Without revealing anything about the major plot developments in this excellent series, I can comment on one thing I realized about The Wire overall, as I was watching the final season. Within the show, it can be broadly said that there are two sorts of police officers – those that are happy to function within the system as it exists and those who aspire to do things differently. The former recognize the political necessity of ‘cracking down on crime,’ no matter how pointless that may be in its ultimate consequences. As such, when some politician needs improved crime statistics, they will happily go round people up for minor offenses and otherwise fudge the numbers until they seem to reflect the promised improvement.
The other set of police officers want to build up comprehensive cases against the leaders of the drug gangs, securing prosecutions against them using surveillance and human intelligence. They see the efforts made to fudge statistics as deeply wasteful. The irony is that their ‘real police work’ actually causes far graver consequences. Every time they remove someone from the top of the pyramid, it generates a bloody contest for dominance among the other high-level agents. The police therefore keep themselves well occupied with murders. Similarly, when people who are imprisoned are eventually released, they are liable to create conflicts. It’s not for nothing that the drug dealers in the show refer to their interactions with the police and with one another as ‘The Game.’
In the end, then, neither form of policing really accomplishes anything overly meaningful. The shoddy policework maintains a churn of people being brought up on minor charges, keeps police officers busy, and helps politicians convince voters they are doing a decent job. The professional policework, meanwhile, helps perpetuate the large-scale violence between and within drug organizations.
Given the degree of realism in the show, it does not seem inconceivable that dynamics of this sort operate in the real world, at least in those places that continue to see prohibition as the proper response to the problem of illicit drugs. As I have expressed here before, that seems a wrongheaded approach to me. It would be far better to undercut the violence of the drug trade by making it legal and controlled, akin to alcohol and tobacco, while simultaneously treating drug addiction as an illness requiring treatment and not a crime requiring deterrence and punishment.