A Tale of Two Cities
In Baltimore, home to the acclaimed US television series The Wire, someone is murdered every two days. And the shadow Home Secretary says parts of Britain are going the same way. In a unique experiment, The Independent is to put this claim to the test. For one week our crime correspondent Mark Hughes will swap places with his counterpart on the Baltimore Sun, Justin Fenton. From Manchester's toughest estates to black-on-black crime in London, Justin will judge how safe Britain's streets are, while Mark will witness the reality of drugs and guns in a city many people think they know - from the comfort of their sofas.
Follow their reports for the newspaper here and here, as well as their blog dispatches below, and on Twitter, @hughes_mark and @justin_fenton
In London, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Department has always been appointed by the national government, and its oversight and budget were set by an independent authority. The Mayor of London, though the city's top public official, had basically no official say.
Not so anymore. New mayor Boris Johnson last year placed himself as the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority and has been issuing directives, a shakeup that made waves here - and which City Hall said is finally holding the Met accountable to the people. One of Johnson's first acts as the head of the authority was to chase out the then-police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, a move that was impossible as mayor but done through his position on the authority.
"From our point of view, the mayor is the overwhelming voice of the customer, and they've been asking for certain things for a long time, and we want the police to focus on those things," Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse told me.
He said the national government, referred to here as the Home Office, had been focused mainly on the Met's counterterrorism efforts, letting day-to-day street crime lag behind as a priority. While Johnson still has no formal powers as mayor to control the police department, as chair of the police authority he's tasked police with focusing on issues ranging from gangs and knives to crime mapping and dog fighting.
"Londoners respond to it - to knowing somebody cares and is responsible for crime," Malthouse said. "Our postbag on crime went from 30 or 40 letters to 400 a week, just because finally, there's somebody who's responsible and will take political responsibility for [police] performance."
From my perspective, not fully knowing the political controversy this move caused, I think its refreshing that Johnson wants to "take political responsibility" for crime, because he's not only afforded himself the opportunity to take credit when things go right but to be left holding the bag when things go wrong. Of course, such an active role can also become meddling, and disruptive. Either way, this is a turning point of sorts in the history of the Met, for better or for worse.
"It is far, far more dangerous in Baltimore than it is in London, especially for gun crime," Johnson said. Of course, he's absolutely right - guns are scarce in the UK and the blight and poverty are not nearly as pervasive as in Baltimore. But it says something about politics here that such a comparison would even be made in the first place, and that officials feel compelled to dignify it with a response.
By the way, Mark and I did a round of radio appearances today, on six different stations, including the BBC's Today program. Here is the link to that interview (scroll down to the very bottom).
The police here typically wait until an arrest has been made, or until they're stuck and need the public's help, to publicize major crimes. One press officer told me that informing the public about the crime in their neighborhood would lead to irrational fear and that they should only know about crimes when police need to get the information out. I can't tell you how many times a crime falls through the cracks in Baltimore and we get flak from people accusing us of covering things up for police. People demand to know what is happening in their neighborhood, and the backlash is swift when officials fail to inform the community about a major incident.
As far as the process when someone is arrested, there are some interesting differences. First off, you can be arrested merely for suspicion of a crime and placed on "police bail", in which police can impose restrictions on the suspects while they work to investigate the crime. After a suspect is booked, their fingerprints are taken and an officer takes a swab for their DNA, which is logged into a database. This is different from the process in Maryland, where until recently DNA was only collected upon conviction and which currently occurs only when someone is charged with a violent crime. Those who are charged are placed in their own private cell, which has a door for privacy and a toilet, and they are drug tested. If they fail the drug test, they are hooked up with a drug counselor and can be required to attend drug counseling while they are out on bail. The only time the criminal justice system can impose such requirements in Maryland is upon a conviction, at least in my experience.
Off to do a radio interview. Spent today with a homicide squad in the throes of a new case, and will be blogging about it whenever I get the chance.
But the lack of action on my ridealongs has been quite a bit ridiculous, especially since the press and the officers I rode around with in Manchester and South London's Brixton insist that these are tough streets. Indeed, during roll call, when officers are apprised of recent events in the neighborhood, they outlined some gritty stuff taking place. However, after 14 hours on the streets, here's what I witnessed firsthand:
Manchester (dubbed "Gunchester"):
-A car full of teens who had just finished smoking marijuana
-A kid whose bike furious bike riding raised suspicions but turned out to be nothing
Brixton (referred to as London's drug and gun capital):
-A man suspected of drunk driving (his blood alcohol level was below the legal limit)
-A fruitless search by car for a man with a vegetable knife
-A check on a home believed to be burglarized (it was not)
Of course, 14 hours on the street is hardly enough time to get a full view of any area, just like the action-packed five hours experienced by Independent journalist Mark Hughes in West Baltimore wasn't indicative of every night in the city. My challenge is determining just what constitutes a tough area here and putting that in the proper context. Crime, and particularly perception of crime, is all relative, but then again, many of the locals who have e-mailed me told me that most of the crime here was completely blown out of proportion. I personally haven't witnessed much to tell them otherwise.
Yesterday, as suggested, I attended one of Mayor Sheila Dixon’s public events. It was a tree-planting ceremony at Dewees park, in the north of the city. It did not go well.
I arrived just before 9am, ahead of the mayor, and told her spokesman that, if possible, I would like to speak with her about crime and the issues I have witnessed during my visit. He took the message to her and I was told that it may be possible at the end.
An hour later the spokesman again raised the subject with the mayor and she made it clear there would be no interview. “What does he want?” she asked her spokesman. She said she did not want to speak about crime and added: “I’m planting trees today.”
So there will be no voice from the mayor in anything I write back home.
I leave Baltimore this evening after a spending a week here. I would like to think I have seen many sides of the city. Because of the nature of this exchange, I spent most of my week in neighbourhoods with high crime rates.
But many people throughout my trip had urged me to make sure I also visited the good parts of Baltimore. Yesterday I did that. I walked around Fort McHenry and the inner harbour and then went to some bars in Fells Point.
The city, due to its high homicide rate, is inextricably linked with crime, something which has no doubt been exacerbated by The Wire. But throughout my stay I have also witnessed the many good things the city has to offer.
While certain parts of the city are intimidating, I can assure fellow Brits that the whole of the city is not the murderous, drug dealing haven as is portrayed on the television.
"Many of these gangs are family members - it's almost as if you're born into that family, you're under that umbrella [of a gang]," said Detective Sgt. Rob Cousen. "It's difficult for lads to get out of that."
But Baltimore this is not. While Manchester's underbelly has drawn terrifying headlines in recent years and was compared by a British politician to inner city Baltimore, I drove around with officers for seven hours and saw clean streets and alleys, well-kept (and inhabited) homes and saw very few people out, on a Friday night no less. It rained intermittently, which could have been a factor, but the young men whose shocking crimes were explained to me in detail were nowhere to be found. I didn't even see a uniformed police presence, except for a few officers on foot patrol in the downtown nightlife hub (Literally. We didn't come across a uniformed officer until the end of the night when the officers kindly dropped me off at my downtown hotel).
It could have just been one of those slow nights, as there continue to be shootings and other gang-related activity (Cousen is due in court Monday to testify in an attempted murder trial for two men linked to a shooting inside a crowded club). But the city also went the entire month of August without a shooting - a feat that officials believed was a first, at least in recent memory.
That may be due to the work of the X-Calibre team, which has been targeting their efforts on intelligence gathering and intervention into gang activity. Gang-related firearms "discharges" were down 81 percent in the past fiscal year, something officials hope can help the city shed its nickname of "Gunchester."
I have much more to share about Manchester, but I've got to zip over to a ridealong in Brixton, an area of South London which over the years has been referred to as London's gun and drugs capital. More later.
During my time in Baltimore I have endeavored to look at the whole spectrum of crime in the city. I have spoken to people who have taken and sold the drugs which have fuelled much of the murder.
I have spent evenings with uniformed police officers on the front line whose job it is to prevent and solve crime and I have chatted with detectives at murder scenes.
I have spoken to whole host of community groups who are working to try and resolve the issues in their neighborhood, which, depending on the area of the city, can include poverty, drug dealing, gun crime, gang-affiliation and murder.
And I have visited the court system and met with federal and state prosecutors who are charged with bringing Baltimore’s criminals to justice and have heard the problems they face.
Unfortunately I have not been granted an audience with, arguably, the two people ultimately responsible for rectifying Baltimore’s high crime rate.
Both the Mayor and the Police Commissioner have refused to be interviewed during this week-long exchange. The official reason is scheduling issues. Neither of them have had the time to speak with me.
However I can’t help but think that, because the ostensible reason for my trip is The Wire, they could be disinclined to meet with me for fear that I will focus on nothing but the negative image of the city as portrayed on the show.
Ultimately I do not think their refusal or inability to co-operate has impacted too much upon my ability to get a good impression of the city’s crime picture. Although perhaps their input would have lifted my coverage and informed my views and observations.
I am aware that the mayor has a public schedule and I have been told that I am more than welcome to turn up and attempt to speak with her. I may attempt this tomorrow but there is a caveat. Her office says there is no guarantee she will speak with me.
I will post later tonight, after touring Manchester's Moss Side with the Xcalibre gang unit, but generally, Stephenson said he was "pleased, not delighted," about crime reductions in London while discussing an uptick in gun incidents and his agency's efforts to tackle youth gangs. He also talked, with some depth, about a recent controversy in which he ordered specialized units to stop armed patrols in high crime areas. The Metropolitan police force is not armed other than a very small number of special initiatives (representing less than 500 officers), and he wants to keep it that way. It's the will of the public and of the police officers themselves, he said. The unit that was carrying out the patrols are used to carrying weapons and didn't realize the gravity of the situation, he said.
At the end of our chat, he told me to pass along that he wished well for Baltimore officers.
Drugs, I am told, are the main cause of crime in Baltimore. Not only are they responsible for much of the theft and burglary but most of the murders too.
Tens of thousands of people in the city are addicted to narcotics such as heroin and crack cocaine. They buy their fixes from dealers in open-air drug markets such as the busy one I walked past yesterday at the corner of Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane.
As well as the many drug dealers on that corner there is also a building which is home to the ‘I Can’t We Can’ rehabilitation progam. Inside the building is a large room where men sit on one side, women the other, and share their experiences of addiction with each other.
I spoke to people like Karen Royster, a 46-year-old woman who became homeless and lost custody of her six children because of her addiction to crack cocaine. Terry Bullock, a 36-year-old man who has admitted he would steal and attack people to fund his habit. And Kathalene, a 48-year-old who had been taking drugs since 11 and has been arrested ten times.
All of them are now clean and have been for varying periods of between five years, in Kathalene’s case, to just a month, in Terry’s.
Yet they did it not through a government-funded initiative, but through a group run on a shoestring budget from inside a run-down building behind a supermarket.
Not because they wanted to, but because the I Can’t We Can program is, according to everyone I spoke to there, the only one in the city which offers treatment on demand. In other words, users who turn up there will be seen instantly.
Other programs involve a waiting list. This is unappealing because if drug addicts turn up asking for treatment and are told to return at a later date the chances are that, in the intervening period, they will return to using drugs.
The I Can’t We Can program does not offer its subscribers a substitute, such as methadone. The organizers say that simply giving users another drug does not solve the problem. They would no doubt disagree with a government-backed pilot scheme currently being run in the UK.
It involves giving heroin addicts two injections a day of actual heroin, not the usual methadone subsitute. It is highly controversial but, after three years, those running it claim that they have seen a huge drop in crime by those taking part.