In the middle of the night, in an alley near Riggs Avenue and Gilmor Street in the Western District, a cop stands on the hood of a car and delivers a speech, Shakespearean in its eloquent fierceness.
“Hey listen to me you little fucking piece of shit. I’m going to tell you one thing and one thing only about the Western boys you are playing with. We do not lose. And we do not forget. And we do not give up. Ever. So I’m only gonna say this one time. If you march your ass out here right now and put the bracelets on, we will not kick the living shit out of you. But if you make us go into the weeds for you. Or if you make us come back out here tomorrow night, catch you on a corner, I swear to fucking Christ, we will beat you longer and harder than you beat your own dick. Cause you do not get to win, shitbird. We do.”
The cop, Ellis Carver, is the commander of the Western District’s Drug Enforcement Unit in season three of “The Wire.” In previous seasons, Carver and his buddy, officer Thomas “Herc” Hauk, represent precisely the kind of policing that David Simon’s show attacks: that of brute force, stop and frisk, and broken windows. Round up everyone and something will stick. As Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin points out, the language of the drug war has infected these officers. They see policing as a military activity and function as an occupying army.
In the follow-up scene, the young man they were chasing sits in the Western District, handcuffed with a busted eye.
“Where you at shitbird? You’re in handcuffs in my house looking stupid, ain’t you?” Herc asks the kid as Colvin walks in. Colvin picks up the paperwork.
“Fleeing and eluding?” he asks. “Do we have a drug charge here?”
“Loitering, in a designated drug-free zone,” another of the drug warriors responds.
“Let me rephrase: Do we have drugs?” Colvin says.
“He raised up when we hit his corner and grabbed this bag,” Carver says. “We pursued and recovered this bag.”
“But no drugs,” Colvin says.
“And they whooped my ass,” the kid says, resigned.
“The Western District way,” Herc says.
“What have we learned?,” Colvin asks. “Using half my district, a canine, and a copter to bring a 14-year-old to bay. What did we learn?”
“That you can’t raise up and run from a drug corner in sector one without my boot finding your ass,” Herc says.
It’s impossible to watch that scene now, in light of Freddie Gray’s death, without cringing even more than we did a decade ago. It is haunting. That scene is as succinct an explanation of what happened to Freddie Gray as we can get through fiction. Part of the tragedy of his death is that the cops were doing what they normally do, they were doing what Carver and Herc did in a fictional Baltimore a decade earlier. And Colvin, the commander who ultimately institutes free zones—Hamsterdam—in order to combat this kind of head-banging policing, still doesn’t really care that they beat up the 14-year-old kid (and in episode five, he tells dealers that “Biblical shit” will happen to them on the way to the station if they don’t cooperate). It’s the Western District way and he knows that.
Carver and Herc, as bad as they are, don’t want to kill anyone. They bust heads like real-life Baltimore cops Daniel T. Hersl or Vincent Cosom, or any of the others who have collectively cost the city millions in brutality settlements. But they aren’t murderers. Unlike McNulty, with his epic hard-ons for individual gangsters, Carver and Herc just want to bust heads. Doesn’t really matter whose heads they are.
The only cop in season three to kill someone is Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski the white cop who shoots a black officer and is unable to determine whether or not he acted because of racial prejudice.
But Carver and Herc are different than many of today’s officers. Currently, more than 70 percent of Baltimore’s police officers don’t live in Baltimore—10 percent live out of state—so they don’t have the awkward, but human, exchange that takes place when Carver and Herc run into Bodie and Poot coming out of a movie with their dates.
“Oh shit, y’all go to the movies?” Poot asks. There’s a long silence. “And you must be the lovely Missus Herc. How’d you like your movie?” he continues.
Bodie turns to his date. “Herc and Carver here try to snatch us up every day. Like where the shit? Who got the shit?”
“But they never get nothing,” Poot says.
Poot can’t get over the fact that the cops have real lives. “So y’all go to the movies?”
“All right then, see you tomorrow?” Bodie says as they walk off.
This kind of interaction, however awkward, is humanizing and it is impossible when a majority of officers police the city without living in it.
But the gangs face the same kind of problem as the police command in keeping the troops in line. The drug-dealing co-op that Stringer Bell sets up with the other crews is a parallel to Colvin’s Hamsterdam, a scheme nearly destroyed when a low-level dealer shoots someone for making fun of his shoes.
Bloods and Crips, who say they called a truce after the death of Freddie Gray, say they are feeling the same kind of frustration as members of their own crews fail to follow the truce. But the larger problem is that there is no gang with enough power to hold all of the small-level criminals and dealers in check. One of the themes of the season is how the new generation is so much worse than the last. “Every year, everybody’s like, ‘these kids out here, they’re a new breed. . . this the end of the world now,” Poot says in the second episode.
The world of the month since the Freddie Gray uprising is the alternative to Hamsterdam: Commissioner Batts claims that the Western District officers can’t do police work because people crowd around them with cameras in their faces and small beefs escalate into shootings and murder as everyone jockeys for political advantage.
As much as season three is about how much the game has changed, it makes it clear to us, how little has actually changed in the decade since the season aired.