Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
Author: David Simon
Date Finished: February 24, 2019
Image from Amazon
Back in the 1990s I caught a few episodes of the crime drama “Homicide: Life on the Streets”. I liked it but we were busy raising our kids and didn’t watch as much TV. In subsequent years I’d catch an episode here and there and would try to catch it more regularly; but in the pre-Internet/ pre-DVR era, it was harder to watch a rerun series. I especially liked the actors Yaphet Kotto and Andre Braugher – who now stars as Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99. For the past year I’ve tried to track down the show on Netflix, Amazon Streaming, or wherever but it just doesn’t seem to be available unless I want to buy a DVD set – which I don’t.
Then searching the internet again I came across this book and learned the TV series was written by the same person – David Simon – and was based in the same city – Baltimore. So, Il gave it a try. I was glad I did. After reading the first few chapters I told my son about it. He told me “You know, I’ve been trying to get you to watch ‘The Wire’ for a few years now. It is also written by David Simon”. So, I started watching “The Wire”. The two are close; some of the detectives in the TV series are based on real people from the book. In fact some of the detectives play parts in the series. The writing of both is so good, I was having a hard time keeping scenes straight: which was in the book and which in the TV series.
David Simon took a year off his job working for a Baltimore newspaper to embed with the homicide team in Baltimore. This book traces that year with many of the murders and the process detectives go through from arriving at the scene through the end of the case. He found that the detectives’ jobs are much more than solving murders.
“For the murder police in the field, it’s not only the body lying before them that has to be dealt with but also what they carry on their backs, which is the entire hierarchy of bosses who answer to bosses – the weight of bureaucratic self-preservation.”[Location 129]
“The Wire” focuses closely on this aspect of the job.
To solve a murder, “the crime scene provides the greater share of physical evidence, the first part of a detective’s Holy Trinity, which states that three things solve crimes: Physical evidence. Witnesses. Confessions.” [Page 73]
Unfortunately, few murders have all three, meaning the murder police have to make do with what they have. Juries are made up of people who have been watching crime dramas on TV for years. They come to expect the cases to be slam dunks made by pretty people like they watched on the latest show.
“As a consequence, city juries have become a deterrent of sorts to prosecutors, who are willing to accept weaker pleas or tolerate dismissals rather than waste the city’s time and money on cases involving defendants wo are clearly guilty, but who have been charged on evidence that is anything less than overwhelming.” [Page 476]
The book keeps coming back to a murder from early in David Simon’s embedding: a young girl sexually abused and murdered. The challenges of the case showcase the various pressures detectives face – especially on these “red ball” cases.
In the 1980’s, Baltimore was suffering through almost 2 murders every 3 days, keeping the detectives and Medical Examines busy.
“Hell Night is three men on a midnight shift that never ends, with the office phones bleating and the witnesses lying and the bodies stacking up in the ME’s freezer like commuter flights over La Guardia” [Page: 391]
This type of work load engenders a dark humor.
“‘You shoot a guy, hey,’ the sergeant adds with a shrug. ‘You shoot another guy – well okay, this is Baltimore. You shoot three guys, it’s time to admit you have a problem.'”[Page 170]
The chronicle of the year excellently shows the problems and frustrations the detectives face day in and day out. Come the end of the day:
“For a detective or street police, the only real satisfaction is the work itself; when a cop spends more and more time getting aggravated with the details, he’s finished. The attitude of co-workers, the indifference of superiors, the poor quality of the equipment – all of it pales if you still love the job; all of it matters if you don’t.” [Page:613]
This is an engrossing telling of life of murder police in a big city. I loved it. I started to read Simon’s next book: “The Corner” where he embeds with some of the drug dealers in the city. But I put it down. Maybe it was too close to my reading of “Homicide” but I couldn’t connect with the people as much.