental programme designed to resocialize troubled children, is eviscerated. In a succession of scenes ironically juxtaposed against each other, the high school's seminar on a teaching strategy for the test is edited against a police meeting on anti-terrorism.

There is a constant tension in the series between those who want to do the job well and those who want to climb the career ladder, even though this usually means doing the job badly. We see it play out over and over, whether between cops, politicians, lawyers, teachers or journalists. Conversely, there is no career ladder for the dockers of season two.

The police are the most sustained presence in the series. Characters such as Freamon, McNulty, Daniels, and Greggs have a commitment to building strong but difficult cases, tracing how the money and power are routed. However, these officers are constantly under pressure from those higher up the chain of command, who are in turn under pressure from city hall, to produce easy street rips that will produce arrests and drug seizures. That's the kind of police action known to generate enthusiatic press conferences and impressive crime stats. Under such pressure, Daniels worries that one generation is training the next how not to do the job.

The good guys do not win. By the end of the series some of the best police must go — Daniels, McNulty, Freamon, Colvin — while the worst thrive — Valchek, Rawls, Burrell. Yet some — Greggs, Moreland, Carver — also survive and try to do another decent day’s work. The police exhibit the same moral ambiguity as does society as a whole. The venal but eloquent Sergeant Landsman reflects:

"We are policing a culture of moral decline."

"We had us a community."

Not that any character believes in a past golden age, but citizens at neighborhood meetings do articulate fond memories of chatting with the cop on the beat when both knew each others’ names and stories. Various characters contrast the present with a past time of productivity and community. For example, a striking confrontation between past and present comes in an exchange between outlaw Omar Little and Detective Bunk Moreland. Bunk calls Omar to account for the decline of the neighborhood where they both grew up:

"As rough as that neighbourhood could be, we had us a community... And now all we got is bodies. And predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell."

This is paralleled by another scene between cop and criminal. Ex-major Colvin, when visiting Wee-Bay Brice in prison to ask for custody of the prisoner's son, gets into a conversation where they both recall the west side they once knew and contrast it to what they see now: a place without family, code, respect. The difference between what places were and are and how different characters have experienced this change is marked in a myriad of ways. Thus, Deputy Commissioner Daniels visits a hall where dead bodies from vacant houses have been brought to be processed, and he remembers that he went to school there.

Unemployment, underemployment, the priorities of the stats game, and the victory of rampant capitalism have destroyed not only this older world that made sense, but the prescriptive narratives and solidarities that grew from it. The labor movement, the black power movement and the ideals of empowerment through education have all been debased and eviscerated. Economist Marcellus Andrews has suggested:

"The end of the American segregation system a half century ago put black people onto the blue-collar road to the middle class just when the on-ramp shut down."[35]

47% of black males in Baltimore are unemployed. The police in this scenario are caught between enforcing a war on drugs that has become a war on the underclass and containing the chaos unleashed by it.[36]

"Sharing a dark corner of the
American experiment"

Some of the scenes where we see most clearly the identity, contradictions and solidarity of the police subculture and its relation to the wider culture are at the wakes for dead policemen. The ritual usually involves going to an Irish bar, laying out the corpse on a pool table, drinking whiskey, singing The Body of an American (The Pogues) and eulogizing the dead cop.

Discussing the dead policeman at Cole’s wake, one of the most memorable scenes in the series, Homicide Sergeant Landsman characterizes the characters' lives as "sharing a dark corner of the American experiment." In a montage of brief shots, the character of Cole, the Irish cop, is visually reconstructed. Some of the elements in the mise-en-scene are contradictory, even outlandish. On a pool table draped with a police flag are arranged a photo of the dead officer in dress uniform, rosary beads hanging over one corner and a St. Bridget’s cross lying in front of it. A shot of a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey held in the corpse's left hand cuts quickly to a close-up of the wedding ring on his third finger. Shots of cuff links, cigars and tie follow in quick succession before settling briefly on his police shield. The figure of Cole as a symbol of policing, albeit a chaotic and contradictory one, is thus established, a perception heightened by Landsman's observation that he was neither the world's greatest cop nor its worst. Neither was he the world's greatest husband nor the worst. A wider angled shot during the eulogy completes the picture: a candle, a celtic cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The incongruity of these elements is replicated even more forcefully at the seeming wake held for McNulty when he leaves the police force. He is symbolically dead, having left the brotherhood. Ironically for this uniquely promiscuous and self-destructive detective, the table is positively cluttered with religious kitsch, including votive candles and plaster hands draped with a rosary, alongside the obligatory bottle of Jameson and statue of the Virgin Mary. The verbose and articulate Landsman is momentarily lost for words, but he must ultimately admit to a grudging respect for the "dead" detective, the black sheep. In the only positive words he ever spoke to or about McNulty, Landsman declares that if his own body were found lying dead on the street, there is no one he would rather have standing over him investigating the case than McNulty.

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