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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot