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"There's never been a paper bag for drugs. Until now." Or, What Is "Real Police Work"?

[Cross-posted at Long Sunday]

What's up with the title The Wire? I mean, having a wire up provides the detectives with a kind of talismanic assurance, and the capacity to surveil their "targets" is fundamental to the Major Crime Unit's operations. Still, doesn't the title reflect an almost unsupported (and unearned) privileging of the police? The series is nearly unique and certainly daring in showing the ineptitude of the police, sometimes from external forces and sometimes from individual incompetence or corruption, so it's not particularly pro-BPD. Moreover, many of the episodes involve no wire at all, and plotlines such as the atrophy of the Baltimore port, the Stringer/Avon business/gangster showdown, and the Hopkins study of Tilghman Middle School all proceed smoothly with or without a wire. And yet, the show is called The Wire. Why?

That's one of the questions that has been on my mind since I began watching the series. Another has to do with what is far and away the most common evaluation I hear: "The Wire is the best television show. Ever." A couple of friends have muttered this dispassionately and a bit wearily, as though they've come to the conclusion (which they should have all along recognized as unavoidable) only after sustaining vigorous disputation from other fans. (One friend tried to sell the show to me by saying, "It's like Deadwood, but more relevant." Hmm.) In any case, at a certain point, I began to wonder about these people's judgments. Although I can't find any reason to say they're wrong, something still bothered me.

That point and that something roughly coincide with the end of Season 3. But I probably should have seen it coming, at least as early as this moment in All Due Respect (3.2):

Now, Colvin's a genius, isn't he? I mean, who wasn't rooting for his decriminalization plan to succeed? And who doesn't agree that arresting folks like addicts, possessors, and hoppers is, really, just kind of petty, short-sighted, and pragmatically racist? (Remember that scene where newly elected Mayor Carcetti goes on a ride with Eastern District officers who stage an arrest for him?) Still, when Colvin tells his district about that "great moment of civic compromise," when "That small, wrinkled-ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace, but gave us permission to go and do police work. The kind of police work that's actually worth the effort. That's worth actually taking a bullet for," at this moment, he prioritizes "police work."

Now, there's been plenty of talk the entire series about being "real police" and doing "real police work." And it isn't surprising that tasks like writing parking tickets are less important than solving a murder. But this is one of those moments where we begin to see precisely what is meant by this invocation of "real." Colvin of course makes it happen with his paper bag for drugs (and later pays dearly). But what exactly is real police work? Turns out, it's not solving murders. It's more like preventing them. But it's the tactics for preventing them that are crucial here. And we begin to see just what those tactics are as the season moves along. In Reformation (3.10), Colvin tells Carver, "you ain't shit when it comes to policing," and then explains why:

...Dozerman gets shot for some bullshit, and that's when I 'bout reached my limit. And that's when the idea of the free zone, of Hamsterdam, come to me. Cause this drug thing, this ain't police work. Naw, it ain't. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials. But policing--I mean you call something a war and pretty soon, everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everyone on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you supposed to be policing, that's just occupied territory.

So policing is not occupying. Still, what is it?

Look here, the point I'm making, Carver, is this: soldiering and policing, they ain't the same thing. And before we went and took the wrong turn and start up with these war games, the cop walked a beat. And he learned that post. And if there were things that happened up on that post, whether they be a rape or robbery or shooting, he had people out there helping him, feeding him information. But every time I come to you, my DEU Sergeant, for information, to find out what's going on out there on them streets, all that came back was some bullshit. You had your stats, you had your arrests, you had your seizures. But don't none of that amount to shit when you talking about protecting a neighborhood, now, do it? You know, the worst thing about this so-called drug war, to my mind-it just, it ruined this job.

Policing is about surveilling. It's about knowing every individual on your beat. It's about having information about them. It's about visibility. It's about knowledge. And it's about power. It is, in particular, about knowledge-power. In short, it is about discipline. (Is this not what makes the rowhouse murders so horrific in Season 4? That although we suspect murders are occurring, we can't see evidence? That we don't know the victims?) So it turns out that policing is not occupying because a disciplined society is a transparent society that doesn't need occupation. And it doesn't need occupation because visibility and information are produced everywhere and by everyone, at least for those properly positioned to see and know. But Foucault has taught us this, and this series merely illustrates with surprising accuracy his argument in Discipline and Punish.

Now, I wouldn't have expected as little blogging as there is about The Wire and Foucault (Jeremey has a post summarizing some discussion). Really, only a couple of posts address the basis of this series in surveillance. The second of these is thorough and smart, noting that "the wire represents a tremendously panoptic phenomenon. The metaphorical wire of the show's title refers to phone taps, which are central to the show's development, and although not particularly 'optic' they nevertheless mirror the 'listening tubes' of Bentham's schema. On the whole, the show is a fantastic study in contemporary surveillance techniques and the functioning of the disciplinary apparatus that is the police department."

The only promblem with this post is its limited view of what counts as surveillance. And it is precisely the unlimited scope and reach of surveillance that seems to distinguish real police work. (The unlimited scope and reach of surveillance is also what distinguishes a disciplinary society, is it not?) In The Wire, as we see by the end of the third season, everyone has bought into discipline. McNulty accepts a beat in the Western District. Residents are happy to see police patrolling and getting to know them. And as viewers, we even consider this a pretty good thing: "at least someone who can do something is finally paying attention to poor, black Baltimoreans."

But this last phenomenon was just what bothered me. I didn't quite want to be happy about Baltimore's Westside becoming more and more infiltrated by police surveillance. But is this reaction not a measure of Foucault's precision? I (foolishly) wanted The Wire to somehow resist discipline or to help us disapprove of the police's expansion of discipline, but of course that it can't (or that to do so would be purely fantastical) is precisely the point. Power is power because it is everywhere, because it is micro-physical, because it is not seen as power. This is why surveillance isn't limited, why it isn't just "the wire." And this is why I want to propose that if the show were adapted to the French, its title should be Surveiller.


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