Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


May 17, 2010

Down to The Wire

Few would accuse Wire creator David Simon of leniency in his depiction of Baltimore; veteran crime reporter Stephen Janis is one of those few.

Vincent Valk

Truth be told, Stephen Janis thinks The Wire is OK. But he's no fanatic of the recently-concluded HBO series, a production so unanimously adored that proclaiming it the best TV show of all time has become a cliché. His heresy—er, ambivalence—can be easily explained. "I've got a front-row seat for what it depicts," Janis says, referring to his work as a senior reporter for Investigative Voice, a muckraking news website in Baltimore. The site was launched in 2009 after Janis lost his job at the Baltimore Examiner, a short-lived competitor to the Baltimore Sun that never got off the ground.

Janis spoke with Gelf last year about his new news venture, formed almost immediately after the Examiner shut down. This time, Janis has a novel under his belt and a year's experience making it as an independent journalist in a very violent city. Given his work in both fact and fantasy, Janis is in a good position to determine just how real The Wire keeps it. In the following interview, which was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Janis also discusses his new book, This Dream Called Death, a surreal tale of big-city malaise, the evolution of his website, and why the city of Baltimore should follow the lead of…Afghanistan.

Stephen Janis. Photo by Regina Holmes
"The Wire is so well done in a lot of ways that it feels so authentic. But real life is just messier than fiction."

Stephen Janis. Photo by Regina Holmes

Gelf Magazine: What was the motivation for your book?

Stephen Janis: I was covering crime and city hall, and I saw certain patterns. We have this idea that the way to deal with poverty is through enforcement, particularly law enforcement. The primary debate on poverty here in Baltimore is not about whether we should combat it with law enforcement, but how much so. There's a jail here that was designed to process 40,000 people per year and it's processing 100,000. We also had this policy called "abated by arrest," whereby police officers see someone doing something that might be socially destructive, like drinking from a container or peeing on a corner, and they arrest the person and put him in jail for eight hours. It was such a massive issue that at certain points 25 to 30 percent of all people arrested were released without charges, and when I asked people about them, the explanation was, it's "abated by arrest." This idea that you can exercise social control through policing made me think there was some kind of deeper imperative here. So I wanted to create kind of an alternate, metaphorical way of looking at it.

Gelf Magazine: The book seems to imply the next logical step is monitoring people's thoughts.

Stephen Janis: Yeah, but it's not just monitoring people's thinking, but their attitude. To me, the dream is symbolic of the freedom to live your own life. It's a very constitutionally inept way of doing things to arrest people for being in a neighborhood that they don't live in. I have seen statements of probable cause where that's basically the cause: Police officers would just go up to people in areas that were known for drugs. It would happen to white people, too; if you saw white people in a black neighborhood, the assumption was that they were looking for drugs. The psychological impact of this stuff is worse than just drugs. You put the community at odds with the police, and that makes the idea of policing in a democracy impossible.

Gelf Magazine: The book has at its center a not-so-veiled criticism of Broken Windows theory. Do you think that such policing methods have been ineffective?

Stephen Janis: Think of the metaphor. It's a building—what the hell does a building have to do with people? It's one of those things that you infuse with technology and come up with a reason to make policing more of a social-control thing when it is really an interpersonal thing, done with the consent of the community.

Gelf Magazine: Because of Investigative Voice, you're out there reporting on crime and corruption every day in Baltimore. How true to life is The Wire?

Stephen Janis: From the parts I've watched, I think what The Wire got right are the dynamics between politics and policing. It's pretty dead on on that. To a certain extent, I think the show makes the streets of Baltimore look a little less chaotic. The drug dealing looks way more organized than I think it really is. In reality, it's a war of attrition where drug dealers recycle people. I think the show got the politics and policing perfect, though I don't think it got how desolate some parts of the city really are. It's almost like The Wire is overtaking reality; sometimes it seems like the show has grafted its own reality on things.

Gelf Magazine: What [else] do you think The Wire gets most right, and most wrong?

Stephen Janis: I'm no expert on the show, and seeing as I've got a front-row seat to what it depicts, I've only seen bits and pieces. I feel like [David] Simon is such a good writer that he gave his characters a much more rational thought process than they would really have. There's also this underlying theme to everything in the show, but I don't think you can get that sort of meaning in the areas of the city that are torn apart. There's no drama; it's just despair and breakdown. It's just over for these places. I think there's even more cynicism in real life than in the show because the force of Simon's writing brings cohesion. The Wire is so well done in a lot of ways that it feels so authentic. But real life is just messier than fiction.

Gelf Magazine: What, in your view, can and should be done to revitalize blighted inner cities?

Stephen Janis: Here's the thing: If you look at what happened in the past, you had economic destabilization and social destabilization, and then you had crime and the things that come with it. The only way to fix an area is economic stabilization, which is really tough because of generational poverty. I've interviewed former crack dealers, and they tell you that once you get in the game, soon you have one or two arrests and you can't get a job. I know people say The Great Society was a big failure, but we have to start thinking back along those lines, because policing isn't working. Even if the stats go down, these neighborhoods are still just burnt out. I'm not blaming cops; they're just following the lead of policymakers. But maybe we could take half the police budget and put it in jobs programs. Look at what we're doing in Afghanistan. You need to rework the economic situation, and it will take decades.

Gelf Magazine: Last year, you mentioned to Gelf that you had been told police were planning to plant drugs in your car . Has anything like that happened to you?

Stephen Janis: No, but there's always that fear because you hear things and people tell you to watch your back. I don't know if it's just chatter or something real. I can't always discern, but you need to be careful.

Gelf Magazine: Is that sort of thing common, or at least more common than people realize? I was pretty surprised by it.

Stephen Janis: No, I don't know of any other reporter who's experienced it. I don't talk to other reporters about that kind of stuff, though.

Gelf Magazine: What's next for Investigative Voice?

Stephen Janis: Lots of stuff. We are doing a big series called "Crime and Punishment Reconsidered." Some of the themes from the book are in there. The city, like everyone else, is broke. We are fighting to preserve public-safety money as if that is the lifeline, and people don't talk about other stuff as much. Pulling a cop of the street is considered insane, even though we have the seventh largest police force in the country for the 20th largest city. So we'll just be trying to come up with some context for these policies.

Related in Gelf: A recently laid-off Janis talks about launching his website, Investigative Voice.

Front page image courtesy of Kevin Moore's Flickr via Creative Commons

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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- Media
- posted on Mar 16, 14
Timothy J. Ward

Gelf: If ever Stephen Janis is arrested or abated by the police then we all know he is innocent and has been done wrong by corrupt powers both in and out of the government and/or on the street.

- Media
- posted on Mar 16, 14
Timothy J. Ward

Gelf: If ever Stephen Janis is arrested or abated by the police then we all know he is innocent and has been done wrong by corrupt powers both in and out of the government and/or on the street.

Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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