The Wire: Police, Politics, Public Safety and Statistics


Over the last while I have watched the first three seasons of The Wire. The show is fantastic in pretty much every way imaginable, but one thing that particularly struck me about the third season was the way the Baltimore police departments makes use of statistics to measure public safety. It seems to me that the third season of The Wire shows the way in which the statistics and analytics that are used by the police and state to measure public safety become more important and more real than the actual underlying reality that these statistics are supposed to measure and represent. When the metric become more important than the concrete reality that the metric tries to measure occurs we uncover a perverse situation in which the institutions that are set up to protect us are more concerned with achieving statistic goals than actually ensuring that people live in a safe and secure environment. There will be spoilers below so please if you have not seen the third season of The Wire and would like avoid these spoilers do not read on.

As the third season begins we see that the crime rate, and in particular the murder rate in Baltimore has risen, and that these rates are reaching a point that is unacceptable to the Mayor, Clarence Royce, and his administration. This leads the acting police commissioner Burrell, and other high ranking police officials such as Colonel Rawls to push their commanders to cut crime so that the statistics shed a more positive light on the Baltimore Police Department so that their jobs are more secure. When the police commanders seem hesitant to take steps to reduce their crime rate, Rawls essentially just says that the commanders need to do what needs to be done to bring down their crime rate. Nowhere is it suggested that we need to better ensure safety for the residents; rather the emphasis is on the statistics, as if they were a perfect barometer for safety of the inhabitants of Baltimore.

The third season of The Wire portrays that lowering the crime rate can be done in numerous ways, some of which generally help the community, while others have no necessary connection to it. For example, charging suspects for lesser offenses when they could be charged for greater ones, and turning a blind eye to crimes and not reporting them would both lower the crime rate but not necessarily augment public safety. Major Valchek is a representative of this approach to lowering the crime rate, as he quite bluntly says that they will find a way to make their crime rate look better whether it requires them to massage statistics or reclassifying crimes.
On the other hand we see one commander try to make his district safer. Major Howard Colvin takes the approach of creating free zones within his district where the police under his command will turn a blind eye to drug use and trafficking, and support needle exchanges, safe sex (condom distribution), drug treatment and also facilitate security among the dealers, by having police present to break up any squabbles that occur. These free zones are placed in areas where nearly no one lives to ensure that the crimes that occur do not affect the residents of his district. While the steps Colvin takes do bring down the crime rate drastically in his district, his approach also makes the residents of his district feel far more secure than they ever have, as the areas where they live are now not exposed to the violence and crime that seemed endemic to them. As would be expected when the upper brass finds out what Colvin has been doing, they are furious, and quite quickly shut down the free zones.

But what seems evident from the third season of the Wire is that there is a very stark difference between public safety, and the analytics that the Baltimore police department uses to measure its success. This is not to say that statistics could not be constructed that adequately track public safety, but that simply looking at the rate of crime does not indicate the safety of a community. Part of the meaning of public safety, is that people genuinely feel safe to move about in public space. Consequently, we must be mindful of the distinction between the actual reality of public safety and the metrics like the crime rate that we use to track it, as paying attention to the latter does not necessarily ensure the safety of residents of communities. And quite frankly it is horrifying for the police and institutions of the state to ignore the actual concrete reality of public safety, and focus only on the analytic that is used to measure their success.

This leads to a broader point that I would like to make about the use of statistics within the context of business, bureaucracy and other organizations. Often because of financial constraints and deadlines organizations are only able to construct very basic analytics to measure the success of their organizations as they do not have the time or money to develop rigorous analytics that more fully reflect reality. These basic analytics typically tell us something about the progress of the organization towards its goals, but they almost never tell us the whole story. Now, while it may be expedient to pretend that these analytics tell the story, but it is extraordinarily disingenuous and uncaring to do so, as merely focusing on the analytics ignores the fact that while we may be measured based upon analytics the impacts to people`s lives are not determined by analytics, but the concrete world that they find themselves in. If we want to take responsibility for our actions we must look past the flawed analytics that we typically must use in our working lives, to the concrete reality that we are trying to examine.