The Problem Of “Dirty Hands”

The role of police officers is to prioritize, above all else, the public safety of the community in which they serve. However, at this point, it isn’t surprising that the law enforcement in The Wire is willing to turn the other cheek on a situation spiraling out of control for the sake of their image. Most of the time it’s all about the politics, and in this week’s episodes, we really have the chance to see police department corruption at work. Freamon discovers that Marlo is able to control the streets without producing bodies because he disposes of them in the abandoned homes. When Freamon informs Landsman on this phenomenon, he is quickly turned away because the department has already reached their murder threshold for the year. According to Colin Wood in Finding the Motivation to Mobilize “self-interested people would  pass on such a proposition [to fight against corruption] unless pushed to extreme bounds of indignity or suffering.”  If they were to surpass the limit, Jay’s job would be on the line and that is something that he is not willing to risk- not even for the citizens of Baltimore. In this regard, Jay has no code; he will not waver in his stance and it would take someone who outranks him to change his mind. This is exactly what happens, Freamon continues to move higher up until it reaches Mayor Carcetti, who orders for the department to begin looking for the bodies. In Freamon’s case though, he fights against the corruption of the police department simply because he is a good cop, he has a code. It is the constant power struggle between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that makes The Wire so interesting.

In Laurie Calhoun’s The Problem of “Dirty Hands” and Leadership, she argues that “The problem of dirty hands refers to the alleged necessity of compromising or abandoning moral principle in order to play the role of government effectively.” Here she is saying that when one is in a position of power, they will inevitably come to the point where morality is abandoned for effective governing. We can even push this argument further and say that effective governing or leadership is only achieved if one were to abandon morality.

In this week’s episode, we see that there is a clear dichotomy between staying true to your morals or abandoning them in the name of power security. In episode 12 when Bodie is talking to McNulty he states, “This game is rigged man, we’re like some little bitches on a chess board… pawns.” Bodie is arguing that the Stanfield organization is breaking the rules of the game because they kill whoever they want JUST because they can. David Simon’s choice to let Bodie of all people say this is extremely significant. Throughout the entirety of the series, Bodie was seen as the cold-hearted character whose compatibility with the streets seems to be unrivaled. This becomes fact to viewers after his part he played in killing Wallace, who was symbolized as the remaining piece of the humanity of those around him. Bodie is angry at the fact that Marlo and his gang have no morals. The Barksdale Organization, Omar, and the entire co-op of drug organizations alike each have their code. For example, Omar doesn’t kill any innocents or kids, and everyone involved in “The Game” doesn’t shoot on Sundays. Marlo, however, is the show’s only outlier. He has no code to go by, which makes his organization so infamous and tainted that it makes a character like Bodie, who served as the epitome of the soldier, tremble and take lengths as far as snitching to bring the organization down. Not only this, but the fact that Bodie is checkmated by the Marlow organization only further proves the point that Marlow monopolizes the idea of what it’s like to have a heart with no remorse.

19 thoughts on “The Problem Of “Dirty Hands”

  1. Cameron Keeley-Parker

    I like how you contrasted the principle of “dirty hands” between the police department and the drug trade. In regard to the drug trade, I would argue that having “dirty hands” is a necessity that can also turn on those in charge. In the drug trade of the Wire, there is a different morality followed by the drug dealers. These empires value loyalty, trust, and obedience. Although Marlo’s use of terror to keep his organization in check may seem excessive, it has led to his increased success in not only protecting his empire, but further expanding it. We saw how the Barksdale organization tried to get their hands dirty in an effort to succeed, but eventually failed. Both Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell tried to betray each other so that they can lead the organization the way they desired, which we know backfired for both parties and causes the collapse of the organization. This principle of “dirty hands” can also be seen in the educational system of Baltimore. For example, throughout Season 4 we follow the progress of the students placed in Prezbo’s class. At first Prezbo struggle to teach the children, but he eventually realizes how to connect with them and begins to educate them on things like probability with dice-rolling. However, the administration of the school made the decision to teach to the state-wide standardized test in order to avoid being shut down by the state. In this way, the administration dirtied their hands in order to keep control over the school. This creates a losing situation for the students since they are forced to stop learning in order to conform to a test which will not help them in the future unlike the actual learning they were previously doing.

  2. Charles Bugg

    I agree with you 100% Quell, the entire situation involving murder threshold is a travesty and a shame. It is scary to even think about a murder threshold being a real thing. In these episodes we see the murder threshold be reached and the politics behind it. I agree that Landsman is more worried about keeping his job than the people of Baltimore, because he is too afraid to confront his higher ups to propose to look for the bodies. He simply does not care about them the way Freamon does. Id like to think he may still have a code, but I agree that Freamon has a stronger moral sense of right and wrong, especially in this scenario. I also agree with you when you wrote about “power security”. Landsman has a job, with his job as a high up and respected detective, he has power. He wants to keep the power, which means he does not want to anger anyone by going over the murder threshold and looking for the hidden bodies. Thank goodness for Mayor Carcetti, who deems the lives of the people he is in charge of more important than the city looking bad because of high murder rates. The image of the city is not more important than lives of the citizens. These episodes illuminated viewers to both power struggles and scary regulations in law enforcement. The murder threshold is something law enforcement does not want people to know about, especially any firm details. Ignorance is bliss.

    1. Miquell

      Yes, I agree with your point about the Image of the city being more important than the lives of the citizens. I think that’s been the main theme that David Simon wanted the audience to take from his choice to include the political aspect to the show.

  3. Jamie Polak

    Quell, I like how you bring in a quote from Colin Wood’s Find the Motivation to Mobilize as it connects well to main themes and issues depicted in the last two episodes of season four. Lester Freemon is that person who will push self-interested police like Jay and Royce to bounds of indignity in order to force them to do the right thing and look for the dead bodies in the abandoned homes. The last two episodes of season four highlight a subtle theme throughout all four seasons of police not doing their job in order to protect it. Well, maybe not subtle. We have seen this issue before in season two when the argument arises between the city police of Baltimore and county police of Baltimore regarding the location of where the dead body of a eastern European escort is found. The body is located on the Patapsco River, close to the border that separates the boundaries in which each police force does their case work in. No one wants the case due to the high difficulty of solving as what the police deem a classic unsolvable “jane doe” murder investigation. Rawls indicates his unwillingness to the Baltimore county police of accepting the case because he does not want his reputation to be damaged due to his unit being unable to clear murders before the end of the year. As we see with Jay and Royce’s disincline to accept Lester’s murder cases because they have already reached the murder threshold, neither police force wants the responsibility to solve this murder case for the same reason.

  4. Amara

    In the episodes for this week; we are given a chance to see to see the police department corruption at work. This corruption even spreads as far as into the mayor’s office, when he is faced with an issue of collecting money from the governor or refusing too and retaining his votes for the next election. Here we see Carcetti trying to honor to his campaign promises, but ultimately he fails. I think that Calhoun’s argument of dirty hands further explains Carcetti’s decision, as he abandons the moral principle to play the role of a mayor chasing a governor’s seat.
    The concept of morals, play a huge role in this season as you said Bodie’s anger towards Marlo merely is rooted in the fact that he has no morals. Everyone has a code, it’s not perfect, but it exists. However, Marlo refuses to incorporate this idea into his lifestyle, and it not only angers Bodie but everyone including the audience. I have to agree with you Simon using Bodie to convey this message is also extremely significant due to his past.

    1. Miquell

      I agree with you 100% Amara. Your point about Marlo’s unwillingness to incorporate a code within his lifestyle is really the fundamental issue that’s causing the show to drift towards a more darker path compared to the previous seasons. In all honesty, we as an audience knew when Avon or Stringer would have someone killed. There were signs leading up to their decision for murder, they never just jumped to that extreme as quick. Marlo, on the other hand, is unpredictable. Half the time, the audience has no idea when Marlo even gives the word to have Chris and Snoop kill someone. Its as if we and the rest of the streets of Baltimore alike are filled with anticipation on who’ll be the next to disappear.

  5. Elizabeth Colantonio

    I could not agree with you more on your points Quell. It is very evident in The Wire that the struggle between sticking to your morals and abandoning them for power exists. As you stated, Marlo is a perfect example of this. Clearly, we do not agree morally with what Marlo is doing, but he seems to justify his terrible actions with the ability to retain power on the streets. I loved when the series brought back the idea of the chess game. If you recall in season one, Bodie and Wallace were playing checkers on the chess board and D’Angelo corrects them. During this interaction, D’Angelo explains the rules of chess and most importantly (somewhat inadvertently) the rules of the drug game. While listening to D’Angelo, viewers realize that the individuals involved in the drug game have created their own rules for the game, but the rules are mutually accepted and followed by all. As you brought up we see this with rules such as no attacks on Sundays and the power hierarchy. Clearly, Marlo is breaking a large amount of the rules that are present in the game right now. It almost seems like he is starting to create his own game of chess in the drug game. His game is one that is very different and more violent than the current drug game and it could turn the drug game into something even uglier than it is. Furthermore, the police department is doing nothing to help this situation. We see them try and ignore the murders found by Freamon simply because their clear rate will be worse. The goal of the police department in this circumstance is the opposite of what it is supposed to be. The police are looking out for themselves, not the people. Situations like this are what let people like Marlo think they can do what they want and create whatever rules they want with no moral intent.

    1. Miquell

      I share your insight into the nature of “The Game”. I’m actually talking about a mix of that and what I wrote in my blog… So dibs lol

  6. Camryn Williams

    I completely agree with your points. The fact that there is a murder threshold is sad honestly, as there are more people being affected by this than just the police department. Family and friends are missing a loved one, without any idea of where they are. One would think that closure would be a concept that the Baltimore Police Department would keep in mind. I really liked the quote that you incorporated, as I felt as if it encompasses the point you previously made about power security. The idea of “power security” is evident throughout all seasons, as each character wants to move into higher ranks and become more successful, essentially becoming as powerful as they can. We see morals and power clashing harder than before, as each character wrestles with their own code and whether or not they choose to break it. I really like how you brought up the idea of Marlo’s organization not having any code. This brings up an important question, does having a code give someone more or less power? In some ways, yes, as we see Omar and other groups surviving throughout the seasons we have seen. Also, in the same sense, Marlo, who has no code has been holding his own and taking care of anyone who crosses him.

    1. Miquell

      That’s a great question Camryn!! I’d love to kick off our discussion with that question to hear more about what you and the class thinks.

  7. Shira Greer

    As you state in your post, throughout the series we have seen issues with “juking the stats” and the failures brought about by such a practice. In these final episodes, we see just how far the upper-level officers such as Landsman are willing to go to “juke the stats;” they are willing to ignore the murders of Marlo’s crew just for self-preservation. While you argue Landsman has no moral code due to his unwillingness to investigate the murders of Marlo’s crew, I disagree because Landsman simply seems to follow an egoistic moral code, placing his own job security above doing his job and helping the community. However, I would agree that in doing so, Landsman sacrifices his integrity as a police officer. As you mention, this willingness to sacrifice integrity for self-preservation is a phenomenon we see throughout the series, especially among the politicians and the police department. By highlighting this phenomenon, Simon underscores the ways in which institutions such as the criminal justice system and politics continually fail individuals.

    However, by including characters such as Freamon, Simon demonstrates that the world is not devoid of people who regard integrity highly, and that at times this dedication to integrity will yield results. Through Freamon’s determination, he was able to secure permission to investigate the murders of the Stanfield organization, a small victory in a world rife with the triumph of bureaucracy over morality. Although these investigations ultimately have little significance in the overall trajectory of Baltimore, they are still worth pursuing in the name of moral justice.

    1. Brianna Charlton

      The idea that Landsman has an “alternate moral code that is more egoistic is something that I hadn’t even thought about, but I agree with it completely. Now that I look at it, it never fails that he seems to save himself at the expense of everything else – so it wouldnt be invalid to say that he has a code to himself that he lives by.

  8. A'kayla Williams

    I agree that it isn’t surprising that the law enforcement in the show is sacrificing the well being of the community for their image. The morality of the law enforcers are always questioned especially in the last few seasons of The Wire; it is a recurring theme. What makes it even more shocking is that, like previously stated, it is seen at work. Being that power is in the hands of very few people, it is sad to think to about how it affects the “smaller people.” I also agree that Bodie identifying that lack of morality from Marlow is significant because ever since he killed Wallace, I thought he lost his virtue, and it made me question his character and what he stands for. Being that he examines Marlow shows that he has morals and isn’t able to justify Marlow’s behavior. I also believe that Marlow is intriguing because he lacks the code that everyone else have, it almost seems unhumanly and impossible to be that emotionless and heartless; however, Marlow continues to show how possible it is.

    1. Miquell

      Yo, you bring up a lot of great points! Marlow being that unique variable that lacks a code definitely establishes his difference from any character we have ever seen in the series. Especially since this problem is expressed most radically through Bodie who, as you said, was seen to have lost its virtue… You should talk more in class like I said, you bring up great points.

  9. Caterina Erdas

    I agree with your first argument about the police department and Freamon. Switching to Marlo, he is constantly killing people off the street to “send a message” about disobedience. Marlo is running a dictatorship that reminds me of the Soviet Union. Snoop and Partlow serve as the KGB that silently makes people disappear forever. Everyone on the streets knows that Marlo is behind the disappearances. I disagree that Bodie is checkmated by Marlo. Instead, I interpreted Bodie’s death as him just giving up. The Game has lost any integrity and rules, and Bodie does not want to be a part of it, nor be controlled by Marlo. He is also frustrated that he has been on the corner and nothing has happened. Bodie decides to stay and fight to his death. He was not outsmarted or caught off guard by Marlo. Bodie saw them creep up behind and knows what is about to go down. He tells Poot to leave and get to safety so that no one else is hurt for his actions. Bodie wants to go out fighting, like a soldier, instead of getting boarded up in an empty loft.

    1. Miquell

      I disagree with your argument and justification behind Bodie giving up. Id love to discuss this further in class.

  10. Arthur Worthington

    I think you make some very important points in this post, and I agree with what you have to say. Throughout the series we continue to talk about corruption in the law enforcement. Additionally we have to think about what can be considered good policing. They seem to care about promoting themselves so they try to avoid important cases. When Freamon tells Jay about the bodies you see how they are less worried about the people that have been killed, but more worried about keeping their numbers in line. Priorities seem to be muddled among law enforcement, while some people like McNulty and Freamon care about doing what they believe is right, others just turn the other cheek in hopes of promotions. By continuing to move higher up, Freamon is showing how he actually cares about what it means to be a good cop. I think the scene that you bring up between Bodie and McNulty is a great one. The point you make about Simon using Bodie is interesting. Until Marlo came around I always thought of Bodie as one of the hardest characters in the show. Bodie is a soldier that would do anything for respect and promotion. To see him upset about the Stanfield organization on behalf of their lack of morals, is somewhat ironic considering Bodie’s past. Simon intelligently brought us back to chess metaphor in this encounter. Throughout these last few episodes morals seem to be incredibly important. Morals were lacking within law enforcement by trying to cover up murders so they wouldn’t pass a certain number, and Bodie is extremely upset about how Marlo lacks morals as well.

  11. Avery Solsbak

    The show has shown us a pretty scary transformation of the drug game this season. As you pointed out, Bodie was once our viewpoint of what it takes to be a soldier in this world. He was tough, he killed Wallace, and he’s done many other things as well. What’s so interesting to me is just how much colder this new generation has gotten. Bodie almost seems soft by comparison. This is very well highlighted by the transformation of Michael. When Bodie killed Wallace, (I’m assuming that was the first time Bodie had killed someone) there was hesitation, to the point where he was shaking. Michael just popped out of the dark and shot Bodie with zero hesitation. We’ve seen this growing coldness of murder throughout the past seasons. Last season, we saw this contrasted with Cutty and Slim Charles when Slim killed the little kid and didn’t even seem to think about it whilst Cutty couldn’t bring himself to kill someone helpless. Marlo is the harbinger of a more randomly violent world, Bodie used to fulfill that same purpose but even he isn’t hard enough.

  12. Joseph Angrick

    I am curious if these murder thresholds are a thing in real life and if they are real, are they taken this seriously? In my opinion, Landsman is doing what he thinks he thinks is best for keeping his job, but is also taking a huge risk. Imagine if today on the news you saw that a local police department was covering up over 20 murders and refusing to investigate them. Anyone in that department with power would be fired and hard pressed to find a new job. While this is intense corruption, I struggle to believe that this is something people would really do. In order to do, a person must really not have a code at all, because its absolutely horrific. The parents and friends of these kids need to know what has happened to them instead of holding onto hope that they could come back. Before we watched these episodes, I really liked Landsman as a police officer, but i just can’t like him anymore. The more i think about it, he is all for the stats.

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