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Police brutality—the unsanctioned, unlawful use of force by police against unarmed (and often defenseless) civilians—is one of the recurring motifs of The Wire.1 The violence occurs in a variety of settings: occasionally the victim of the police brutality has done something to precipitate it (though the brutality is never justified), but more often the violence is unprovoked and senseless. Some police are one-time wrongdoers; others are repeat offenders. Some officers participate in the actual beatings, while others only cover up for the actions of their fellow officers. But in sum, the violence is regular and recurring, if not omnipresent. In this respect, The Wire is not dissimilar from other filmic depictions of police, such as NYPD Blue.

What is different is the cast of police officers who are involved in police brutality throughout the show. That cast includes some of the worst police, such as Thomas “Herc” Hauk and Anthony Colicchio. But it also includes some of the very best police officers on the force, officers who in other contexts, in other moments, engage in remarkable acts of altruism and generosity of spirit and who reject rule-breaking and lawlessness. Our goal is to explore these and other depictions of police violence in The Wire. Unlike other cinematic portrayals, The Wire’s explanation for police violence is not unidimensional. In The Wire, police violence is not excused, as if it were the necessary action of police who need to use all of the tools at their disposal to combat crime. Nor is it merely the product of a few “bad apples.” Rather, The Wire describes how organizational dysfunction can lead decent people to do terrible things, and how social context matters to crime—here, police crime. That is, it does for police violence what it does for all the failures of contemporary urban institutions.

We see within The Wire four structural mechanisms behind police violence, beyond the usual trope of bad apples on the force. First, there is the police code of loyalty: police operate under norms that compel them to aggressively defend one another against both bodily harm and legal responsibility for acts of violence or other violations. Second, this is toxically accompanied by a need to project power and dominance in every situation. This dominance norm reflects a hyper-masculinity common to police culture.

A third causal mechanism is the War on Drugs. The Wire demonstrates how this “war” is unwinnable, and how it asks police to accomplish objectives that are simply impossible. Police efforts to realize these unobtainable objectives leads them in some cases to use violent and unlawful tactics where the legal means available to them inevitably fall short. Fourth, and finally, police departments (like all the institutions the show depicts) are afflicted by a collective action problem. It is in the interest of the police department generally that citizens view the police as treating them fairly and justly, and cooperate with the police as a result. But the individual officer is the one who must engage in self-restraint, showing respect and minimizing the use of force, while only enjoying a small sliver of the benefit, because those greater benefits redound to the future reputation of the force as a whole. Once all of the officers realize that enough of their colleagues will do things that damage the reputation of the force, it appears futile to engage in self-restraint oneself.

If we (and The Wire) are correct about these causal mechanisms, the implication is that rooting out police brutality will require more than firing or disciplining the bad apples on the force. Rather, police departments will have to reverse the structural and institutional mechanisms that encourage and reinforce the tendency toward police violence. This will mean wholesale change in what police forces are attempting to accomplish, and how they go about meeting those objectives.

Our article proceeds in three parts. In Part I, we document and describe the incidents of police violence in The Wire, particularly those incidents involving police whose motives and actions are otherwise most generous or altruistic. In Part II, we explain the causal mechanisms behind those incidents of violence. In Part III, we offer tentative suggestions for reform.

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