Mark Hughes: 189 homicides this year – this is The Wire, only real

In our week-long job-swap the Independent's crime correspondent finds himself amid the Maryland city's drug wars

Monday 09 November 2009 01:00

Stepping out of the police car, the flash of the blue and red lights illuminating the street, I walked towards the yellow crime-scene tape. Just yards away was a black car with the passenger door open. The beige seat was blood red, the windscreen and door peppered with bullet-holes. Scattered across the ground were bullet casings, each circled with red chalk and marked with a yellow number.

This was Baltimore exactly as I have seen it countless times on The Wire, but on this occasion it was real life. It was a Tuesday night, on the corner of West Fayette and North Carey streets, and it was the evening's first shooting. There would be four more before the end of the shift. Two of the five, including this one, were fatal.

The victim was 28-year-old Joseph Leegreen Taylor. He was still alive when we arrived, but died in hospital. From detectives at the scene, I got the feeling that perhaps Mr Taylor was not the intended victim.

All but one of the bullet holes were in the driver's door. The other was in the windscreen, on the driver's side. But somehow he escaped injury. Mr Taylor, the passenger, was not so lucky. He took a bullet to the head and became the city's 188th homicide of the year. By the end of the night, there would be 189.

That carnage was the first call on the eventful evening I spent on a ride-along with the Baltimore Police Department and officers Bob Cherry and Gene Ryan. Over the next five hours, I watched as they intervened in a domestic dispute, chased drug dealers through a housing project and hunted for a gunman.

Every one of the 3,000 officers in the Baltimore Police Department carries a handgun. One officer I spoke to told me how, after being injured during an altercation with a prisoner who escaped his handcuffs, he regretted not shooting the man. Shooting a fleeing prisoner could mean the officer facing criminal charges himself. Yet there is a saying among some Baltimore cops that it is "better to be judged by 12 than carried by six", to be in front of a jury than inside a coffin.

After the homicide scene, we headed for the Western District headquarters. The west and east sides of the city are particularly crime-ridden, and the streets are lined with CCTV cameras which, unlike in the UK, have flashing blue lights on them to remind criminals that the police are watching.

In the Western office, an officer sits at a screen, viewing scenes captured by any of the 36 cameras in his district. He zooms in on one camera and explains that he is looking for a boy in a white T-shirt who, he thinks, is selling drugs.

"I've been watching him, and his tactic is to hide the stash in the alley round the corner then wait in the takeaway store. His customers come into the store and he takes their money then runs to the alley to get the drugs. A lot of them know how to play the game; they hide the drugs and use the store as an alibi so when the police turn up they say, 'I'm just waiting for some food'. When we go to search them they say, 'Yeah you can search me' because they never have any drugs on them. That's why we use the cameras, so we've got it on film."

We watch and wait, but never see the boy make a hand-to-hand drug deal. "When it's quiet there is a lot of waiting," the officer says. "Other times you switch on the camera and it's easy pickings."

We leave the Western and drive to a domestic assault. On the way, we pass two corners where balloons adorn the lamp posts, memorials to people murdered in the past few weeks. Vacant rowhouses are common, with boarded-up windows and doors. Those homes that are occupied often have residents sitting outside on the stoop.

Walking through a playground in the middle of the project, empty drugs vials cracking beneath our feet, the two young patrolmen tell me their experience of life policing the streets of Baltimore. The first, who is 21, explains how he followed his father, a policeman in a small town in a different county, into the force. "Baltimore is a great department to be with," he said. "You get to experience something new every day. Sometimes it is a domestic assault, the next day a homicide, the day after a carjacking. Within the first two weeks of my service in this city, I made more arrests than my father made in 10 years."

The man's partner is much more disillusioned with life in the force. He explained how he wants, eventually, to work in a narcotics team, due to a life-long hatred of drugs, fuelled by the fact that his cousin is a dealer in the city. Because of this, he has focused much of his energy on drug work, but has been frustrated by the target-driven culture.

"It is not what I expected," he said. "I tell them [my bosses] that if I'm going out to get the stash then don't bust my balls if I don't get a lock-up. They [the bosses] want us to chase the needle [the users], I want to get the package [the dealers]. I knew it would be bad, but I didn't expect it to be this bad."

The ride-along was coming to the end, when the chat in the patrol car was interrupted by a "Signal 13" – officer in distress – on the police radio. We switched on the lights and sirens and blazed through the streets. An officer making a car-stop had requested the back-up when men in the car jumped out and fled.

At the scene, Cherry and Ryan jumped out of the car and ran, joining dozens of other officers. I followed. It was dark, and everyone apart from me was waving a gun,– including the suspect being pursued. Police searched the bushes with their flashlights and weapons raised.

A helicopter overhead shone a spotlight on a garden. "The suspect is a black male wearing a blue hat and blue jeans," came the warning. "He is armed. Repeat, the suspect has a handgun."

At this point, I decided that while I was keen to see crime in Baltimore, I didn't want to become a victim of it.

The radio announcement was sobering. I realised that perhaps I had gotten a bit too close to the action and put myself in danger. I was armed with nothing more than a notepad and pen, and I was unwittingly involved in the search for a gunman. In any city, that is a dangerous situation. But in Baltimore, where people have been known to shoot each other over the theft of a pen, it was particularly hazardous.

It was a situation best observed from a safe distance, such as the back seat of a police patrol car, I decided.

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