Commentary: On Police/Crime

On Police/Crime On the Drug War The Wire

Mr. Bealefeld’s Come-To-Jesus Moment

Embedded in a recently published interview of former Baltimore commissioner Fred Bealefeld is an extraordinary utterance — something that would and should be a lot more heralded if America were paying sufficient attention to the growing costs and failings of its drug prohibition: “Professionally,” declares Mr. Bealefeld in a brief interview with the Baltimore Sun Magazine,  “I think our war on drugs has failed…We invested a lot of this country’s blood and resources and didn’t achieve the results. Developing real educational and job opportunities for somebody would have been much more meaningful in neighborhoods than some of the work we built into putting people in jail. That’s why I think it was so misguided. We wound up alienating a lot of folks in building this gigantic jail system in our country.” The former commissioner also credited a strategic de-emphasis of the drug war with enabling his department to focus on violent crime:  “I always...

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On Police/Crime Published Elsewhere

Welcome to Florida. Beware of gunmen standing their ground

The Miami Herald, March 25, 2012 Reprinted with permission. Almost a quarter-century ago — in the halcyon days when human life was seen as more precious than property and people were regarded as something more than impoverished and non-influential corporations — I happened to be present at the tragic and needless shooting death of a black teenager.It was 1988 in Baltimore, Maryland and I was a journalist embedded in the city’s homicide unit, a bystander to a particular tragedy involving an elderly white homeowner and a black kid shot in the head while trying to steal a dirt bike. As the kid crept from the homeowner’s rear yard with the bike, the old man stood in his rear window, raised a rifle, and shot the juvenile dead. He readily acknowledged that he had done so, noting that he had been a victim of prior thefts and that given his age, he saw no other way to stop the crime.After all, it was his son’s bike. And it was his home. And in shooting the teenager to death, he was protecting...

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On Police/Crime

A Municipal Moment Worthy of Orwell

Reprinted from the Baltimore City Paper February 25, 2009 (Image by MEL GUAPO) Police work, it is said, is only easy in a police state. So welcome to the city of Baltimore, where a police officer who uses lethal force and takes human life is no longer required to stand behind his or her actions and suffer the scrutiny of the public he or she serves, where the identity of those officers who use lethal force will no longer be known, where our communities are now asked to trust in the judgment of those who clearly don’t trust us. A 61-year-old Baltimorean is dead, shot by a Southeastern District Officer Feb. 17. His death may well be a reasonable, if tragic outcome. It may even be good police work, though any veteran city prosecutor will acknowledge that having a shooting ruled “justified” by the state’s attorney’s office should in no way be mistaken for such an assessment. But if we let stand Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld’s new policy of...

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On Police/Crime Published Elsewhere

Two Americas: A primer for Europeans

On the heels of The Wire becoming a hot ticket on British television, The Guardian asked me for a curtain-raiser on season five — the media season — with a Baltimore dateline in their Sunday edition.  By this point, it had become clear that The Wire was something of a phenomenon over there; American dystopia plays better the farther one travels from America, apparently.  And too, it had become clear that many viewers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe were content to believe that The Wire was representative of the urban U.S. in its entirety.  Moreover, some of them were expressing a good bit of schadenfreude in this. So in The Guardian, I tried to walk the line between affirming what I thought was truthful in The Wire and making clear the geographic limitations of the drama.  Not sure it worked at all, or that anyone took the point.  But in my mind, at least, it boiled down to an interior stance: We can say this shit about ourselves.  And at times, we will.  But fuck you...

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On Police/Crime Published Elsewhere

Murder, I Wrote

From The New Republic, September 1997 Reprinted with permission. I used to cover crime on the late shift in Baltimore for The Sun. It was a living measured, by and large, in four-paragraph installments. You’d call the cops, ask what was going on, and then, when they emitted a handful of facts about which body fell on which corner, you’d write it up briefly and send it to the night editor. West Baltimore, East Baltimore, lower Park Heights, Cherry Hill—the rowhouses and postwar housing projects were all decidedly similar, and, assuming the casualty was poor and black, the newspaper accounts were similar as well. “A 21-year-old West Baltimore man was shot to death yesterday….” “… police say the assailant fled on foot after the stabbing. No suspects have been identified.” “A 16-year-old Pimlico youth was found murdered ….” In four years, I manufactured about a thousand of those formulaic morsels. The bodies I wrote about were, for the most part, buried in a handful of...

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On Newspapering and Journalism On Police/Crime Published Elsewhere

The Reporter I: Cops Killers and Crispy Critters

Published in the Media Studies Journal of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, this was an argument for a return to narrative as a means of humanizing crime coverage.  I’d just published my first book and contemplating the second.  At this point, though, this is a rather amusing artifact given how the argument for narrative led me, kicking and screaming, out of journalism entirely. At the moment you begin reading this, some poor bastard three years out of journalism school is sitting at a video-display terminal in a newspaper office somewhere in these United States, fingers darting on a keyboard. No doubt a cursor flashes through line after line of the same simple, tired equation: “A 17-year-old West Baltimore youth was shot to death yesterday in a murder that police say is related to drugs….” Or, perhaps: “The battered body of a 25-year-old Queens resident was found by police along the shoulder of a Long Island expressway….” ‘ Or: “A...

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