Some thoughts on real po-lice

                              Ed Norris

I’m not sure how well-known this information is, so I apologize ahead of time if this is less than informative. But, if you didn’t know, Detective Norris, the bald-headed partner of Greggs on the dead witness case who, in episode 43, was temporarily demoted to a beat cop working the election polls, is played by Ed Norris, the former police commissioner of Baltimore, the former chief of the Maryland State Police and, finally, a former federal prisoner. (For a good story about Norris, check out this Baltimore City Paper article — full disclosure: I am a former City Paper intern — the first of two interviews following his release from prison for corruption. This is also a solid, if sentimental, take on Norris’ recent Tampa relocation.)

Norris was a New York transplant, a lateral hire from the NYPD, who came in with the intent of cleaning up Baltimore’s police force. Norris, as I remember, was well-respected — hence, his upward move to the Maryland State Police — and brought with him Comstat, a computerized, statistical analysis of crime and police prevention. In Season Three, I believe that Rawls and Burrell are using the equivalent of Comstat when roasting the various police majors for the underenforcement in their districts. It is also the statistical tool the police use to determine that Bunny Colvin managed to produce unprecedented drops in crime, though without any knowledge about how Colvin actually reduced the crime rate.

The benefits of Comstat have been heralded by Martin O’Malley in his recent gubernatorial run, and the issue of the police being beholden to not only subjective political expectations (e.g. Mayor Royce’s domination of Commissioner Burrell) but also to objective numerical accounting has cropped up in The Wire repeatedly. To wit, the dry-erase board in the homicide office, with its dichromatic scheme of black and red for solved and unsolved murders, respectively, has been a recurring symbol in The Wire, perhaps most prominently in Season Two, when the thirteen “Jane Does” are added to the chagrin of the Landsman and Rawls.

                                         The Taming of Chance

It probably goes without saying, however, that the aforementioned dichotomy between subjective expectations and objective accounting is not so cleanly cut. Rather, political expectations are always informedby statistical observation and, conversely, statistical observation is increasingly frought with political expectations. (The more academic reader might call this a case of “overdetermination.”)

The Wire, unsurprisingly, captures this confluence fully. For instance, one effect of statistical enumeration of crimes is the fact that politicans and the press can more easily establish the effectiveness of law enforcement through the following inverse relationship: when the crime rate is greater, we can assume that the police’s performance is of a lower quality. Hence, in The Wire, the mayor constantly pressures the police force’s upper management and, by exenstion, upper management constantly pressures the force’s middle management (they call this the chain of command) to keep the number of reported crimes down. In Season Three, Officer Burrell complains of Royce’s impossible demand to keep the murder rate below 270 for the year, a number that is strangely rigid and, apparently, meaningful. With the advent of more specific and detailed statistical reporting, a police force like Baltimore’s is no longer expected to simply reduce crime, but to reduce it to, and beyond, certain levels. In other words, the political expectations for a police department have become more exacting, with less room for error.

On the other hand, the measurement of crime is always affected by politics. The inclusion of certain crimes at the expense of others — that is, the choice of which crimes are reflected in a city’s homicide rate — must always be recognized as a conscious political decision, one which, the cynic presumes, has certain benefits for whatever person or party is currently in power. Additionally, the contents of a crime rate can be just as arbitrarily chosen by jurisdictional lines. For instance, in Season Two, when the shipping container is found to contain a baker’s dozen of dead prostitutes, the decision to include those deaths in Baltimore City’s, and not in the neighboring county’s, jurisdiction lacks any fundamentally meaningful or principled rationale. Rather, it reflects the rather random lines of county soveriegnty — and, of course, the meddlings of one police officer, McNulty, with too much time on his hands — which are always drawn by political actors.


It will be interesting to see what happens when Marlo’s bodies start popping up in the Westside on the newly-minted mayor’s watch. How those bodies, once reduced to statistical numbers, affect city politics, and how Baltimore’s politics will alter the accounting of those bodies, should, I hope, be an interesting sidebar about how “real po-lice” operate in Charm City.

Explore posts in the same categories: Police

2 Comments on “Some thoughts on real po-lice”

  1. jetsetjunta Says:

    i think something intriguing about the red/black dichotomy is its relationship to the economic meanings of red and black. closing cases is good for police business, but also keeps the force “in the black” in terms of political capital, whereas if the force remains “in the red” for too long, heads roll, departments get re-organized, etc.

    also funny to learn this about norris, considering his woeful comments on the music of chance in episode 44 and how much he loves Baltimore for it. also seems like he’s got a radio show in Baltimore featuring a popular segment on crime and police work.

  2. drinkof Says:

    I assume the red/black board thing is a real Baltimore thing; it was a centerpiece of Homicide: Life on the Street.

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