Ranking the Detectives of The Wire

From the Humps to the Natural Police

The Wire promo (copyright HBO)

The Humps

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.

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.

Detective Thomas Hauk

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.

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.

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.”

Detective Leandor Sydnor

Detective James McNulty

The Natural Police

Detective Lester Freamon

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.

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.

Barney Doyle has been a cop for 13 years and a True Crime enthusiast for as long as he can remember. He has a book called Reckless Speculation about Murder.

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