The Real-Life Commissioner Burrell, Folks

“The Wire” has been hailed as the greatest television show of all time (it is), and also for its hyper-realistic portrayal of urban police. The show was written in large part by David Simon, an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter who spent significant time with Baltimore’s Homicide Unit researching a book, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop.

The show portrayed Baltimore police leadership and city officials and self-serving bureaucrats, interested only in their own survival — in convincing the public, the media and their superiors that everything was fine.

Turns out…Simon and Burns may have been on to something. Baltimore’s current police commissioner is no better and no smarter than Burrell, Rawls and Valchek, his inept and manipulative fictional counterparts.

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III (seriously?) took “The Wire” to task this week for its negative portrayal of city police. After claiming the HBO show boasted the “most unfair use of literary license that we’ve borne witness to,” Bealefeld went on to say:

I heard all this stuff about, ‘Well there’s crime shows about L.A., about New York, about Miami. You know what Miami gets in their crime show? They get detectives that look like models, and they drive around in sports cars. And you know what New York gets, they get these incredibly tough prosecutors, competent cops that solve the most crazy, complicated cases.

What Baltimore gets is this reinforced notion that it’s a city full of hopelessness, despair and dysfunction. There was very little effort – beyond self-serving – to highlight the great and wonderful things happening here, and to indict the whole population, the criminal justice system, the school system.

Where to begin?

1) If “The Wire” is the most unfair use of literary license that the commish has ever borne witness to, than “The Wire” is also the only use of literary license he has ever borne witness too. I mean…has he ever seen a David E. Kelley show? Or read a book? Any book? Gone to a play? Well, he does live in Baltimore, so scratch that last one…

2) The commissioner of the Baltimore police department — the fucking commissioner — is actually complaining that his city doesn’t get a version of CSI with a wisecracking David Caruso representing it, rather than a realistic look at urban life, crime and crimefighting. The message here is clear: fuck reality, we need propaganda. I’m sure that Bealefeld believes it is the duty of art and entertainment to distract us from what actually happens on our streets, rather than teach us about the disenfranchised or remind us that there’s life beyond the Inner Harbor. I’m sure that, in his view, “Perfect Strangers” was a well-balanced and informative treatise on immigration reform.

3) The final paragraph of Bealefeld’s quote is pure gold: how exactly is it self-serving for “The Wire” to indict Baltimore’s systems and functions? “The Wire” was an oppressively bleak show, and one that never performed well in the ratings. Had it sugarcoated the police, or City Hall, or Baltimore’s education system, the show would likely have been easier to watch and more commercially successful. Negativity doesn’t play well on TV — the show only lasted five seasons through the grace of its network and the force of will of the nation’s television critics. The only reason for Simon and Burns to portray their hometown so realistically was to shed light on its very legitimate problems, to begin a dialogue, and in an ideal world, to begin the process of change.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people like Frederick H. Bealefeld III hold positions of power, and will do anything to keep those positions without taking any real risks. Rather than attempt innovative methods to reduce the crime rate, Bealefeld and his cronies would rather blame a TV show. They blame the mirror for the ugliness of the face.

And I’m sure Bealefeld had to cut his press conference short because he had a disobedient police officer he had to assign to boat duty.

UPDATE: David Simon himself has offered a rebuttal, and as usual, it’s eloquent and filled with righteous fury.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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