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January 18, 2011

Bealefeld: "The Wire" a "smear that will take decades to overcome"

UPDATE: Read "The Wire" creator David Simon's response here.

"The Wire" concluded its run on HBO in 2008, but Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III says Baltimore is still smarting from its depiction and that the show was a "smear on this city that will take decades to overcome."

At the Jan. 8 Amplify Baltimore event, Bealefeld told audience members that the show was the "most unfair use of literary license that we've borne witness to," according to video posted on YouTube (Thanks, Nate Mook of

"I heard all this stuff about, 'Well there's crime shows about L.A., about New York, about Miami,'" Bealefeld said. "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, competant 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."

Those who have praised the show, including TV critics and universities that now teach courses on it, say it was that unflinching depiction of a part of society typically not dramatized on TV that made the show so important. Creator David Simon, a former Sun reporter, has said that the show was a larger indictment on the failings of inner city America - "ruminations on the end of an empire." We'd be remiss not to mention that The Sun took its own lickings in the final season, which Simon said was also intended to be a broader look at the role of the ever-shrinking media.

When the City Council in 2002 held a public hearing to try to find better ways to promote the city in light of "The Wire," Simon testified to defend the show's message. Here's what he said, excerpted from an article by reporter Gary Dorsey:

 "The first season of The Wire, which is fictional but based in large part on the experiences of Baltimore Detective Edward Burns," he said, "is nothing more or less than a treatise against the drug war and a policy prohibition that has turned vast tracts of your city, the city that this council claims to govern and administer, into a barren battleground in a neverending war of attrition.
    "Those of you who suggest such a viewpoint ought not be seen or heard in connection with Baltimore. ... I don't know what to say. I can only note that until we all begin to honestly assess the urban drug culture and our militarized response to it, there will continue to be more tragedies like the one that recently befell the Dawson family on the city's East Side. That got you more bad headlines around America. That got you more of a reputation around America than anything I put on HBO. That got you the editorials in The New York Times."
    As his voice grew louder and quivered, at times, in anger, any hope that Simon would spring with an idea that would promote something heartening about Baltimore faded. He did acknowledge his "love" for the city, mentioning that he is also a taxpayer and voter in District 1. But he offered only one suggestion for promotion. His own decision to live in Baltimore "as opposed to New York or Los Angeles, where my industry is located," he said, is "admirable ... and I think it's certainly worthy of the council's attention of how the city could be better promoted."
    Beyond that, he called the council "oblivious," the resolution "parochial," and their critique of his work "meaningless."
    "I voted in recent elections to reduce your ranks by five," he concluded. "I see now that it may not have been reform enough. ... A more deliberative body with real responsibilities and a relevant agenda would be ashamed."
    He turned to leave, but Council President Sheila Dixon called him back for a question.
    "Mr. Simon," she said, "I would like to compliment you on your good writing. I just have a question: Have you ever had a thought on writing something pretty or positive about Baltimore? ... Is there something that will give the children something to look up to about the city of Baltimore?"
    His answer: "I write what I know."

Posted by Justin Fenton at 2:42 PM | | Comments (32)


It's funny the police commissioner is making these remarks right after his officers gunned down one of their own. Sounds like it an episode ripped right from The Wire.

this is baltimore gentleman, the gods will not save you

I like his passion, but the man's insane on this issue. Yeah, there's some nice things going on here, but you can't hide 200+ bodies. New York looked like crap in 70s movies, but it started to give people reason to shape it in another light. Also, maybe a couple million people at most know Baltimore through "The Wire". Not exactly tipping the national scales of perceptions there.

Hilarious. Yes, it's The Wire that continuously makes this city look bad. Despite the fact that it's fiction, and the real life happenings in this city are in some ways far more embarrassing:

1. City council members busted for being corrupt, let off with little more than a tap
2. A deposed mayor, who despite being convicted of theft (yet protected from more serious charges by loopholes) and publicly shamed still collects an $80,000+ pension
3. A police dept. that until just recently wasn't reporting its rape stats entirely too well
4. A menagerie of horrendous headline murders - bodies dumped in parks, off duty cops shooting people 47 times, students getting stabbed to death walking home from the train, on and on and on - which despite the fact that murders are at a decades-long low (which SRB and Bealefeld seem very eager to take credit for, in the face of the nationwide trend of lower crime) seem horrendous to the rest of the nation nonetheless.

I could go on, but Simon's "A more deliberative body with real responsibilities and a relevant agenda would be ashamed" quote sums it up pretty nicely.

If the head man would get the cops off there ass and walk the beat like the old days maybe things would be better.

That's actually been one of Bealefeld's initiatives. Increasingly hard to do with staffing shortages, though. -JF

This article should be renamed "Top Copout."

Oh "the Wire" the cops cover up murder cases and other arrests.

On the real Baltimore Police department, they cover up rape cases.

Let's not get fiction and reality mixrf up here folks.

"a city full of hopelessness, despair and dysfunction"

Wow, he nailed it. That describes Baltimore exactly! We have corrupted Mayors who get PBJ's, we have officers that have killed people when force was not needed, we have officers that won't even deal with the illegal unlicensed dirt bikes in the city that come out of the ghettos and cause trouble, we are the home of 'stop snitchin' and we are proud to reject good officers because they are of the wrong race (yet some how that's not called racists, oh because the applicants were white).

Mr. Bealefeld, maybe you should be less worried about "The Wire" and more worried about how many people lay dead in the streets. We call Iraq and Afghanistan "War Zones" yet some how we forget to label Baltimore a "War Zone", maybe it would be politically incorrect to do so. After all, the city I work in thinks that ~200 homicides in a single year is progress. Oh I guess since in Afghanistan last year 499 US Soldiers died ( ) we shouldn't call our home a war zone. Oh but wait, maybe we should. Those included those for the entire country if we add in Phili, DC, and Baltimore we all of a sudden have a "War Zone".

Mr. Bealefeld, it's time to wake up.

Why is it the Commissioner's job to offer an opinion on how the city is portrayed on TV? Get out and do your damn job instead of worrying about whether everyone preened themselves right in front of the mirror.

I personally thought The Wire was an inspiring portrayal of Baltimore. Instead of showing "models" and sports cars, it showed struggle and character.

But then, my IQ is somewhere north of 40 and capable of understanding nuance and complexity. However, apparently, nuance and complexity is a problem for the Commissioner, which doesn't bode well for a Department that has to cope with both every day.

Is anyone else confused why Bealefeld thinks someone in Israel could even find Baltimore on a map, yet alone discuss its policing policies? Or what exactly he hoped to accomplish by talking to them? Even if they did know or care, what possible insight into Baltimore's crime problems could be gleaned from a desert in religious turmoil?

Brian maybe he commenting because
someone asked him a question He is not just sitting in front of a keyboard. I think his point is the the show focuses mostly on the negative parts of Baltimore, very little, if any, positive. I love all the county dwellers spending there time making outline comments and complaints but not doing a thing to make Baltimore better.It is always someone elses fault oir problem. Why don't you do something positive for Baltimore? Volunteer, mentor, support a candidate for office, etc. "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

Yeah, Baltimore's a utopia. When cops and ex-cons are the ones advising the show, and politicians and the brass hate it, I'm thinking its right on the money. Top Copout (nice on Raphael, using that from now on) wants HBO to produce watered down, carbon copies of ridiculous and inaccurate police procedurals? Gimme a break. Have a cops type show here and you'd see the same damn thing. The Wire isn't regarded as one of the best shows ever because of a vast international conspiracy to hate on Baltimore. Next we'll have Hawaii issuing a statement that there are in fact no smoke monsters hiding in their locations for Lost...

What's ironic is that if Wire-hate hadn't inspired the political geniuses to entirely ruin the incentives program for Baltimore and surrounding Maryland, maybe we'd have films here that would bring revenue and jobs to the city and lift us up out of some of that hopelessness. No, no, better to throw a tantrum when you aren't given sugar coated praise.

To be fair, this was one of MANY questions answered by Commissioner Bealefeld last weekend at Amplify Baltimore. I think the following was a far more interesting/insightful question and response about "customer service" in the Baltimore City Police Department:

However, it's not as much of a headline grabber as a rant about The Wire, unfortunately.

The other video is more substantive, but he talked less about what is happening in the streets and more about his philosophy and what should happen. I think he has spoken more directly on the topic in other forums and interviews, and the questioner's rebuttal at the end was an indication that he at least didn't feel the question had been answered. -JF

@Janks Actually, he made them BEFORE the incident at Select Club.

Probably about 12 hours before, yes. This panel discussion took place on Jan. 8. -JF

Family Guy? That pretty much tells me all I need to know about this Police Commisioner!

Yes , the Family Guy comment, now that's funny!

Comments by Wire fans, I won't argue. I love here, and there was a truth being told in the show. Problem is I can't find a single point Bealefield makes that I can't agree with. This is the only thing anyone outside a 50-mile radius of Baltimore thinks of Baltimore. I tell anyone I live in Baltimore, I get asked about the Wire. Who is seriously pretending that the millions of viewers who made the show so sucessful somehow don't know wherer it's set (even if they live in Israel or Hawaii) What may have been a well-deserved smear of dangerously ineffective police and government has become a very wide brush that has painted the town in a way that will in fact take decades to erase. I feel gross for agreeing. But there it is.

Who needs The Wire? I've never seen one complete episode. It's too boring. If I want to be entertained, enlightened or educated about crime all I have to do is read the local crime section. Last week's episode where 4 Baltimore City Police Officers gunned down one of their own as well as a law-abiding citizen was edge-of -the seat thrilling! I don't even have to pay an expensive cable bill for the amusement.

The difference is he is trying to do something about it. And, he was asked his opinion you were not. All you keyboard warriors are doing nothing but complaining. But, I am sure with your fragile egos complaining and comparing make you feel better. Sad!! Now get up and do something if it's so bothersome to you??? "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem".

i commend the commish for saying what he said.

It's amazing how a work of fiction has managed to inspire such an intense debate about a city's morality and reputation. The ripostes are rapier sharp and the comment stream runs wide and deep. People clearly care.

Personally, I feel The Wire exposes the underbelly of every major city in the West. It just so happens, in this instance, that the artistic vision has outshone - and consequently redefined - Baltimore's international profile. I doubt a TV series set in one of America's more established cities could completely redefine it's broader perception so dramatically. 

Perhaps Mr Simon could cheer up, but seldom does a happy soul create great art. Besides, the harsh tales he tells so well are not lost on most city dwellers, who view the 'dark side' of city life through windows or (if they are more fortunate) via local news channels. That is why the show has become a cult classic for people all over the world! The Wire may be a work of fiction, but the issues it raises are not. 


"Who needs The Wire? I've never seen one complete episode. It's too boring." --Cham

The only real problem with the show, as critics have noted, is that it goes over the head of people with a lesser intelligence. It's hard to enjoy the Wire if you are not fairly smart. Cham, I believe, just proved that point.

I knew something about Baltimore before The Wire, all the way from San rancisco, CA, even about Gus Triandos, whose career was stymied more by the Yankees than any knuckleball Hoyt could throw.

I knew about Baltimore before The Wire, even about Gus Traindos.

The Wire may be a cynical depiction of the city of Baltimore, but because of The Wire, I have fallen in love with the city of Baltimore.

Excellent points by Evan and Gman. Frankly, I was a bit stunned when I read over this article, and couldn't really believe the commissioner was serious.

He really thinks a fictional drama that was shown as an HBO drama series (and therefore watched by a relatively small percentage of the country) has shaped people's perception of Baltimore? What HAS he been smoking.

In fact, the only folks I know who seem to have a particularly negative impression of Baltimore are those folks who live here. Frankly, I don't think they got that impression from watching The Wire.

Most of my family live out West and very few of them have ever watched The Wire. Those that have, I almost get the impression they felt it was some sort of comedy or spoof. I've yet to meet anyone who took the show seriously... except, it would appear, our erstwhile police commissioner.

I live in Baltimore. I feel the Wire has been negative reflection on Baltimore. My friend from New Jersey feels the same way about the Sapranos.


I understand what the commissioner is trying to communicate with his comments, but really, what does models in Miami and unrealistic overdramatic members of the criminal justice in New York have to do with anything? All of those shows are fictional trash. So the commissioner discredits The Wire as reenforcing negative stereotypes about Baltimore, but he's fine with painting a picture of complete nonsense as long as it's positive.

Again, I understand his problem, but he can't be angry with a TV show because it took a novel approach at depicting negative truths about his city instead of churning out the normal Hollywood effluvium. Maybe if more shows followed suit The Wire wouldn't stand alone.

In interviews, Simon has said that the show was an indictment of urban decay from the center. He used Baltimore (because he writes what he knows, etc), but he has also said that the same tales could be told about dozens of decaying cities in the US. I would suggest a few Canadian and British cities could also fit the bill.

People loved the show (myself included) because of exactly this grand vision, the way the themes had broad applicability. I still find myself gasping when I remember Season Three's themes of reform and betrayal. This story was set in Baltimore, but the vision was far beyond that.

I can understand him being sick of getting asked about The Wire, and I understand that the perspective of police has to be different, but I’d think he’d have more disgust for the CSI’s and other fairy tale cop shows. Then again, commissioners in other cities probably get asked about The Wire more than any of those other shows.

I guess the real headlines about Baltimore's police department speak for themselves.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

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