Closing Statements

Books

Appropriately, winter is also setting in as David Simon finishes his year embedded in the Baltimore Police Homicide Unit. Throughout the book Simon has talked at length about the life of a detective. In his fly-on-the-wall style he’s dissected nearly every aspect of the job: crime, criminals, investigations, autopsies, paper work, the media, court cases, lawyers, the chain of command, mutual respect and after work drinks.

It seems he’s left no stone unturned until the final chapter, which opens with Donald Waltemeyer standing in a cemetery watching a backhoe dig up a long-burried body. The detective is retrieving the body of a man who was the potential victim of one of his suspects. The whole process is messy and in the end becomes even messier when the body turns out to be the wrong person. Waltemeyer confronts the cemetery’s caretaker and finds out the large majority of bodies aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

This totally creepy detail had me wondering if grave site mix ups are a common thing. After a bit of Googling I found a handful of examples, ironically the first one being a mix up involving the remains of a young Baltimore man. Creepy, and super disrespectful on the part of the cemetery.

But, back to the book. The misassigned bodies led Waltemeyer to the cemetery’s burial records where he came across many recognizable names. Not because they reached any kind of star status, but because they were the victims of violent crimes that the homicide unit had covered.

This situation brings the job full-circle in a way. Revisiting the victims in their final resting place contextualizes the crimes. Simon’s descriptions of victims at crime scenes is very detailed but it’s also very straight forward. There’s a gaping gunshot wound here, and a blood spray pattern there. Her eyes are open, but she’s expressionless. She’s pretty.

It reads the way it’s supposed to: like a detectives notepad. There’s no emotion and at the end of most chapters I felt like I knew the criminal better than I knew the victim. The cemetery makes those victims seem human. Our traditions surrounding death are recognizable.

After this week, homicide detectives are a little more recognizable as well. On Tuesday, James Jewell, a former Winnipeg Police Service homicide detective told my class about his experiences first-hand. He talked about cases that stay with him and interrogations that were particularly challenging. It was like getting a one-on-one with a “character” from the book and being able to ask him about the most fucked up things he’s seen. It was a really amazing opportunity and I wish we had longer than an hour of his time.

Prior to this semester and prior to reading Homicide I had a little interest in the field of policing. I recognized its difficulties and I know several police officers, but I never thought beyond “wow, that must be a tough job.” I want to call it enlightenment, but that makes me feel cheesy, so I’m going to call it fascination.

I’m utterly fascinated by the opposing forces of humanity and bureaucracy that rule the job. It’s so, so strange, and I’m noticing these themes playing out in the news about Ferguson. I could never be a police officer, and I would never want to, but I’m a little bit in awe of the policing world.

Advertisements

The bigger picture

Books

Chapter nine is, for the most part, a repeat of everything that’s happened Homicide so far. The 100 page chapter forced me to step back and think about all the reoccurring themes in the book.

“At its core, the crime is the same,” (459).

The chapter opens on a back alley that’s empty except for the crumpled form of a dead 12 year-old girl. She was pulled into the alley after walking her sister to a bus stop, raped and shot. Andrea Perry’s murder is horribly similar to that of Latonya Wallace earlier in the book.

David Simon often brings up the idea of innocent victims — someone who wasn’t a criminal themselves and someone who truly didn’t deserve their fate because of their age or circumstance. These victims get the ultimate public sympathy and naturally become high profile “red ball” cases.

Harry Edgerton is the primary on Andrea Perry’s case.

Baltimore has a large African-Amercan population and the race issues that plague the city is another theme that Simon brings to light. Most of the criminals and victims in the book are black, and most of the detectives and police officers in the book are white. It’s not hard to imagine the strained relationship the exists between the public and the police.

Edgerton is one of few black officers in the homicide unit.

“Edgerton is at ease in the ghetto in a way that even the best white detectives are not. And more than most of the black investigators, too, Edgerton can somehow talk his way past the fact that he’s a cop,” (462).

His skill as a detective isn’t because of his race but it breaks down a historical barrier between the public he’s dealing with and the police department. More than once, Simon points out how race is used by the system to affect public support and he brings it up again in this chapter as a previous case makes its way to court.

Like Baltimore, Winnipeg has a similar racial dichotomy going on. Winnipeg has the largest urban aboriginal population and of the people locked up in its prisons the majority are aboriginal. Racism is unfortunately rampant in this city and there is a hell of a lot of healing that needs to happen before things get better.

The third theme that keeps coming up is the strangeness of death and the unfeeling qualities of most homicide detectives. If you see death everyday, especially horrible murders that make you doubt humanity, you’re going to become immune to the emotion of the act.

In this chapter, Donald Waltemeyer slips up in this regard and feels a twinge of remorse for an overdose victim. Death is something that’s illusive but everywhere at the same time. We have no idea what happens when you stop breathing but we are inundated with stories and images of death everyday.

It’s a really fucked up world we live in and death, innocence and difference play equally heavy roles in it.

Grossness

Books

The eight chapter of Homicide is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not meant to be read while eating, which I managed to be doing every time I picked up the book this week.

Simon takes us into the basement autopsy lab of the Penn Street Station — the medical examiner’s office not to be confused with the New York City train station. Yet, on a busy Sunday morning, he does compare the rows of bodies on metal gurneys to a “Grand Central Station of lifelessness,” (411).

As the detectives watch the bodies get disassembled, organs taken out and fluids drained, it’s clear that they are still human. The dark humour of the last chapter remains but the process of the autopsy isn’t a laughing matter, especially when a child or a fellow officer is on the table.

The detectives have a strained relationship with the MEs because their analysis of the body can affect whether or not the case is deemed a murder. I always assumed that the officers made the final call, but everyone involved in processing the body and the evidence has a say.

This comes up later in the chapter when Tom Pellegrini gets a possible substance match on the Latonya Wallace case, which has now been open for nine months. The scientists at the trace lab matched soot from the girls pants to the potential crime scene, but that’s not enough to charge his suspect with.

Everything needs to be backed up. A witness, evidence at the crime scene, anything. It amazes me that anyone gets convicted when detectives are running around trying to match one fibre to another in a city of more than 600,000 people. And sometimes that missing piece never gets found.

The Wallace case is still open years later, and although Pellegrini is still working it in the book he is clearly fatigued by the high profile case with nothing but dead-ends. A case that won’t go down can become an obsession and I wonder if Pellegrini will still be in homicide by the end of the book.

This chapter also calls attention to a dichotomy between detectives who work too hard, and detectives who don’t work hard enough. David Brown lets the murder of a woman run down by a car slip away while he busies himself with other cases. While I understand that murder is big business in a big city it boggles my mind that the killer of a dead woman, who is also a mother of five, doesn’t get investigated more enthusiastically.

I had a thought while I was reading this chapter: I wonder if the families of these real-life victims every read Homicide? And if they did what did they think about the work behind the scenes?

Lest We Forget

Photos

This year I attended a Remembrance Day service at Vimy Ridge Memorial Park. The following are some photos I took during the chilly service.

Judy Hemlow was a medic with the Canadian Women's Army Corp during Canada's peacekeeping efforts. She and her fellow veterans wear special vests on Remembrance Day telling the story of when and where they served. Hemlow comes to Vimy Ridge Memorial Park with her group of vets every year.

Judy Hemlow was a medic with the Canadian Women’s Army Corp during Canada’s peacekeeping efforts. She and her fellow veterans wear special vests on Remembrance Day telling the story of when and where they served. Hemlow comes to Vimy Ridge Memorial Park with her group of vets every year.

A veteran and his young children walk past members of the Winnipeg Police Service before the Remembrance Day Service at Vimy Ridge Memorial Park.

A veteran and his young children walk past members of the Winnipeg Police Service before the service begins.

A member of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles delivers sprayer during the service.

A member of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles delivers a prayer during the service.

A Second World War Veteran and member of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles during the service.

A Second World War Veteran and member of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles during the service.

Members of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles stand guard at the Rifles Memorial during the service.

Members of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles stand guard at the Rifles Memorial during the chilly service.

Young girls pin their poppies to the wreaths laid at the Rifles Memorial after the service.

Young girls pin their poppies to the wreaths laid at the Rifles Memorial after the service.

Members of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles are relieved from their post in front of the Rifles Memorial after the Remembrance Day service at Vimy Ridge Park.

Members of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles are relieved from their post in front of the Rifles Memorial after the service.

Homicide Humour

Books

Murder isn’t a funny topic and most people balk at the idea of joking about the recently deceased. Yet, somehow the seventh chapter of Homicide made me laugh. Several times. And once out loud on a bus.

Baltimore is in the swing of summer and the heat is apparently getting to its residents. Murders over popsicles are becoming unfortunately common. The homicide detectives are just as riled about the heat and they use their dark and twisted sense of humour to deal with the influx of calls.

“Harry Edgerton takes an unattended death call from a young Southwest uniform, listens for a minute or two, then tells the kid he doesn’t have time to visit the scene.

‘Listen, we’re kind of busy right now,’ he says cradling the phone on his shoulder. ‘Why don’t you throw the body in the back of your car and bring him on downtown so we can take a look at him?’

‘Right,’ says the kid, hanging up.

‘Oh shit,’ says Edgerton, fumbling through a directory for the Southwest dispatch phone number. ‘He actually believed me.'” (348)

Leading up to this, Simon provides us with a graphic list of murder scenes. He splices the lyrics of It Takes Two between all of the gory descriptions, the homicide units song of the summer.

The tone at the beginning of this chapter is different from what I’ve read so far. Simon’s writing is casual and visual, if not a little bit goofy. It really accentuates the atmosphere of the homicide unit.

We talked about the detective’s use of humour in class earlier this week and laughing about death has never been something I’m comfortable with. I know laughter can be healing for someone in mourning, but I have a hard time knowing what to say, let alone cracking jokes.

But that’s not what Simon is talking about:

“This is CID homicide, mister, and neither heat nor rain nor gloom of night will keep these men from their rendezvous with callousness. Cruel jokes? The cruelest. Sick humour? The sickest.” (347) 

If I had to deal with death on a daily basis I’d probably need to something to take the edge off too. It’s a survival tactic.

Evidence Isn’t Everything

Books

4692158_l5

The sixth chapter of Homicide opens in a courtroom where a man is on trial for shooting a police officer in the head. The injuries left the officer completely blind, but alive. This particular case had been open for months until the shooters girlfriend came forward to the detectives. The evidence and the compelling case against the shooter mean that the trial should be a walk in the park.

The jury spends eight hours deliberating before finally delivering the verdict. Terry McLarney, the case’s lead detective, is perplexed.

“I’m losing this jury because I didn’t give them enough. An eyewitness. Corroboration. A jail-house confession. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.” (301)

In the end the jurors decides that the shooter is guilty.

Trial by jury has always confused me. Is it possible to get twelve people to agree on the same verdict? Why do we leave such a serious decision up to a group of civilians? More importantly, how can the jurors leave all of their prejudices at the court room door? Truth is they can’t.

McLarney later finds out that his case involving a white police officer and a black gunman was nearly thrown because of the jury’s competing cultural perceptions of race and police work.

This part of the chapter reminded me of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film “12 Angry Men,” which looks at the ins and outs of a hung jury in a murder case. Each juror comes from a different background and they all apply their own bias to the case in front of them. The result is a 50/50 split and several long hours confined to the deliberation room.

I’ve never been on a jury or even inside a court room, but isn’t there a better way of declaring someones guilt or innocence?

If you have an hour and a half to spare I recommend watching this, it’s really interesting.

What a week…

Books

Last night I fell asleep at 7 pm and today I woke up at 11 am. Sixteen hours. After this crazy week I was exhausted, mentally and physically.

I’m having a really hard time processing everything that’s happened in the news this week. Dead infants found in a storage locker, the Ottawa shooting and Winnipeg’s civic election. Sleep helped, but everything still feels surreal.

On Wednesday October 22nd, I had a radio assignment. In the morning I went to the polling station near my house and interviewed Daniel McIntyre residents about voting. In the evening I was set to hang out with River Heights – Fort Garry councillor hopeful Taz Stuart at The Pemby.

After chatting with people, I got into my car and called Red River’s radio station to perform my “rant’ about the morning’s scene at Robert A Steen Community Centre. I talked about voter turnout, who people were voting for and what could be expected for the rest of the day. I was giddy when I hung up, live radio reporting was more fun than I had expected.

I started the car and turned on the radio hoping to hear election coverage. Instead, CBC was relaying the events unfolding in Ottawa. It was about 10 am. I sat there in total disbelief while the car idled.

I kept the radio on for the rest of the day while I rushed around doing errands and working on other assignments. The last time I had followed a news story for an entire day was 9/11 and it was hard to understand that this time the act of terrorism was happening in my country.

CBC has been praised by other news outlets, like Mother Jones, for the excellent reporting during the shooting. The reports were calm, honest and factual. It made me proud to be a journalism student.

I was thinking about breaking news while I read Homicide today. When a reporter or a detective gets “the call” (a breaking story or a crime in progress ) they have to react immediately — without speculation and without jumping to conclusions. Chapter five revolves around getting that call and the implications of picking up the phone.

Detective Rick James closes a 2 month-old case thanks to a phone tip, Tom Pellegrini wishes for a call about the Latonya Wallace case, Donald Worden takes a call about an open and closed domestic dispute and Harry Edgerton jumps on every ring hoping to finally land a murder.

Good news, bad news and otherwise, each call requires a different reaction. In detective work, and in journalism, you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the line, the important thing is how you respond to the call.

I’d like to think that I could do a decent job if I was faced with a breaking news story, I don’t know if I’ll ever find out.

Asking Hard Questions is Hard

Books

What actually happens in an interrogation room? Mind games, intimidation and some straight up trickery according to the fourth chapter of Homicide. Simon goes into detail about the different tactics that the detectives use to get a witness to open up, or a criminal to confess.

Simon does a good job of describing what it’s like on the wrong side of the table. Leave the bullshit at the door because the cops can see right through it and better yet, don’t say anything at all, you’re probably going to convict yourself. It sounds like a claustrophobic experience.

Pop quiz: You’ve just killed two people and there’s no physical evidence or witness that can link you directly to either crime. Do you: (A) Shut your mouth or (B) Visit the homicide unit and lie your ass off?

“The only answer,” mused Garvey as he typed the warrant for Vincent Booker’s house, “is that crime makes you stupid” (222).

There are many times when you can be your own worst enemy, and an interrogation is certainly one of those times. If the cops don’t have any leads on a cold case you’re a warm body that can give them new information, whether you realize it or not.

This whole power dynamic is really interesting to me because I do a lot of interviewing, and even though I’m the one asking the questions I never really feel like I’m in control of the conversation. No matter how many questions you prepare you never know how someone is going to answer them. When an interview goes off the rails it can be wonderful and enlightening, or it can be horrible and awkward.

I’ve had many cringe-worthy experiences and I’ve realized that there is, in fact, such a thing as a stupid question, but hey, I’ve also learned a hell of a lot. Yet, I don’t have the power of the interrogation room on my side and I still feel like my credentials are lacking in some situations.

Asking tough or emotional questions is hard, and it’s something that takes a lot of tact to get a great answer without offending or hurting somebody.

I love talking to people and it’s really satisfying getting someone to open up about their story. I think that’s something a lot of journalists have in common.

After the interview, writing the story can sometimes be the hardest part. You sit down with someone for a finite amount of time then translate that conversation into a larger story. Listening back to the interview is an interesting exercise because you hear things you didn’t when you were asking all the questions. Sometimes it’s not until after the interview that you realize what you should have been asking all along.

Besides kicking yourself for missed opportunities confidence, genuine curiosity and a little bit of empathy can be the most helpful tools during an interview.