Ballantine Books, 1991, 608 pages
Enter the workday of real policemen. Follow fifteen detectives, three sergeants, and a lieutenant, whose job it is to investigate Baltimore's 234 murders. You will get a cop's-eye-view of the bureaucracy, the highs of success, the moments of despair, and the non-stop rush of pursuits, anger, banter, and violence that make up a cop's life. Now an acclaimed television series, this extraordinary book is the insider's look at what you have always wondered about.
"You gotta let him play....This is America."
The tale of Snot Boogie, who kept joining street games and trying to run off with the pot until someone finally got fed up and put a bullet in him, was fictionalized in The Wire but based on a real case. In fact, David Simon, who wrote the book that became the 1993-1999 TV series Homicide: Life on the Street and later the 2002-2008 HBO series The Wire, lifted many real-life cases and characters from his book which you will recognize in the TV shows he helped produce.
So I now briefly interrupt this book review for a public service announcement:
The Wire is the greatest TV show ever, period!
So, even if you are not a fan of The Wire (you poor, sad, schmo), Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is a fantastically written and utterly engrossing epic. It's non-fiction but it reads like a sprawling multiple-POV modern crime drama. It tells the story of crime and homicide in Baltimore with a cast of real-life characters as interesting and entertaining as any on a TV show. But they are not polished and photogenic, larger-than-life, or even likable. The working-class detectives of the Baltimore PD are working schmos often separated from their suspects and victims by very thin barriers of class and race, and sometimes not even that. They come from various walks of life, some are young guns and some are old hands, but none of them are glamorous gun-flashing TV Hero Cops.
David Simon, a journalist with the Baltimore Sun at the time, shadowed the detectives of the Baltimore homicide unit for one year, overcoming their mistrust and apprehension until he was practically invisible, a fly on the wall present at crime scenes, interrogations, court appearances, and ride-alongs through the streets of Baltimore. (In his author's notes, he describes the hazards of embedded journalists "going native," and how toward the end of his year as a "police intern," he found himself unthinkingly obeying one of the detectives' demands to shove a hostile witness against a parked car and perform what he describes as "one of the most pathetic and incompetent body searches on record.") He rigorously documented everything he wrote, used almost exclusively the exact words he heard in the dialog, and made clear those minor parts that required redaction. (The detectives and the Baltimore Police Department were allowed to review his draft before publication, but only a very few things were changed.)
What emerges is a picture of a deeply troubled city riven by poverty, drugs, and racism, a mostly black city where whites are further divided into enclaves of ethnicity and class, but in which people adapt nonetheless to a hard, almost dystopian world where the moral yardsticks against which white middle class America judges are largely irrelevant. It was this view of a world as practical and real and populated with villains and heroes on their own terms as the one purportedly representing "mainstream" American society that made The Wire such a brilliant show.
"Can you believe a little shithead like this is able to stay on the run for so long?" McLarney declares, returning from yet another unsuccessful turn-up of a Milligan hideout. "You shoot a guy, hey," the sergeant adds with a shrug. "You shoot another guy — well, okay, this is Baltimore. You shoot three guys, it's time to admit you have a problem."
Baltimore cops are irreverent, jaded, politically incorrect. They see bodies every day; a fresh murder is just part of the daily grind. Most of the murders they're investigating are gang-bangers and other low-lives shooting each other. Gallows humor and disrespect to the departed is commonplace. The citizens they're dealing with are criminals or reluctant, lying accomplices and witnesses, most of them none too bright and very few of them friendly or cooperative. This makes them extremely cynical:
- Everyone lies. Murderers lie because they have to; witnesses and other participants lie because they think they have to; everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it, and to uphold a general principle that under no circumstances do you provide accurate information to a cop.
- The victim is killed once, but a crime scene can be murdered a thousand times.
- The initial 10 or 12 hours after a murder are the most critical to the success of an investigation.
- An innocent man left alone in an interrogation room will remain fully awake, rubbing his eyes, staring at the cubicle walls and scratching himself in dark, forbidden places. A guilty man left alone in an interrogation room goes to sleep.
- It's good to be good; it's better to be lucky.
- When a suspect is immediately identified in an assault case, the victim is sure to live. When no suspect has been identified, the victim will surely die.
- First, they're red. Then they're green. Then they're black. (Referring to the color of an open case on the board, the money that must be spent to investigate the case, and the color of the solved murder as it is listed on the board)
- In any case where there is no apparent suspect, the crime lab will produce no valuable evidence. In those cases where a suspect has already confessed and been identified by at least two eyewitnesses, the lab will give you print hits, fiber evidence, blood typings and a ballistic match.
- To a jury, any doubt is reasonable; the better the case, the worse the jury; a good man is hard to find, but 12 of them, gathered together in one place, is a miracle.
- There is too such a thing as a perfect murder. Always has been, and anyone who tries to prove otherwise merely proves himself naive and romantic, a fool who is ignorant of Rules 1 through 9.
In contrast to so many cop shows, the real-life detectives Simon portrays are solving murders because it's their job - nothing more or less. A killing for a Baltimore homicide detective is like a broken pipe for a plumber - something to fix, not something to be emotionally invested in. They solve murders because they're good at it - indeed, during the course of the year Simon covers, a couple of detectives who aren't good at it get shuffled off to another department. Serving in homicide requires solving cases or you don't stick around. The detectives and their sergeants are constantly evaluating one another and their numbers. Simon covers the politics of the police department, which is every bit as dysfunctional and messed up as you saw in Homicide and The Wire. Lieutenant D'Addario's career hinges on his clearance rate, and everyone juggles facts and stats to get those all-important clearances. In this high-pressure environment, the homicide unit really is a Darwinian meritocracy.
It's all a numbers game, sometimes a puzzle game, an intellectual whodunit? that's satisfying to solve, but the detectives quickly lose any sense of personal investment.
Not always, though. Sometimes the detectives get what they call "a real victim." And sometimes they actually care.
Latanya Wallace, the Angel of Reservoir Hill
One of these cases, a haunting murder that runs throughout the book, is that of 11-year-old Latanya Wallace. Detective Pellegrini becomes fixated on solving the little girl's rape and murder. Initially an all-hands "red ball" case, it grinds on for months, with evidence and suspects and witnesses all appearing and then failing to pan out. New evidence turns up and is discarded, months after the crime.
Pellegrini comes back again and again to his prime suspect, "the Fish Man," who remains frustratingly obvious yet impossible to crack. Each new angle, each possible lead, even alternative suspects, raise the reader's hopes along with the cops' that this case will be solved. It's a true tension-builder in a non-fiction narrative, and the case was fictionalized in the Homicide TV series, a first season case that haunted the new detective who was the fictitious version of Detective Pellegrini for the rest of the series.
There are other times, too, when we see the detectives' jaded facades of indifference crack.
But this is different. This time Edgarton didn't want to breathe the same air as his suspect. In truth, his anger ran deep enough to be called hate, a feeling that on this case could only come from a black detective. Edgarton was black, and Eugene Dale was black, and Andrea Perry, too: the usual barriers of race had been removed. Given that truth, it made sense that Edgarton could talk to people on the street and learn things, that he could go into the West Baltimore projects and come out knowing things that a white detective might never know. Even the best white cop feels a distance when he works with black victims and black suspects; to him they are otherworldly, as if their tragedy is the result of a ghetto pathology against which he is fully immunized. Working in a city where nearly 90 percent of all murder is black-on-black, a white detective might understand the nature of a black victim's tragedy, he might carefully differentiate between good people to be avenged and bad people to be pursued. But, ultimately, he never responds with the same intensity; his most innocent victims bring empathy, not anguish; his most ruthless suspects bring contempt, not rage. Edgarton, however, was not encumbered by such distinctions. Eugene Dale could be utterly real for him, just as Andrea Perry could be real; his rage at the crime could be personal.
Most of the department is white, which affects the work they do. Few cops in Homicide are deliberately and overtly racist, as Simon tells it, but there is a certain tension that's always there and the black cops in particular have to have thick skins. Bearing in mind that the year written about is 1988, it was less than a generation since the Baltimore PD had transitioned from the traditional Irish-dominated command characteristic of most East Coast police departments. Race and politics is present in every case, yet it doesn't, usually, affect the work on the ground. What the homicide detectives do all have in common is a certain élan that comes from knowing they are the best.
"You know something, Lester? I do believe there aren't five swinging dicks
in the entire department who can do what we do."
Homicide is not a book that will inspire awe for cops and prosecutors — police work and murder trials are uglier than sausage-making — but it will engender respect. These guys do a hard, thankless job for low pay, and if there is any "justice" to be meted out by the system, they mete it. But to see the deals and the cases that get thrown out or are never even brought to trial, the guilty who walk away because it would be just too hard to convict them, is disheartening and explains how quickly the detectives have to come to see it as just part of the job, distancing themselves from victims and grieving families the way a plumber washes the shit off his hands.
Even in 1988, detectives and prosecutors were complaining about how TV cop shows had poisoned juries with unrealistic expectations of high-tech evidence gathering and dramatic courtroom confessions, when in fact most murder cases are a collection of circumstantial evidence and unreliable witness testimony, often put before a jury that especially in Baltimore is willing to rule based largely on how they feel about cops and whether the suspect (dressed by his defense attorney in a suit with a Bible tucked under one arm) looks like a nice young man.
Case after case is described by Simon, some of them "dunkers" (easy cases with an obvious suspect), some of them remain unsolved after months of investigation. There are some dramatic moments of gumshoe sleuthing, but mostly it's a daily grind, interrogating witnesses, and trying to piece together enough evidence to make a DA willing to take a case to trial.
Especially notable are the chapters in which Simon talks about police interrogations and how suspects and witnesses behave under grilling.
Yo, bunky, wake the fuck up. You're now being told that talking to a police detective in an interrogation room can only hurt you.
We all know our Miranda rights, right? Have you ever wondered how cops get anyone, especially a murder suspect, to talk to them, sometimes for hours, without a lawyer present? I mean, doesn't everyone know that the first thing you do when arrested is to invoke your right to counsel?
You are a citizen of a free nation, having lived your entire adult life in a land of guaranteed civil liberties, and you commit a crime of violence, whereupon you are jacked up, hauled down to a police station and deposited in a claustrophobic anteroom with three chairs, a table and no windows. There you sit for a half hour or so until a police detective — a man you have never met before, a man who in no way can be mistaken for a friend — enters the room with a thin stack of lined notepaper and a ball-point pen.
The detective offers a cigarette, not your brand, and begins an uninterrupted monologue that wanders back and forth for a half hour more, eventually coming to rest in a familiar place: "You have the absolute right to remain silent."
It can, in fact, be more complicated than that, especially when veteran cops go to work on someone. They never actually deny anyone their rights. But they have developed an array of tactics to get someone to talk to them after declining their right to have a lawyer present. If you are smart and assertive and you state unequivocally "I'm not talking without a lawyer present," then there isn't much the cops can do. Likewise, they can't make you submit to an interrogation if you insist that they either arrest you or let you go. But surprisingly few people, especially under the stress and intimidation of being grilled by cops, are able to stick to that script. The police talk people right out of their rights, and they do it shamelessly. They push the envelope every time, never (or almost never) quite breaking the law, but certainly doing things that would get a case thrown out immediately if a judge had all the facts.
If you learn nothing else from this book, you should get it in your head that if you are ever arrested or just being questioned by the police, then whether or not you're guilty, tell 'em you want a lawyer and then STFU. Period.
Thank God, thinks Brown. Thank God they're so stupid.
One thing that makes police tactics so effective - indeed, that is responsible for so many arrests - is that so many criminals are deeply, deeply stupid. You do not see a lot of criminal masterminds on the streets of Baltimore. There are premeditated murders and there are even some criminals who put some thought into staging their crimes and how they will beat the rap, but usually, these plans are pathetic in their ineptitude, and more often than not, there is no thinking at all. Most of the murder cases Simon observes, those that aren't simple drug-related shootings and gang violence, are committed by people with little or no impulse control or brains, usually for extremely stupid reasons.
And since cops are allowed to lie, stupid people are much more likely to get caught.
"I'm going to need a lift home after we get finished with this."
A lift home. This kid actually thinks he's going to go home and sleep it off, as if it were some kind of hangover. O.B. McCarter, another detail officer from the Southwest, bites his tongue in the driver's seat, trying hard not to laugh.
"You think you all could give me a lift home?"
"We'll see what happens," says Brown.
What happens is this: The younger brother of Dennis Wahls, a fourteen-year-old urchin with twice the sense of his sibling, comes out of the group home and is escorted to the side of the Chevrolet. He looks into the car, looks at his brother, looks at Eddie Brown and manages to assess the situation for what it really is. He nods.
"Hey," says Dennis Wahls.
"Hey," says his brother.
"I told them about the watch —"
"Hey," Brown interrupts. "Your ass is going to be in this if you don't listen to your brother."
"Man, c'mon," says Dennis Wahls. "You got to give it up. They gonna let me go if you give it to him. If you don't, they gonna put a murder charge on me."
"Hmm," says the kid, obviously wondering how this can be. If they don't get the evidence, they charge you, but if they get the evidence, you go free. Yeah. Right.
One might feel sorry for young Dennis Wahls, and think the cops are being unnecessarily sadistic (they vie for the pleasure of being the one to tell him back at the station that no, he's not going home), except that, you know, he was an accomplice to rape and murder.
Every chapter is juicy and detailed, covering small cases and long, involved ones, stupid people shooting other stupid people for stupid reasons, and slightly smarter people from the drug dealers and hit men to the elderly "black widow" serial-killer (whose case was also fictionalized in Homicide) and the tragifarce that arises when a detective tries to get a body exhumed and discovers that a cut-rate cemetery started dumping bodies in mass graves.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was written in 1991 (the year Simon writes about was actually 1988). That makes it a little bit dated — Baltimore demographics and the police department have not changed radically since then, but they are a little different, and of course technology has changed considerably. (The Internet is barely even mentioned in the book, DNA evidence is still pretty new, and of course no one has cell phones.) Crime, especially violent crime, has fallen since the late 80s, though Baltimore is still one of the most violent cities in the U.S. Even many of the projects and open-air drug markets seen in The Wire have been torn down in the years since the show was aired.
However, the realities of police work, criminals, and homicide have not changed fundamentally. David Simon's epilogue follows the fate of most of the detectives he wrote about, and you can get more recent updates on the Wikipedia page.
Verdict: A non-fiction book that has it all. Class, race, politics, and the real lives of cops and criminals. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is the best true crime novel and one of the best non-fiction novels I've ever read. For The Wire alone I would adore this book, but it's simply an excellent, thick and engrossing work of journalism, and makes my Highly Recommended list.
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