Ranking the Detectives of The Wire
By Barney Doyle
Cops should be the most realistic portrayal of cops on television. Camera crews follow actual police officers performing their duties, an editor chops out the hours of mundane paperwork and inaction, and what remains is set to a catchy reggae intro. That should be as real as a cop show gets. But it isn’t.
I’ve seen the filming of a reality police show (not Cops, but one of the dozens of imitators that run constantly in the deepest recesses of your cable package). It wasn’t staged like a lot of reality television is, but it wasn’t exactly “real” either. There was definitely a performance aspect to it. Guys who were usually covered in lint and dog hair were suddenly starched, pressed and shined like they were headed to court. Lieutenants who hadn’t been observed outside an arm’s reach of the breakroom in years were suddenly finding their way to every call, lights and sirens blazing, whether they were needed or not. Suspects stared directly into the camera, drunkenly mispronouncing words they did not know the meaning of. Even old Barney Doyle was boldly quoting sections of the code book as if all seven viewers didn’t have Google to see how full of shit he really was.
I’m not saying that shows like Cops aren’t real, I’m just saying they aren’t the most realistic portrayal of cops on television. That honor belongs to The Wire.
The Wire captured law enforcement in a nuanced, authentic and unvarnished way like no show before or since. It showed the best and worst that a standard metropolitan police department had to offer, and almost every bit of it was believable. It was so real that we are about to rank the characters from worst to best and assign them real-life cases that corresponds to their skill level.
Yes, I realize that it is a fifteen-year-old show. Yes, I also realize that you are probably going to have to go back and watch it again. I don’t feel bad about that. What are you watching right now that would be a better use of your time than a repeated viewing of The Wire? Sheeeeeee-it.
Detective Roland Pryzbylewski
Because he had a couple of small contributions on the Barksdale case and redeemed himself with a second career as a middle school teacher, it is easy to forget what a disaster Prezbo was as a detective. He accidentally discharged his firearm in the office. That’s a minimum of two days unpaid vacation in any normal police department. He shot up his patrol car and radioed in a fake distress call. That’s a fireable offense anywhere. He pistol-whipped a teenager, blinding him in one eye. That’s aggravated assault. He killed another plainclothes detective in a tragic blue-on-blue shooting. That’s manslaughter. He punched a commanding officer in the face in front of an entire squad room, and that was as close as he got to a triumph in his police career.
He was useful following a paper trail on a drug conspiracy case, but only with Lester Freamon babysitting him every step of the way. Roland Pryzbylewski may have eventually become a decent man, but he was indefensible as a police officer.
True Crime Case: A serial defecator defiled the ground outside of a Staten Island family’s home multiple times in July of 2019. It was unclear whether public pooping was an actual crime or not, so police seemed reluctant to investigate.
Detectives Augustus Polk and Patrick Mahon
Not that there was a lot of competition, but the greatest love story in the entire show was that of Auggie Polk and Paddy Mahon. There was a scene in the hospital where Mahon told Polk, who was about to medically retire with a minor shoulder injury, that he didn’t know if he could carry on without him. It might have been the most tender moment in the entire series.
Drunken, surly and insubordinate, Polk and Mahon were archetypes for a specific kind of “seasoned’ officers you will find in just about every midsize or large department in the United States. Everybody has them. They know the policy manual better than anybody in the department and utilize every loophole to avoid police work at all costs. If they are forced to do work, they do it just well enough to avoid getting in trouble but poorly enough that nobody asks them for anything again.
True Crime Case: Nine suspects were indicted in 2015 for stealing more than $100,000 worth of Wild Turkey and Pappy Van Winkle from distilleries in Kentucky. That’s the kind of case a pair of good Irish detectives could take an interest in.
Detective Thomas Hauk
There is a famous story in law enforcement, probably apocryphal, about a midwestern police department in the early 1990s. The specific department changes depending on who is telling the story and how they heard it. But it generally goes a little something like this: a traveling expert is providing training on interrogation techniques at a local police department. While on a break, a Captain asked the expert to come see the department’s interview room. The expert was impressed with the way the room was set up and complimented the Captain. The Captain proudly explained that he had already taken the interrogation course and had set the room up himself, exactly to the instructor’s specifications. The expert said the room was close to perfect. But research showed that the best colors for interview rooms were neutral colors such as beige or white. The expert asked why the room was dark red. The captain explained, “well, I know what the research says, but if we’ve got somebody in the box and we know they did it, we are getting a confession.” The expert was confused. “How does a red room help get a confession?” he asked. “It doesn’t,” the Captain said. “But it helps with the cleanup.”
Herc was a head-thumper. He broke countless department rules, endangered the lives of more than one informant, and couldn’t do much on a complicated investigation. But he put people in handcuffs. And a lot of the time they were criminals. There was a time in this country when Herc’s style of police work was tolerated, but those days are thankfully over. And detectives like Herc have limited use in the era of beige interrogation rooms.
True Crime Case: The North Hollywood Shootout was the rare case where police did not need to concern themselves with questions of excessive force. That’s exactly when you want a detective like Herc.
Detective Michael Santangelo
Sanny was a homicide detective, which should have put him above most of the detectives in the narcotics and property crimes units. But he was never shown making any actual progress on a murder. His only clearance came from work done by two other detectives. Plus, he consulted a psychic. I’ve worked on a few cold cases from the dark ages (late 1980s through mid 1990s) and have seen psychics consulted on actual murder investigations. Inexcusable. Consulting a psychic is proof positive that a detective is in the wrong line of work.
True Crime Case: A carnival worker was accused of murdering three women in Tennessee in 2019. If his tent was beside the fortune teller’s, it is possible that a psychic actually could have contributed something useful to a murder investigation.
The Working Police
Detective Ellis Carver
Carver had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire show. He started as Herc’s partner, another head-thumper of questionable integrity who was relegated to grunt work on a case that was over his head. He symbolized the show’s thesis about modern urban policing, that a systematic obsession with dubious crime statistics had stripped departments of officers who knew how to do good police work. But whereas Herc stayed on that path, Carver followed the direction of Major Colvin and became a cop who learned his streets, respected his community and tried to make a difference. He never proved to be that strong of an actual investigator, but he wasn’t a disgrace either. He was never going to be the one to bring down Marlo Stanfield, but, given the chance, he could help a better cop get there.
True Crime Case: Dallas Cowboys legend Nate Newton was arrested in November of 2001 with over 200 pounds of marijuana, then again in December of that year with another 175 pounds. He seems to have straightened his life out since then, so I don’t wish to poke fun at the man, but that’s the type of easy-pickings drug bust that Carver could have handled.
Detectives Vernon Holley, Michael Crutchfield and Ed Norris
By virtue of the fact that they were assigned to the homicide unit, we can assume that these three had proven themselves to be better than most of the other detectives. We saw Holley taking a statement from a witness in the Stringer Bell murder (“BNBG”), we saw Crutchfield working a game with Bunk to pit two co-conspirators against each other, and we saw Norris take the lead in the murder of a state’s witness (even if the assignment was temporarily taken from him for political reasons). They were all useful criminal investigators, but none of them was perfect. Holley wrongly got it in his head that Bubbles was involved with Kima Greggs’ shooting, so he tried to beat information out of him. Crutchfield was bitter about Bunk Moreland meddling in one of his cases, so he withheld important information from Bunk on another case. Norris got upstaged by a rookie homicide detective on the biggest case we saw him work. They weren’t perfect. To steal a line from the most eloquent porn-loving sergeant in television history, “He wasn’t the greatest detective. He wasn’t the worst. He put down some good cases and he dogged a few bad ones. But the motherfucker had his moments, yes he fucking did.”
True Crime Case: Jeffery Epstein’s death. Holley and Crutchfield knew how to work a scene and Norris loved to stir shit up, so this case would have been solved one way or another.
Detective Leandor Sydnor
Sydnor had everything a great detective should have. He was smart. He didn’t hide from hard work. He learned fast. He was good undercover, willing to pull his weight on surveillance and game to chase the paper trail. By the end of season five, he should have been headed for the top of this list. But he followed the wrong rabbi, and the series ended with him down the doomed path of Jimmy McNulty.
True Crime Case: Eight members of the Trained To Go (TTg) gang were arrested on racketeering charges in Baltimore in 2017 for distributing heroin, marijuana and cocaine and participating in eight murders. Some things never change.
Detective James McNulty
If you ever find yourself discussing The Wire with a coworker, pay careful attention when they start talking about Jimmy McNulty. It’s ok to find McNulty funny. It’s even ok to find McNulty charming. But if a coworker sympathizes with McNulty or sees a lot of McNulty in themselves, then you’ve got a problem on your hands. You’re working with an asshole.
McNulty was a self-righteous, insubordinate bastard who cared way more about being the smartest guy in the room than he did about solving crimes. He threw a fit when Lieutenant Daniels wanted to take the Barksdale case in a direction McNulty didn’t want to go, even though the decision was entirely Daniels’ to make and there was no real evidence that McNulty knew better. He screwed over every friend he had in the department just to stick Major Rawls with a bunch of unsolved homicides. He tampered with evidence and lied on an affidavit just to get a wire tap the department wouldn’t support. He insulted anybody who didn’t see it his way, and wouldn’t hesitate to burn a bridge as he was standing on it. McNulty was, as was professed over and over again throughout the show, an asshole.
So why is he this high on the list? Well, he was absurdly gifted at solving murders. He discovered that the girls on the container ship were murdered and that it was related to the girl found floating in the harbor. He figured out that D’Angelo Barksdale’s death wasn’t a suicide. And when the imaginary serial killer he fabricated inspired a copycat, McNulty solved it almost immediately.
He was an asshole that always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. But sometimes he was.
True Crime Case: The Tupac Shakur murder. The unsolved murder of a celebrity like Shakur would be perfect for a smart, talented and ragingly egotistical homicide detective like McNulty.
The Natural Police
Detective Lester Freamon
Lester was as complicit as McNulty in the ill-gotten wire tap, but there was a distinction in why he did it. McNulty wanted to prove that he was the smartest guy in the room and that he knew better than the brass did. Lester Freamon just wanted to put bad guys in jail.
In The Wire, a fiend had to get high, a longshoreman had to have a shot and a beer and Smooth Lester Freamon had to put criminals in bracelets. That’s just the way it was.
From the moment Freamon put down his doll furniture and brought back a photo of Avon Barksdale, he was the engine that drove what eventually became the Major Case unit. He was the one who unraveled every pager and pay phone code that Barksdale’s crew could come up with. He was the one who solved the burner phone problem. He was the one who deciphered the mess of shell companies and illicit payments that tied the drug corners to the politicians. And he and Bunk solved all of the dead girls in the shipping container. Hell, Freamon was working his way through the Stanfield murders before anybody even knew the murders had happened.
For my money, Lester Freamon was the most talented detective in television history. But not for a feloniously obtained wire-tap with McNulty, he would have been at the very top of this list.
True Crime Case: It’s been almost fifty years since D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane, collected $200,000 ransom and disappeared, mid-flight, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. We’d know what happened by now if Lester Freamon had a crack at it.
Detective Kima Greggs
There was a stretch in season 3 when it looked like Greggs might be becoming a female McNulty. She was drinking a lot, she was sleeping around, she was borderline insubordinate and she seemed to forget who her real friends were. But a little tough love from Lester Freamon turned it around and Greggs grew into one of the most important detectives in the series.
Kima was more than just a great detective, but she was that too. She carried Herc and Carver in the Western narcotics unit. She was a key part of the Major Case detail. She outshined a veteran homicide detective in her first murder case. She was equally adept at the street work and the paperwork, a versatile and smart cop’s cop. But more important than all of that, Greggs was one of the few characters on the show to not compromise her integrity. In a show as bleak and relentless as The Wire, that meant something.
When she was laying in her hospital bed recovering from a gunshot to the neck, Bunk Moreland approached her with a photo lineup, looking for her to identify the shooter. It was Bunk, so she knew he had the right man. But Kima didn’t actually get a look at the shooter and refused to lie about it, even if it was a lie that she would get away with and one that would guarantee the conviction of a guilty man. When Kima found out about McNultys fabricated serial killer, she put a stop to it, even though it meant the end of her mentor, Lester Freamon’s, career. Kima did things the right way, every time, and let the chips fall where they may.
True Crime Case: Associates of President Donald Trump may or may not have coordinated with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, may have stored classified government information on a private email server. Kima would get us the answers to both questions without bending to political pressure from either side.
Detective William Moreland
The original humble mother*$#@… who wasn’t all that humble, Bunk Moreland was the best detective in the fictional Baltimore Police Department. If you lied to the Bunk, he’d know it. If you left evidence at a murder scene, he was going to find it. With his lawyerly affectations and grandiose vocabulary, Bunk always fit the part of an urbane homicide detective. But if he had to go out on the street and dog-cuss Omar for some answers, he could do that too. Bunk had all of McNulty’s skill with none of the hubris.
Bunk always juggled a bigger case load than the rest of the homicide unit, due to his habit of giving a shit when it wasn’t his turn to give a shit. But he was still the detective Landsman went to whenever anything had to get solved. Bunk solved the murder of a state’s witness in the first season. Bunk found a department-issued pistol that had been stolen from a narcotics officer in a botched undercover operation — even though finding a specific pistol on the streets of Baltimore was like finding a specific empty beer can on the Western District roof. Bunk solved one of Santangelo’s old unsolved murders just by going over the scene again with crime scene photos, a tape measure and a generous appropriation of the word “fuck.” And when the entire department was losing its mind chasing McNulty’s imaginary serial killer, Bunk managed to bring down an actual serial killer in Chris Partlow.
True Crime Case: The Zodiac murders might not ever get solved in real life, but if they’d happened in The Wire, Bunk would have put them down by the end of the second season.