The Crime Exchange: A Tale of Two Cities

Mark Hughes In Baltimore: Just minutes after I arrived, I was at the scene of a shooting ...

Today marks the first part of a unique collaboration between The Independent and The Baltimore Sun in which our crime correspondent, Mark Hughes, swaps places with his counterpart, Justin Fenton. From the streets of Brixton to Baltimore's projects, we’ll report on the reality of crime in Britain and Baltimore to find out if the shadow Home Secretary is right when he said our streets are going the same way as those portrayed in the US TV series The Wire

Just 15 minutes after stepping off the train at Baltimore's Penn station I found myself standing behind the yellow crime-scene tape after a shooting. We had been alerted to the attack on N Milton Avenue, in the east of the city, via Twitter. In the UK, the micro-blogging site is used mainly by people wanting to follow the thoughts and inanities of celebrities such as Stephen Fry. Here in Baltimore, the police use it to alert the media to shootings and homicides, such is their regularity.

Pacing up and down behind the tape, several police officers and a detective – bathed in the blue and red reflection of flashing police lights – are looking for a gun. They have searched under car wheel-arches and other likely hiding places it has been fruitless. And they appear to know it.

One of the cops jokes with another that he would take him and the rest of his team out to dinner at a restaurant of their choosing if they found the weapon that night. There was a catch, though. The detective made it clear that theyneeded to find the gun used in the shooting, not just a gun.

We take a walk around some of the neighbouring streets where young men are sitting on stoops outside rowhouses, listening to rap music and shooting dice. None had any information about how a man had come to be shot in the stomach just yards from them.

I had come to see the real Baltimore, the one behind the fictional television drama of The Wire. But my initial encounter – the bloody aftermath of a man shot in the stomach – was a scene which I had seen many times on the television, and reinforced all of the stereotypes.

Like countless others, I know what the corner of Fayette and Monroe looks like. I had seen drug deals in the low-rise projects. And I witnessed murders in vacant row-houses.

It is, of course, all thanks to The Wire and the endless weekends I devoted to the box set. But, despite the brief sojourns I made from the comfort of my living-room, until now I had no idea how accurate a picture The Wire painted of the real-life Baltimore.

The crime figures certainly suggest the fictional drama matches the reality. Baltimore is, statistically, the second-deadliest city in the USA; only in Detroit are you more likely to be murdered. Last year there were 234 homicides in the city which has a population of 650,000. It was a 20-year-low, but still meant that one in every 2,700 people was murdered. In Britain, that figure is about one in 85,000.

In that sense, I was wary that straying into the wrong neighbourhood could cause problems. Although I was not hysterical enough to have pre-emptively penned my own obituary.

Justin Fenton, the Baltimore Sun's crime correspondent, said: "Statistically, it is very dangerous, but I have lived here a long time and I don't feel like I'm in any danger." Throughout the week, we will be writing about all aspects of crime in Baltimore. Particularly, given the extraordinarily high murder rate, we will examine the city's homicide epidemic; what causes it, who causes it and what is being done to stop it.

The answer to the first question, I am told, is drugs. The city has a very real drug problem and I am assured by natives of Baltimore that the gangs fighting turf wars for control of the drug trade are the main cause of the higher-than-usual murder rate. I want to speak to the people who deal drugs and those who take them.

One columnist in the Baltimore Sun recently described Baltimore as a city of two worlds. It is in the "other world", the one populated by drug dealers and gangsters, that most murders occur. Those not involved in the drug trade are apparently as unlikely to be murdered in Baltimore as they are in any other civilised city in the world.

Figures seem to suggest that is true. Of the 234 murders last year, 194 of the victims (82 per cent) had criminal records and 163 (70 per cent) had a history of being arrested for drug offences.

It is a similar story with the suspects. Police identified 107 homicide suspects in 2008. Of them, 94 (88 per cent) had a criminal record and 76 (71 per cent) had been arrested for drugs. So it would appear that most murders are committed by criminals against criminals.

The exchange will also be an opportunity to see the American police forces and justice system at work. Last month, the Metropolitan Police announced that armed police officers were to patrol the streets of London for the first time. They then backed down in the face of overwhelming fury from politicians and the public. But police carrying weapons is common practice in the US. Supporters say that it is only right that officers, who are likely to be confronted by criminals with weapons, should be armed themselves. Detractors claim it leads to more murders than it prevents.

In Britain, there are specially trained firearms police officers who are called upon to attend incidents in which guns are involved, and they are used to protect VIPs. They do not patrol the streets. It is a system means that instances of the police shooting people are relatively rare.

In Baltimore, police-involved shootings are not as uncommon. This year the Baltimore Police Department has shot 16 people so far; in a recent case, a 14-year-old robbery suspect was shot, although not killed.

I want to speak to officers on the front line in Baltimore to see how they see crime in their own city and ask whether, by carrying and using weapons, they perhaps add to it. I am also told that crime is allowed to thrive in Baltimore because of what the criminals perceive to be a weak justice system. We will speak to prosecutors and ask about their efforts in the fight against crime.

And we will look at what the communities are doing to stop it. I hear a lot about perceived apathy in Baltimore. I know there are a lot of groups working to address the problem of gun violence, but I also hear that many residents do not care about the crime rate and are not interested in solving murders that do not concern them.

Finally, while The Wire has been an unmitigated success in most quarters, I am acutely aware that the place it received the most hostile reception was, unsurprisingly given the murderous, drug-addled, bastion of corruption the city is represented as, Baltimore.

Both the Mayor and the present police administration are keen to distance themselves from the programme. They say it is fiction and not realistic. It has also been a sore point in the UK, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner eager to play down any comparisons between London and Baltimore.

Because of this the exchange that Justin and I are undertaking has caused some consternation, especially in Baltimore. Many groups have been happy, even eager, to speak to me. Yet the Mayor and the police commissioner turned down interview requests.

So while, during the week, we will aim to give a complete picture of crime in Baltimore, the voices missing will be those of arguably some of the most important and influential people in the city, those charged with halting crime.

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