Institutional Dysfunction and The Wire


(This post contains spoilers! Though really, the show is twelve years old so if you haven’t seen it by now just watch it already.)

In 2002, HBO debuted The Wire, an American crime drama set in and around Baltimore, Maryland. Showrunner David Simon was well known at the time for writing the book Homicide- A Year on the Killing Streets about crime in Baltimore, which was later turned into another well known American crime drama, Homicide- Life on the Streets. It was Simon’s second book, The Corner- A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, that would be the inspiration for what is considered to be one of the greatest television shows ever made. Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, brings his knowledge and experiences of  dealing with the police, the people, the local government, and other institutions in the city to the series, setting it  apart from other American crime dramas. Each season deals with a different facet of the city: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and it’s bureaucracy, the public schools, and finally the print news media. The Wire presents a nuanced Baltimore, giving the audience a realistic and gritty perspective

The first season of The Wire follows detectives of the special crimes unit in the Baltimore Police Department. as they  attempt to bring down  the drug operations of the Barksdale Organization, which controls the heroin trade in West Baltimore. Simon abstracts the setting as a main character. Baltimore is a majority black city, with incredibly impoverished areas. The relationship between the police force and the citizens mirror reality in many ways. This is readily apparent in the eleventh episode of Season 1,  “The Hunt,” which takes place immediately after the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs during  a failed undercover drug operation.

One of the major themes of “The Hunt” is the overreaction of the department after the shooting of Detective Greggs. Tensions are high throughout the entire episode, forcing viewers to acknowledge  that the actions of the police force aren’t always correct. Police brutality is an issue that affects every major police force in the country. The dysfunctions that plague these institutions are brought to the forefront in this episode. It isn’t just the Baltimore Police Department that is dysfunctional, the Barksdale drug operation has similar issues. Simon’s cynical views on institutions are apparent, as the mirroring of the BPD and Barksdale’s group allow us to compare their failures. Throughout the episode, the response to Detective Gregg’s shooting by both the police department and Barksdale’s men happen in tandem.  A statement made earlier in the season: “Shit rolls downhill” is a motif throughout the series, especially in this episode. Superiors, especially in the highest tiers of the police department and Barksdale’s drug operation, constantly attempt to use subordinates as scapegoats. This isn’t an uncommon situation in American Politics.The events of Ferguson, MO, resulted in the governor blaming the the county, who then blamed the local police, which in the end blamed the victim.

Simon shows us that the  institutional dysfunction is what breeds  corruption. When a police officer is allowed to use excessive force to get information from a suspect, what  is to say that same police officer won’t  use that same excessive force against  an innocent individual on the street? The caustic environment  of the police force in “The Hunt” encourages the characters to turn a blind eye to corruption. When a criminal informant’s identity is misunderstood by a detective, the detective begins to beat the CI. When asked about the situation, the detective lies and claims the detained CI threatened him and instigated the reaction by the detective. Later in the episode, when two detectives find hidden cash under a mattress at a drug house, they each take some for themselves before reporting the cash for evidence. Both instances are wrong, but the environment allowed to fester at the Baltimore police department throughout the season breeds this corruption.

The overreaction of the shooting of Detective Greggs reaches its apex when Commissioner Warren demands “dope on the table.” When the superiors of the Baltimore Police Department realize that they won’t be able to catch Detective Gregg’s shooters as soon as they would like, the Commissioner decides the best way to save face is to raid all of the known drug houses in the area and present the collected drugs on a table for a photo opportunity. The unnecessary operation will put the entire case against the Barksdale drug organization in jeopardy.  When the head of the special crimes unit, Detective Daniels brings this concern to his superiors, it doesn’t matter. The commissioner doesn’t care about winning the bigger issue. He cares about protecting the reputation  of the department right now. The situation mirrors the real world failures of the war on drugs. Seizing small drug houses won’t solve the issue: it’s  the broken windows theory of the illegal drug trade. Commissioner Warren needs the photo op, and when the press conference happens he and other high ranking police officers are seen standing behind a table piled with illegal drugs as the media takes several pictures of the “success”. Simon uses the scene as a scathing indictment  of the drug war,  and the need for immediate action even if it doesn’t solve the major problems.


“The Hunt” reminds us that police officers — and drug dealers, for that matter — are not all good or all bad. They are human. The dysfunction of the police department in The Wire remind us that the reason institutions are dysfunctional is because they are human. Yet despite this, the abuse of power and police brutality are unacceptable. Police departments are essential for a functioning society, but their failures can destroy lives. Whether it’s the police department in New York City or Ferguson, Missouri, our  focus should be on the institutional failures that  allow the kinds of environments where police brutality towards citizens is acceptable. The Wire is a television essay on what happens when we allow these environments to get out of control. Our institutions may be inherently dysfunctional because they are run by human beings, but that isn’t an excuse for corruption.