In the fifth episode of “We Own This City,” David Simon’s television return to Baltimore after the much acclaimed “The Wire,” Nicole Steele, a Justice Department attorney assigned to investigate improper policing in Baltimore, meets with Brian Grabler, a former police officer who is now a teacher at the police academy. By this point in the series, viewers have watched Baltimore police rob, beat, harass and intimidate citizens. Grabler sums up the cause. “Everything changed when they came up with that phrase, ‘the war on drugs.’” With these words, Grabler also summarizes the thesis of the six-episode miniseries, whose last installment aired on Monday on HBO: Since the 1970s, the war on drugs fundamentally changed policing for the worse.
“We Own This City” makes the case through the true story of the downfall of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), an elite unit created in 2007 to reduce the homicide rate. Instead of investigative work, the unit applies tactics learned in fighting the drug war. In the 1990s and early 2000s, to prove they were tough on crime, politicians wanted high arrest numbers. The easiest way to accomplish this was through street sweeps focused on low-level offenders and harassing Black men in known drug areas. Between 2003 to 2006, 100,000 people were arrested annually, nearly one-sixth of Baltimore’s population. The GTTF transferred these tactics to getting guns off the street — both those used in the drug trade and those that were not.
Simon has presented this argument before, both in the fictional series “The Wire” and in his nonfiction book, “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood,” in which he blamed the war on drugs for “slowly undermining the nature of police work itself.”
But there is a problem with Simon’s argument: Black people in Baltimore complained about and fought back against harassment and violence by the police decades before the start of the drug war. While it helped cause the massive growth in the incarceration of Black and Latino men since the 1970s, it cannot explain this longer history of racist policing in Baltimore and cities like it.
While the United States fought World War II against fascism abroad, Black Baltimoreans contended with police brutality at home. On Feb. 1, 1942, Thomas Broadus, an African American soldier, and some friends were going to see Louis Armstrong perform in a West Baltimore club. A White police officer, Edward Bender, intervened as they tried to hail an unlicensed cab. Bender assaulted Broadus, who may have retaliated. Nevertheless, as a gubernatorial commission found, Broadus was fleeing when Bender shot and killed him. While Bender was charged by a grand jury with murder, the charges were later dropped. Broadus was the second Black person killed by Bender and the ninth killed under the administration of police commissioner Robert Stanton.
The NAACP, the Black press and other leading civil rights groups in Baltimore rallied against an injustice that especially stung because Black soldiers like Broadus were risking their lives to fight for a government that refused to protect them against police brutality. Two thousand Black people joined a caravan to Annapolis to confront Gov. Herbert R. O’Conor. (The Baltimore Police Department was controlled by the governor at this time.) They demanded the hiring of more Black police officers, which they thought would end such indiscriminate brutality — a belief that history has proved false. At the time of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 after suffering a severe neck injury in police custody, the Baltimore Police Department was 40 percent Black.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement brought police and Black Baltimoreans into repeated public conflict, as police arrested protesters who were putting their bodies on the line against segregation. While there were no confrontations as dramatic as those in Birmingham, Ala., where police turned fire hoses on peaceful protesters in 1963, these arrests made clear that the police represented a racist state that supported segregation.
Beyond these public interactions, the kind of police harassment that precipitated Broadus’s death remained commonplace. We know this thanks to a 1960s poetry magazine called Chicory in which Black Baltimoreans documented such incidents.
In “Going Home,” published in the first issue in 1966, a young Black man, Horace “Turk” Hazelton, describes a random stop by Baltimore police long before stop-and-frisk. Turk writes, “See had me a thing/ with a cop/ after walking my girl/ home they picked me/ on the street where you going/ this hour of the night.”
When he questions why he’s being harassed for simply being out on the street at night, the police officer shows his control over Turk’s body by frisking him. “He kicked me pushed me with his gun,” Turk writes. When the officer holsters his gun, Turk runs for his life, frantically “bumping into dark gates.” This poem and others, in which regular people described how officers intimidated them, ignored those who needed help and inappropriately used force, offered a record of police harassment of Black Baltimoreans.
Not all policing happened on the street. The police also used surveillance technology to track those suspected of being involved in illegal activities — or, as the history of Baltimore shows, completely legal activities like political protest and assembly. From 1966 to 1982, Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau created an elite task force within the Inspectional Services Division (ISD) that monitored the supposedly subversive activities of 125 different groups, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Black Panther Party. Using wiretaps, photography, infiltration of groups and telephone records, ISD officers were so excessive that one warned his relatives to never stop at a political rally out of curiosity because they would be added to the division’s extensive data-gathering operation.
ISD heavily targeted Black people and organizations; 150 police officers raided the small Baltimore Black Panther Party headquarters in 1970. Pomerleau even briefly got a judge to ban the distribution of the group’s newspaper in the city. Black radicals were not the only victims. Police also monitored liberal civil rights activists and even political leaders like Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) and state Sen. Clarence Mitchell III.
Like the Gun Trace Task Force depicted in “We Own This City,” victims of the ISD complained to authorities about overreach. But even after a state senate committee issued a report confirming the victims’ accusations, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D) and Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) downplayed the findings, instead heaping praise on Pomerleau, who stayed commissioner until 1982. Then and now, politicians courted the support of the police, standing by them even in the face of egregious impropriety.
This history makes clear that anti-Black policing in Baltimore long predates the war on drugs. But though Simon’s work has missed — and in “We Own This City” again misses — this historical backstory, the show’s critique of policing is still crucially important. Simon is more than a journalist or TV writer and producer. Given his huge platform on HBO and on Twitter, where he has more than 332,000 followers, he may be one of the most powerful liberal voices about urban issues today.
“The Wire” has been the subject of college classes and scholarly books that see it as a trenchant critique of contemporary urban institutions. Simon himself has written that he hoped “The Wire” could lead “to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities” by those in power. From “The Corner” to “The Wire” to “We Own This City,” no policy issue has been more in need of reconsideration for him than the war on drugs. And Simon is absolutely correct. The war on drugs has been a disaster — especially for communities of color.
But if we ended the war on drugs tomorrow, Baltimore’s history shows us that it would not necessarily make policing better for Baltimoreans of color. To make real change, we need to understand the historical role of the police as forces focused on controlling and monitoring Black communities, who are always seen as potentially criminal.