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?

Fact v.s. Fiction

Books

Growing up I remember watching a hell of a lot of Da Vinci’s Inquest with my parents. That cheesy, overacted CBC crime drama was my gateway drug into the big beautiful world of corny, overly dramatic crime dramas like CSI, CSI: Miami, Dexter, Bones…etcetera, etcetera. It’s not my favourite TV genre but it’s so dang easy to get hooked, because what’s more satisfying than a murder that gets solved within an hour-long episode? Nothing. The answer is nothing.

csi_miami_cancelled1

Reality isn’t nearly as satisfying. Real-life murders do not get solved in an hour, sometimes they never get solved at all.

In the case of Latonya Wallace’s murder the Homicide detectives have virtually no physical evidence from the crime scene. The 11-year old girl was found in an alley early one rainy morning. The weather effectively washed the alley of any traces of the suspect and it was clear that her body had been relocated from the crime scene. One of the most defining leads in the case is an earring that was missing from the victim’s lobe.

“In addition to the bloody clothes or bedsheets and a serrated knife, they are searching for the star-shaped gold earring, nothing less than a proverbial needle in the haystack.” 

Imagine searching an entire neighbourhood — bedrooms, basements, closets, garages, backyards — for an earring.

Chapter three started with a similarly defeating tone.

“It has been 111 days since Gene Cassidy was shot down at the corner of Appleton and Mosher streets.”

I was immediately frustrated. How come these murders were taking so long to solve? Shouldn’t the detectives be able to scan something with a black-light, or take some swabs, or run something through a computer to find the murderer? Then I caught myself. This isn’t a television show and these crimes actually happened. It was an icky moment of realization that my world-view was somewhat formed by the shows I watched on TV.

That said, Gene Cassidy’s case reads like an episode of CSI. Cassidy was a police officer that was shot in the head twice on a street corner, leaving him blind, but alive. Terry McLarney is the detective assigned to his case and a close friend of Cassidy’s, he is more than invested in solving the difficult case. There are no reputable witnesses off the bat and Cassidy can’t remember the events leading up to the incident. We follow McLarney to all kinds of dead ends before the offender is ousted by a witness months after the shooting.

Finally, resolve!

But, McLarney’s victory is short-lived. Baltimore has an average of 200 murders per year, meaning each detective of the homicide unit takes on a new case every few days. Following the closing of the Cassidy case, Baltimore experiences 13 murders in 14 days.

Thanks David Simon, I don’t think I can respectfully watch another polished, well-rested TV detective tie a pretty-little bow on a murder case ever again (unless, of course, we’re talking about The Wire). Reality is much more interesting.

High Profile Cases

Books

CMHRLast week, I got to attend the 52nd annual International Association of Women Police (IAWP) conference as part of a school assignment. Female officers from around the world filled the grand ballroom at The Fort Garry Hotel waiting to hear the morning’s keynote speaker the right hon Michaëlle Jean, former Governor General of Canada.

Jean was inspiring and so, so eloquent, it was a treat to hear her speak. She talked about how she used to fear police officers because of abuses her family had experienced in when she was growing up in Haiti. She also spoke about human rights. In one poignant phrase she described police officers as the front line witnesses to human rights abuses going on in the world.

I had Jean’s words stuck in my head the entire time I was reading the second chapter of Homicide. The chapter opens onto a back alley crime scene in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighbourhood, where eleven-year old Latonya has been found brutally murdered. The victim’s circumstance and her age quickly turn the murder into a “red-ball” case, a case so high-profile that it affects the entire homicide department until it’s closed. And as primary detective on the case Detective Tom Pellegrini devotes all of his time to finding Wallace’s murderer.

During the first chapter, Simon describes the way different homicide units compete with one another to close cases. The competition is visible on a whiteboard filled with all of the current cases with red marker signifying which cases haven’t been solved. While it’s not the greatest measure of a detective’s work ethic it is a motivator to get things done.

I find the whiteboard difficult to stomach because it takes the injustice out of the crimes and makes the whole thing seem like a game. Simon doesn’t bring up the board much in the second chapter because the Wallace case makes it obsolete, the crime against a child has much more gravity.

How come murders of drug dealers and prostitutes are treated like a game but the murder of a child becomes a red alert? Innocence. A drug dealer probably had it coming because they’re associated with criminal activities, but a child on her way home from the library can’t have brought that horrible fate upon herself. Everybody has the same basic rights as human beings but society places more importance on the plight of innocents.

The media has a lot to do with letting society know what’s important. The relationship between journalists and detectives is a strained one in Homicide and it’s interesting to read the headlines from a police officers perspective. I had no idea how detrimental coverage can be to an open case. A front page story can affect witnesses coming forward and journalistic speculation can hurt affect public confidence in the police.

Journalist are supposed to keep power in check, but what’s the point if justice takes a hit.

Separate Yourself

Books

“In a police department of about three-thousand sworn souls, you are one of thirty-six investigators entrusted with the pursuit of that most extraordinary of crimes: the theft of a human life. You speak for the dead. You avenge those lost to the world”

Dead bodies, long hours and black coffee. David Simon’s novel Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets offers a candid look into the world of the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit — grizzly details and all.

In 1988, Simon was working for the Baltimore Sun when he became the first reporter to gain unlimited access to a police homicide unit. He took the opportunity and entrenched himself in the unit’s day-to-day operations for an entire year. Homicide follows 19 detectives as they navigate difficult cases and policeman politics, the book is the real-life inspiration for HBO’s The Wire.

Finishing the first chapter I already felt immersed in the police world. Simon manages to tell the story through the eyes of the detectives in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or made-up. He peppers the story with police-lingo and a writes with a rhythm that alludes to a Baltimore accent. The narrator sounds like a no-bullshit New Yorker.

This voice really intrigues me because as journalists we’re taught to report the facts and leave our own voice out of our reporting as much as possible. Simon never uses “I” but he does take on the role of intermediary by placing the reader in every crime scene; and letting us hear every interrogation and every off-colour joke. And, obviously, an entire book written like a news article would be a horrendous read.

As I was reading, I kept thinking about how close Simon must have been to his subject. How do you leave your emotions and your opinions at the door when you’re faced with horrible situations everyday? Being able to separate yourself from a story is an integral part of non-biased reporting and I’m sure the same goes for police work. I know I find that separation difficult at times, especially if I’m writing about something I’m passionate about.

I’ll be writing about the themes and issues raised in Homicide for the next 9 weeks so be prepared for spoilers if you haven’t read the book, and if you have read it please let me know what you think about my analysis!