The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to fix Baltimore? ‘End the drug war,’ says David Simon

A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

No, The Wire does not explain what's happening in Baltimore this week, as my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg wrote yesterday. Still, the show's creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon knows a lot more about the city than most of us. And in a wide-ranging and riveting interview with The Marshall Project today, he offers an unequivocal assessment of how to turn things around in that city today.

"So do you see how this ends or how it begins to turn around?" Bill Keller asks him.

"We end the drug war," Simon says. "I know I sound like a broken record, but we end the [expletive] drug war. The drug war gives everybody permission to do anything. It gives cops permission to stop anybody, to go in anyone’s pockets, to manufacture any lie when they get to district court... Medicalize the problem, decriminalize [it] — I don't need drugs to be declared legal, but if a Baltimore State’s Attorney told all his assistant state’s attorneys today, from this moment on, we are not signing overtime slips for court pay for possession, for simple loitering in a drug-free zone... then all at once, the standards for what constitutes a worthy arrest in Baltimore would significantly improve."

Simon traces the arrest and death of Freddie Gray to a police culture that's long since abandoned any pretense of probable cause when it comes to stopping and arresting young black men in the city. "The drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department," he says. "Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war."

In the growing concern over drug use in the 1980s and 1990s, political leaders -- in Baltimore and in cities all over the country --  began throwing people in jail on flimsy suspicions, Simon argues. "Too many officers who came up in a culture that taught them not the hard job of policing, but simply how to roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon."

Simon reservers his harshest words for Martin O'Malley, the former Baltimore mayor who touted reductions in the crime rate under his tenure on his way to the governor's mansion in Annapolis -- and, perhaps, in his burgeoning candidacy for the White House.

"The stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O'Malley," Simon says. "He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart."

He flat-out accuses the O'Malley administration of manipulating arrest statistics in its quest to show "improbable" decreases in crime -- statistics he still cites on the stump today. While crime rates did indeed fall during O'Malley's tenure, it's unclear to what extent the mass arrests favored by the former mayor contributed to that. He also tends to not mention that the Baltimore murder rate sank to its lowest level well after he was out of office, and after his successors implemented radically different policing policies.

But if O'Malley makes a strong showing in the Democratic primaries -- perhaps unlikely, but nevertheless possible -- expect these statistics to keep coming up. And expect David Simon to have plenty to say about them.