Homicide: Life on The Street Retrospective

Part 4: Comparing Homicide’s ‘Bosses’ to The Wire’s

He was a horrible police boss.

One of the reasons that David Simon thought Homicide was flawed as a TV series was that too many of the cops were shown as straw men. An example he has used more than once was the character of Roger Gaffney, greasily portrayed by Walt McPherson from Season 3 to the end of the series. Gaffney was a sexist, racist, sloppy detective who in his introduction bungles a case so badly and responds with such prejudice to his boss Lieutenant Russert that she kicks him out of Homicide and into Missing Persons. Some time in Season 4 (we never find out how) he is promoted to Lieutenant and ends up getting promoted to Captain of Homicide, shocking everybody including Giardello who seemed sure to get the promotion. Gaffney would be a festering sore on everybody in the unit, even going so far as to demean his own superiors at times.

Simon’s reason for disliking this was the idea that Gaffney promotion was more done out of the need to give the characters a villain rather than any realistic portrayal of how police promotions work in Baltimore. Even after seeing The Wire in its entirety, I have never held with that perception. Firstly, because too many of the same bosses in The Wire were not given much more dimension than any of the ones on Homicide. You can make the argument that they are stuck in a broken system and that the characters who end up advancing do so solely because of politics within the department, but it doesn’t change the fact that with the exception of Cedric Daniels and one or two others, none of them are ever given the dimension or exploration that Simon and its writers would do for basically all of the dozens of other characters on the series. There is more depth given to the dockworkers in Season 2 than we get for Rawls in all five seasons. At some point, Simon made the choice to prioritize everybody but them.

Secondly, and just as important, he neglects the level of depth that Tom Fontana and his fellow writers on Homicide were more than willing to give some of the bosses and fringe characters than Simon did when he was writing for The Wire. And much as he might want to argue about characters being promoted for good drama, there was as much petty politics then there often was for The Wire.

Before I go into specifics, I should add that one of the great strengths of Homicide was the casting not just in the leadings, but in almost every recurring character that we ended up seeing during the entire series, whether they were superior officers, patrol cops reporting to the detectives or the medical examiners who reported the results. A fan favorite (and I am one) was the character of Scheiner, the ancient and very crotchety medical examiner who has been there so long that at one point Pembleton said: “Scheiner may outlive us all. “ Falsone reported: “He’ll outlive himself. Do his own autopsy.” We never learned a single thing about his backstory, but Ralph Tabakin was so good as expressing his moods with so few lines that it didn’t matter.

And just as clearly Homicide would do a very good job when it came to dealing with the superior officers, which were usually represented by George Barnfather, wonderfully played by Clayton LeBouef. (Not by chance, LeBouef was one of more than a dozen actors who appeared in small and large roles on Homicide who ended up doing a guest stint on The Wire. He appeared in Season 1 as a manager of one of the Barksdale’s legitimate businesses whose desire to get in ‘the game’ leads to him being arrested for dealing and getting killed when an undercover stings goes haywire.)

Barnfather was already a captain when the series began and would eventually be promoted to Colonel in the middle of Season 3. Barnfather was viewed as a man who Giardello had to run interference while his detectives were working. This could often end up backfiring. In an early episode in the midst of the investigation into the murder of Adena Watson, the case that was the backbone of Season 1 (and in a larger sense, the entire series) at a public event he would let slip information vital to the investigation. An infuriated Bayliss would call his house in the middle of the night and call him a butthead. Giardello’s response when he heard of this was to call Bayliss to his office, dress him down and order him to apologize to Barnfather. Bayliss would say (correctly) that Barnfather was the one who had screwed up and that he was the one who owed the apology to the Watson family. Gee would tell Bayliss that was true but it was also irrelevant. Needless to say Bayliss apologized.

This loyalty was rarely returned by Barnfather and on some occasions detectives (usually Frank Pembleton) would go over Gee’s head. In ‘See No Evil’, Pembleton is called in to investigate the shooting of C.C. Cox, where an officer claims he shot him accidentally, but it’s very clear that he is covering for someone. Pembleton wants to start investigating officers; Gee thinks it that the cops are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. In a scene absolutely dripping with tension, Pembleton tells Gee that he wants him to authorize officers to submit their weapons for a ballistic test. Giardello not only refuses, for one of the few times he actually questions Pembleton’s skill as a detective. A quietly infuriated Pembleton says: “Fine. I’ll go to Barnfather with this,” and walks out. An incredibly angry Giardello says simply: “You son of a bitch, Pembleton.”

For all the venom that every detective felt towards Barnfather (in an episode where he is being held hostage, the detectives actively joke about how he’s doing fine because “he’d have to be made of stone not to be scared) Tom Fontana and his fellow writers would go out of their way to offer humanity to him that I almost never saw on The Wire. In the arc which I have mentioned about the three detectives on the shift being shot, Barnfather comes down early in the process. Russert automatically thinks he’s here to berate Giardello; instead, he says he’s there to offer his full support. Later on, we learn the detectives went to the wrong address because of a clerical error in the warrant that Giardello signed off on. Barnfather comes down to berate Giardello, and Russert defends him by arguably about the out-of-date computer system that led to slip-ups like this happening. Rather than focus his anger on Russert, Barnfather offers something very close to an apology and quietly leaves. Barnfather was always pestering Gee about the clearance rate and more often than not the problems his detectives caused, but more often then not you got the perspective that while he was more bureaucrat than cop, he understood the problems the squads was going through and was more humane than almost any other superior officer I’ve seen on any cop show before or since.

So how do we explain the rise of Gaffney in this sense? The answer may lie in the man behind the scenes, Deputy Commissioner James Harris, played by the late master character actor Al Freeman, Jr. He was usually mentioned far more than he was seen, but the times we saw him we got a much clearer perspective of how the Baltimore P.D. operated.

In a third season episode, Harris comes down to the squad to have a conversation with Pembleton about looking into the kidnapping of a Maryland congressman. Pembleton, for a change, is dazzled by power and agrees to it without telling Giardello the details. When Frank investigates, he quickly learns there was no kidnapping, this was an attempt at revenge to cover up an affair the Congressman was having with a male staffer. Pembleton could let this go, except the Congressman filed a false police report which is a crime. After telling Harris this, Pembleton receives vague instructions to tell the Congressman what happened and that there will be no investigation. He does so, but the investigation is leaked to the press and Pembleton is left to twist in the wind. (This storyline, for the record, is based on a true event that you can find in Simon’s book.)

Pembleton meets with Barnfather, Harris and Gee in Giardello’s office. Pembleton tells them what happened, and Harris throws Pembleton under the bus. Barnfather suspends Pembleton and when Frank turns to Gee for help, Giardello refuses to give it because he was left out of the loop. Forced into a corner, Frank turns in his badge. (This was a rare example of the series escalating an incident for dramatic tension; the very next episode Frank would be back in the department.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the scene I just described was a significant one in television history, if one initially escaped even the actors within it (including Andre Braugher) until it was done. All four of the characters in this scene were African American. At this point in time in broadcast television, if you had more than two African-American characters in a scene, it was understood that race was being discussed. A scene like this would have been considered ordinary if all or even if one of the actors in it were white. There was something quietly revolutionary about it. Much as we have come to determine that a scene with two female characters not discussing sex or men passes the Bechdel Test, I think any scene with two or more African American characters in it on TV not discussing race passes the Homicide test. It’s impossible to imagine so many of the scenes in Scandal or Empire happening without Homicide having scenes like this.

The criminal investigation into Wade passed (we never learn how) but the ramifications would be long term. In the middle of Season 5, trying to help Kellerman during his investigation for corruption, Giardello comes to Harris for help. We learn they have a history and they are initially friendly. Then Harris mentions Gaffney’s promotion and makes it clear it should have been Gee’s, but it was ‘my message to you.” Giardello has spent his career not be politically pliant and now the consequences have come down. Simon may claim that Gaffney’s promotion was a simple straw man move, but Harris’ explanation is no less blunt or realistic than a storyline we get involving Captain Daniels in Season 3. He’s been promised the next available promotion to Major, but because of his wife’s political career, Mayor Royce has been blunt that it will not happen.

He became commissioner of the Baltimore PD. alchetron.com

And frankly, for Simon to say that the bosses on Homicide were not these kind of petty bullies really underscores just how horrible they were. I could give about a half dozen example, but I’ll settle for Season 2. The entire investigation against Union Boss Frank Sobotka, unfolds basically because Major Stan Valchek is upset that he can get a stain glass window of a policeman in his favorite church. He starts a task force to investigate Sobotka not because he really thinks he’s doing anything illegal or because of the deaths of fourteen girls on his docks, but because as his own son-in-law says at one point: “My father-in-law hates his guts, which in the Western qualifies as probable cause.” The investigation only gets upgraded when Valchek learns about badly the new commissioner tanked the Barksdale case, and Valchek uses that to manipulate him even though he doesn’t care about the details. When the investigation eventually widens beyond Sobotka to something bigger than the task force suspected, Valchek is upset because they’re not going after the man he wants. He calls the FBI to widen the approach (which will lead to the investigation being sabotaged) then berates the entire task force for not doing what he wanted for them and tries to pull Prez (his son-in-law, whose desires to become a good investigator he openly has mocked at every opportunity) from the room. In the penultimate episode, Valchek holds up the arrest of Sobotka, purely because he wants to arrest him himself. You get the feeling when Sobotka ends up dead in the season finale (as an indirect result of his own action, though Valchek never learns this) that he doesn’t real mind. This is a level of pettiness and utter disdain far beyond anything that happens at Homicide and in the final minutes of The Wire, Valchek becomes commissioner. It’s far more complicated than any of the reasons than we ever got for Gaffney’s rise up the ranks, but it is just as absurd.

So Simon’s critique that so many of the higher ups on Homicide were falsely drawn doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. The bosses on the series may well have bureaucrats more than they were cops, but that essentially makes them more models for so many of the ones we ended up seeing on The Wire. Are we supposed to consider the former series inferior because it showed so many of the police with more humanity than we got on the latter? That’s a level of pettiness that’s actually worthy of far too many of the bosses on The Wire and it doesn’t make a ‘boss’ like Simon look good.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.