It never fails that when I am in another city and people learn I’m from Baltimore they all
ask me the same question, “Is Baltimore really like The Wire?” I want to point out to them that The Wire is a television program; a dramatization. Sure, we have crime in our city and some areas keep the police more engaged than others, but every corner does not have a drug deal going down. Why do people believe everything they see?
Television was very popular in my house when I was a child. We didn’t even need a clock, we could tell what time it was by the program that came on. The delivery of the TV Guide was an actual event. No one was allowed to touch it before my grandmother had seen it. We could mark off the shows we wanted to watch, but knew whatever she wanted to see trumped any of our programs. Everyone had their own spot in the living room for nightly viewing, with my younger sister seated on the floor directly in front of the set. Her job was to switch the channel to save my dad or grandmother from having to get up. This job resulted in her needing glasses by the time she was five.
Dad didn’t watch many police shows. I suppose he saw enough crime during the day. In fact, he told me some of the programs aired were so bad they should be crimes. “The only show that is even close to how real detectives act is Barney Miller,” Dad said more than once.
This story makes my cousin Brian laugh. Brian was a police officer in Baltimore City for fourteen years, and then went on to become a detective. We have long discussions about
police work, so I asked him how he felt about the way police are portrayed on TV shows.
“I liked the shows Southland, NYPD Blue and Third Watch because they were true to both the personal and professional aspects of police life. Most of the new shows on today are far from realistic,” he answered.
My friend Tom, who is a detective sergeant in the Boston area and has served on the force for thirty one years, enjoys a few of the police dramas including True Detective, which he finds to be pretty accurate. “I watched a lot of police shows as a kid. The Rookies, Police Story and Columbo were some of my favorites,” Tom said. He also noted that many shows today can be misleading. “The CSI series created a false image of our work, especially how evidence is actually processed,” Tom said adding, “The Shield was a show that really kicked cops reputations, but I think Law and Order is a legitimate show.” Both Tom and Brian agreed that Hill Street Blues was also one that stayed close to the actual way police behaved.
When I asked Tom if he thought shows influenced the way the public felt about officers he had this to say: “The public who supports the police will do so regardless of TV shows. There is no show that will change the opinion of those who take shots and constantly criticize us.” Tom’s comment was true. It is hard to change opinions that are already formed.
I have to admit, had I not been raised by a detective I might believe what’s aired on TV. I enjoy watching police and detective shows, though I am more likely to watch Elementary or Castle because I am looking for entertainment not facts. I’ve never seen an episode of The Wire and I’m not sure I want to. When my dad passed away in 2006 I had all his stories stuck in my head, but it wasn’t the same as hearing him deliver them. A couple of years ago I discovered a show on cable called Homicide Hunter. Listening to Lt. Joe Kenda describe the crimes is like having a visit with my dad. If I close my eyes I can almost imagine it is him. Their speech patterns and mannerisms are so similar it amazes me. I look forward to those nights. To me the police are heroes and that’s the way I want to see them portrayed on screen. I know it’s not always a reality, but, after all, it’s only television.