Ed. note: This post was originally published on Medium.
David Simon, a former reporter and the creator of HBO’s The Wire and President Obama sat down to talk honestly about the challenges law enforcement face and the consequences communities bear from the war on drugs.
Read the full transcript:
DAVID SIMON: So I am an ex-police reporter from Baltimore who makes television shows, and at some point my phone rings last Friday.
And somebody tells me that the President of the United States wants to have a conversation about criminal justice policy. This happened.
And President Barack Obama, in conjunction with an effort to try to reconsider some of the sentencing excesses and the levels of incarceration that has become so problematic in America, wanted to discuss a lot of these issues. And a lot of them were rooted in a television show that we did several years ago called “The Wire” — where we were trying to address ourselves to what the drug war has become in America and what it was costing us as a society.
And because secretly, in my heart of hearts, I don’t want to be in the entertainment industry (I used to be a reporter and everything after seems like an apostasy), this call was not only astonishing but seemed to be an incredible opportunity. So I came here to Washington and sat down with the President and we talked about those issues.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, David, thanks for coming. Great to see you.
DAVID SIMON: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
THE PRESIDENT: At the front end, I’ve got to tell you I’m a huge fan of “The Wire.” I think it’s one of the greatest not just television shows but pieces of art in the last couple of decades. I was a huge fan of it. What is it that you saw, you learned, you heard that made you start thinking about the culture of the drug trade and its impact on the inner cities that compelled you then to want to tell these stories?
DAVID SIMON: Well, I was in Baltimore, and it’s a very drug-saturated city, or it certainly was in the early 1980s when I arrived. And this was a time where people thought they could arrest their way out of the drug problem, and then they actually tried to do that.
And what became increasingly obvious to me over the years of covering it was that when you devote yourselves to street-level drug enforcement, when you try to win the drug war, you only have a limited number of resources, a limited amount of resources. And I watched the police department in Baltimore, and then I noticed it in other cities — other cities with the same sort of problems of drug use — they stopped doing police work. They were arresting people for drugs, and that was presumptive police work, but actually it wasn’t.
And at the same time that the numbers of drug arrests and incarcerations for drug arrests went up — and they were small incarcerations, they were two, three months in jail, because you couldn’t put them everywhere, you couldn’t build prisons fast enough — meanwhile the arrest rates for rape, robbery, murder were going down.
And the one thing that makes cities safer is competent, retroactive investigation of felonies. That actually can make a city safer. But to do that, you have to use and not be used by informants. You have to know how to testify in court. You have to write a search warrant that is going to hold up.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the good news is, is that some of the smarter police departments are trying to figure this out.
DAVID SIMON: Right. That’s true.
THE PRESIDENT: And we’ve seen reductions in violent crime in most big cities in America — in some cases, precipitously — partly because I think there was an awareness that we were so invested in street-level drug transactions that we were losing focus on what was really important, which was people wanted to be safe.
On the other hand, what we know is that a consequence of that was this massive trend towards incarceration, even of nonviolent drug offenders. And I saw this during the period that you were reporting and then starting to write for television — I saw this from the perspective of a state legislator. This just explosion of incarcerations — disproportionately African American and Latino.
And the challenge, which you depict in your show, is folks go in at great expense to the state, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable and end up looping back in.
DAVID SIMON: Permanently a part of the “other America.” They can’t be pulled back.
THE PRESIDENT: Exactly.
DAVID SIMON: Nobody incarcerates their population at this level. And to look at it — when I came in as a police reporter, the federal prison population was about 34 percent violent offenders. When I left as a police reporter, 13 years later, it was about 7 percent. So these were less violent people getting longer sentences. Of course, there was the elimination of parole and good time — all you had was good time. And so people were staying in.
And you’re absolutely right — they come back out completely tarred. They can’t vote. They can’t participate in their community. They’ve lost track of families. Families have been destroyed. Communities have been upended. And if it was this draconian and it worked, then maybe we could have a discussion that said what we’re doing is working.
THE PRESIDENT: The tradeoffs were worth it.
DAVID SIMON: Yes. It’s terrible, and we’re losing a lot of humanity but, hey, it’s working. But it doesn’t work. It’s draconian and it doesn’t work.
THE PRESIDENT: I’ve been looking at because it’s part of the fallout of what you describe — the first is, as the economy is recovering, unemployment is coming down drastically. But one of the puzzles we have is we still have low participation rates among the population in the aggregate. But when you break down why people are not getting back in the labor force even as jobs are being created, a big chunk of that is the young male population —
DAVID SIMON: With a felony history.
THE PRESIDENT: — with felony histories. And so now where we have the opportunity to give them a pathway towards a responsible life, they’re foreclosed. And that’s counterproductive.
DAVID SIMON: The guy who was the model for the character, Omar, in “The Wire,” was a real guy named Donnie Andrews. I never thought I’d be saying his name in the White House. He’s a guy who lived the life on the street. He spent years robbing drug dealers. He lived hard. And he eventually caught a 17-year bit, and he deserved it.
But he went in — he wasn’t caught. He actually went in unconscious because it finally got to him. And he did everything that the prosecutors wanted him to do. And he came out 17 years later, and all he wanted to do was to give back to West Baltimore. He’d taken so much. And he’d been in for 17 years; he just wanted to address himself to the disaster. And on paper, that man — he’s an extraordinary man, he was one of the most amazing people I met in my life — on paper, he was a convicted felon and a convicted murderer. And there was nothing that could get him from that extremity. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of lives that had been disconnected and have no way to channel back into —
THE PRESIDENT: Well, and part of what — Omar, by the way, is my favorite character on my favorite show.
DAVID SIMON: That was the part — I was worried about that when you said it.
THE PRESIDENT: But part of what your show depicted, though, is also that there’s a generational element to this. So you’ve got entire generations of men being locked up, which means entire generations of boys growing up either without a father, or if they see their dad, they’re seeing them in prison.
DAVID SIMON: Right. I mean, this is not happening in a vacuum. These are the places in America where the industrialization has had the most effect and where the unemployment rate — the actual unemployment rate among young black males in my city bear no resemblance to the actual unemployment rate nationally. And so that’s something that has to be countered, which is that the drug trade itself, it’s like a company town.
And this is an industry so large and with so much money around it, that it’s hard to get around it if you grow up amid it, and certainly without role models that know how to maneuver around it. And to undo that, taking the overlay that is the drug war, and at least ratcheting it down and making it proportional in some way is essential.
Because right now, what drugs don’t destroy, the war against them is ripping apart.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here’s the good news. There is an increasing realization on the left, but also on the right politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive.
Either from a libertarian perspective, the way we treat non-violent drug crimes is problematic, and from a fiscal perspective is breaking the bank. They end up spending so much more on prison than you would with these kids being in school or even going to college that it’s counterproductive, and it means that everybody’s taxes are going up, or at least services that everybody uses are being squeezed, or we can’t hire cops to deal with violent crime, as you talked about.
We’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this.
And as I said, the encouraging thing is I think awareness is increasing, in part because violent crime has gone down in a lot of big cities. People are more open to having a discussion about this.
DAVID SIMON: They’re not as frightened.
THE PRESIDENT: And I think we have to seize that opportunity. But part of the challenge is going to be making sure, number one, that we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. And that’s where the work you’ve done has been so important.
Then the second thing is enlisting law enforcement as an ally on this. Eric Holder, my Attorney General, we started talking about this several years ago when I first came into office. And one of the things that we tried to do is to change how we talk to U.S. attorneys and their offices about what is a measure of effective prosecution. And when we came into office I think what was probably true in a lot of states’ attorneys’ office, the measure was how much time do they get.
DAVID SIMON: Charge the maximum.
THE PRESIDENT: Charge the max. And our point was effectiveness as a prosecutor involves thinking about justice and being proportional in how you think about these issues. And that’s something we can do administratively. But ultimately we’re going to need legislation, and that’s where raising awareness is going to be important. And law enforcement and prosecutors have to be able to talk about this. And we have to let them know — and you show this in “The Wire” as well — in the same way you got to be able to humanize those involved in the drug trade, we have to remind ourselves about the police, they’ve got a scary, tough, difficult job. And if the rest of society is saying, just go deal with this and we don’t want to hear about it, and you’re just on the front lines and just keep it out of our sightlines and it’s not our problem — we’re betraying them as well.
And ultimately, you’re going to have to address some of the environmental issues. And I know that’s not fashionable because the notion is, oh, you don’t want to make excuses for criminals. What we understand and what — perhaps one of the most moving sections of “The Wire” was that whole depiction of the schools in Baltimore and public schools is that if kids are left so far behind that they don’t have recourse, they’re going to see what else is available to survive.
DAVID SIMON: They’re going to learn.
THE PRESIDENT: They’re going to learn something. And so we’re going to have to think about schools and counselors and mental health and ultimately jobs and reindustrialization. And I think we understand all that. But if we can start down this path to a more productive way of thinking about drugs and its intersection with law enforcement, 20 years from now we can say to ourselves, well, maybe we got a little smarter. And we didn’t get here overnight; we’re not going to get out of it overnight.
But the fact that we’ve got people talking about it in a smarter way gets me a little encouraged.
DAVID SIMON: From your mouth to God’s ear.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I enjoyed it.
DAVID SIMON: Thank you very much.