Archive for the ‘Police’ category

pure lust

January 4, 2008


My Abuela spent so many nights of the 1980s watching Murder She Wrote and Columbo with me at her side, not to mention some Father Dowling Mysteries and Matlock phases and whatever tawdry murder plots they worked into the novelas and the Dallas nightly news. Other kids clandestinely watched horror movies and Cinemax with those closer to their own age, but despite logging that serious time with old Cubans, butter cookies, and fictional detectives, somehow I didn’t grow up into a crime show watcher. I don’t have the patience or the stomach for pattern murders, casual depictions of sexualized violence and hints at truly destructive patriarchal structure to handle that shit, much less so routinely. But like everyone else in the nation, I can rattle off the leading ladies of gristle and forensics, although I can’t keep straight the titles of their shows: Angie Harmon, classy Republican bitch from my hometown; Jayne Mansfield’s daughter, whom at first appears normal; the daughter from What About Bob; Crossing Jordan, for whom Shoals harbors an enduring boner; and the woman who was in Secrets and Lies. Women’s faces are the reigning currency in crime television- their empathy, patience, and intuition serve as a humanizing force in the fictionalized entertaining crime/court/time cycle of our big prison/industrial racket.

So I was shocked to get so sucked into the last installment of Prime Suspect on Masterpiece Theater a few weeks back. Talk about a classy bitch! Helen Mirren, written as a real-person woman detective, DCI Jane Tennison, not lacking in the whole coercive/stern/lovely/moral element so banally given to her American broadcast counterparts, but also demonstrating the option to numb herself from the repeated shock of crime, and dealing with the reality of being a menopausal low-level civil servant. Y’know, I thought, this admits that it’s not only hard for a woman to prove herself effective in a macho realm of criminal investigation, but it actually depicts what these lady detectives do so well, which is being traditionally feminine, observant and empathetic as real work that takes its fucking toll. (Not to mention the ramifications implied of living in a society where violence is alternately economical and sado-sexual or in navigating civil structures that are macho-hierarchical to the end.) In short, DCI Tennison is a woman detective portrayed with the intellectual, moral, and emotional complexities of Jimmy McNulty.


There has been much talk about the Wire’s uneven development of its female characters. To this I am ambivalent, as Simon et al have hinted enough at the differentiation of gender and sexuality in crime and criminal procedure to make me think that it’ll come sooner or later. Shakima Griggs, whose real life on the show started when she got shot posing as a whore, is somehow assumed to be a character who struggles, despite her confidence and composure, with simply dealing in violence and the male sphere of the police force. Yet that’s simply not true; as a veteran of southern hardcore shows and graduate computer science seminars, I can attest that being in a male space is not hard, but attempting to build something there and get credit is. Kima, whose relationship with Bubbles is at the show’s moral core, spends greater amounts of psychic energy in listening to a tragic junkie and identifying elements of criminal networks from his tips than any other detective’s singular contributions on the street or on the wire. As we all know, Kima hates babies, so the fact that she nurses Bubs’ wounds and manages to emerge with a minimum of fussing and a modicum of credit is a demonstration of how little this achievement is actually recognized. We can’t say the same for Beadie’s work in the second season; all that against-moral-reason empathy she poured out to the dock workers she had grown up with only really won her the fraught prize of roosting with McNulty, which I’m so not looking forward to watching unravel. (Why do you think I was hanging out with Abuela on the weekends in the first place?) It’s as complex of a task to examine the motives of criminals, emotional or legal, as it is to examine their acts, yet the feeling and seeing elements of police work, policy, criminal action, and as we see in this first episode of the new season, reporting, are assumed and uncredited. (Note: Gutierrez, you are my GIRL. It took 5 seasons to get a single Latina on this show, and my chips are on you to be a meaningful character.)

But seriously, read sociologist Leigh Star’s work about nurses and office workers. Medical computing has struggled for 50 years in trying to capture the communication of nurses in hospitals, because no one can accurately gage the complex system of work that is deemed invisible even by the worker herself. It’s not that The Wire’s female characters are too attractive, too sweet, or too simple, it’s that their role in the actions has yet to be fully realized.


Yes, that is Donna Haraway and her dog, Cayenne. Also, read Ruben Castaneda’s Sunday Post magazine essay on being a crime reporter with a crack problem in early 90’s DC.


Copy with intent

November 10, 2006

DIB, our esteemed Nashville colleagues (they do have a song about Shoals’ ethnic ambiguity) were kind enough to report back while they were in Baltimore this week. What was most startling, they said, were the machinations of the Baltimore Believe campaign: giant podiums (and trashcans, apparently) emblazoned with “BELIEVE”, as well as constantly flashing “midnight sun” blue lights on corners, all with the overt implication of surveillance. While this season alludes to such, I’m sure none of this is new news to anyone actually in the city or familiar with it- this 2005 City Paper article is good catchup.

Some thoughts on real po-lice

October 24, 2006

                              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.

Out of character?

September 17, 2006

Aside from race and politics, two topics this nascent blog has addressed thus far, The Wire also focuses on the organization and machinations of the Baltimore Police Department, with an emphasis on the difficulties created by the department’s chain of command.  Recently, in New York, there was an incident involving the NYPD which caught my eye, not only because it is an example of not being “good police,” but because it seems uncharacteristic of the way I understand responsibilities to be meted out in the vertical hierarchy of a police bureau.

Critical Mass, the regular convening of bicyclists in New York City and beyond, has regularly been subjected to New York’s various methods of police enforcement, ranging from citations and arrests to more aggressive acts of restraint.  Recently, a Critical Mass legal observer — a neutral bystander who accompanies protesters to document any acts of police abuse — was caught in the fray, allegedly being thrown off her moving bike by a police officer and, in the aftermath, being ticketed by the same officer for a fabricated traffic violation.  While the use of physical force by a police officer in the midst of a protest is hardly novel, what was surprising in this case was that the offending officer, Bruce Smolka, was an assistant chief of police and a commanding officer for the Southern District of Manhattan.

If we have learned anything from The Wireabout the internal structure of a major police department, it is that “real” police work — that which happens on the streets, out of the office — is often practiced by officers who are lower in the chain of command.  Hence, McNulty, who is happiest doing work unencumbered by the upper echelons of the police bureaucracy, asks to be placed in the Western district, on foot patrol and away from internal office politics.  Real police work, I imagine, is more physically taxing than being an administrator and, as this case reveals, street-level operations put officers in positions where they have to make decisions that, if chosen poorly, could jeopardize their career ambitions.  Thus, this case of Assistant Chief Smolka seemed strange to me, given the fact that he is so high in the chain of command and could harm his potential upward mobility by engaging in this kind of overly-aggressive riot policing.  Could you imagine any of the police chiefs on The Wireparticipating in this kind of grunt-work and facing retribution from within the department and from outside it?  (Litigation brought by the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of the legal observer is imminent.)

I would be curious to know if anyone has additional information on this case, or if readers think that this sort of street-level policing is, in fact, uncommon for higher officers to partake in.