What Our Candidates
by Jack Cashill
or evening entertainment this winter I have been watching, courtesy of NetFlix, all five years of the HBO series, The Wire, easily the most honest look at urban crime and politics ever produced.
I got interested in the series after reading the non-fictional book, Homicide, written by The Wire’s producer, David Simon while he was still a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
I recommend book and series to all of our many mayoral and council candidates. The word that best describes both is “unflinching.” Compared to The Wire, Law and Order seems as fanciful as the Little Mermaid.
Like Law and Order, most TV police shows prefer their crime politically sanitized. Crazed Christians, Eastern European hit men and/or environmentally insensitive capitalists are often called upon to do the dirty work. According to one study, businessmen commit more than fifty percent of all TV murders.
In The Wire, young black men kill other young black men. That’s it. That’s the reality—not just on the show, but in the streets of Kansas City and every other American city as well.
Kansas City suffered 106 murders in 2010, something of a norm. There were 110 the year before, most of these murders by and of young black men. For no clear reason, African Americans in Missouri are more at risk of homicide than in any other state.
Crime chills economic development. The East Side of the city looks like 1945 Berlin, and those enterprises that do survive, the big drug chains for instance, loom over their environments like imperial outposts.
When the occasional “taxpayer”—the word used by the Baltimore PD to describe innocents—strays into the line of fire, the murder gets “red-balled.” The detectives know they are under pressure to solve this crime and solve it quickly.
In Kansas City, Brian Euston’s name had a big red ball right next to it. In early October 2010, the 24 year-old college graduate stumbled drunkenly from a Westport bar into a group of young people emerging from another bar. One of them punched Euston, who fell and hit his head on the concrete. Euston died soon afterward. Westport meanwhile lingers on life support.
Initially, the Kansas City Star downplayed the story and ignored what everyone else was talking about, namely that Euston was white and his killer likely black. What got the story its red ball and ultimate attention was the pressure Euston’s parents and friends rightfully brought to bear.
The reward the Eustons offered eventually led to an arrest. From his defiant mug shot and dramatic rap sheet, the alleged killer would seem to have come straight from central casting. Stanford Griswold, 27, had been released from prison just a few months earlier. Griswold had served nearly three years in a federal pen for assaulting a police officer. Before that, he had five priors, two for weapons violations.
The genius of The Wire—and likely the reason HBO was able to air it all—is that it humanizes the Stanford Griswolds of the world without excusing their behavior. The viewer, freed from liberal pieties, sees the wretched universe these young men inhabit and comes to understand the accommodations they make to survive within it.
The police in The Wire, just like the police in Kansas City, walk a fine line. If they make a mistake in a racially charged situation, especially if they are white, they can lose their careers, even their freedom.
Historically, Kansas City authorities, aided and abetted by the media, have been inclined to sacrifice our police on the altar of political correctness when the situation demanded. Given this reality, the KCPD shy from aggressively policing black neighborhoods.
If our various candidates wanted to improve the life chances of inner-city residents, the one concrete, cost-free step they could make—however counterintuitive--is to assure the police that they have got their proverbial backs.
Any number of the candidates have argued for a more diverse police force as a way to address a Kansas City homicide rate that routinely runs about 30 times higher than Johnson County’s.
There is some logic to this, but not a whole lot. Yes, by and large, black and Hispanic officers can penetrate their respective communities more effectively than white officers. The problem, unfortunately, is that the KCPD would be expected to recruit a representational percent of minorities from communities that are not producing anything like a representational percent of viable candiates.
Crime drains the recruiting pool. Nationwide, on any given day, almost one in four young black men is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. Police work is not in their future.
One often hears the argument that the imbalance in the criminal justice system results from racially biased sentencing. Not true. As the homicide stats bear witness, the imbalance results from a huge disparity in crimes committed. If anything, that disparity might be more severe than the numbers suggest.
In 2010, the KCPD cleared only 41 percent of the city’s homicides, an astonishingly low number. I could find no racial breakouts, but I would suspect, as the Euston case suggests, that the KCPD are more likely to clear homicides with white victims than those with black victims. It is the rare black homicide victim whose parents will put up reward money.
In Season 4 of The Wire, perhaps the best, one gang of young black men kills and buries 22 of its young black competitors before anyone even notices they are missing. Then, due to budget cuts, City Hall disbands the one police unit capable of solving the crime. In reality too, many young gangsters can avoid prison as long as they avoid killing taxpayers.
To achieve equal outcomes from disparate recruiting pools, the KCPD would have no choice but to finesse its standards group by group. This, of course, is done all the time in recruiting and promoting across the country, including on The Wire. And everywhere it is done, it erodes morale.
Disparate standards also lead to reverse discrimination lawsuits. Kansas City has just been ordered to pony up $2.6 million for two white city employees laid off in the recent round of cutbacks. Had City Manager Troy Schulte not taken race into consideration, he might well have faced suits from black employees and/or the EEOC.
At the root of so many uneven ethnic outcomes is one variable that I have yet to hear any candidate talk about: the absence of married fathers in inner-city homes. There are none in The Wire. There are painfully few in our own central core.
An eye-popping story out of Memphis predicts our collective urban future in a seriously depressing way. Apparently, 90 girls at one inner-city high school are currently pregnant or have already had a baby this school year. That is more than 20 percent of all females, and the second semester had just begun when the story broke.
Solve this problem, my candidate friends, and all other problems solve themselves.
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