Mean streets provide us with glimpse of reality

WILEY A. HALL

February 02, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I caught NBC's new series, "Homicide: Life on the Street," on the tube Sunday. Thought it was pretty good.

But realistic? Nah. The producers flinched from reality. They copped out. They gave us, instead, a utopian view of life on Baltimore's mean streets.

And that's a pity because drama sometimes can make us confront issues we'd rather not face. And what we most need is to confront the consequences of race in the city's war against crime.

Television showed us a wonderfully, comfortably, integrated world, a rainbow coalition of cops and robbers, crime in paradise.

On television, the homicide unit was headed by a black lieutenant. At least two of the half dozen or so principal detectives also were black. Out on television's version of the mean streets, white youths appeared to murder at about the same frequency as black youths.

The body sprawled on the ground, surrounded by buzzing flies and dull-eyed onlookers, seemed just as likely to be white as black.

As I said, it was an utopian picture of violence in this city, murder in an ideal world.

The reality, however, is harsh. Stark. Polarized. The forces of law and order in this city almost always wear white faces. The bad guys, as well as their victims, almost always are black.

We can debate what, if anything, this might mean. We can ponder what, if anything, we can do about this. But the racial dimension to crime and justice in this city is inescapable.

A black homicide lieutenant? Don't make me laugh. There is no black homicide lieutenant in this city. Never has been.

There is a single black sergeant and just seven black detectives assigned to the 40-person homicide squad. The entire uniformed police force, in fact, is 70 percent white. And 89 percent of the department's street-level supervisors -- the lieutenants and sergeants -- are white.

A multi-racial underworld that preys on people without regard to race, creed, or color?

Not in this world. Not in this city.

Last year, better than 94 percent of all homicide victims were black. Almost 90 percent of all identifiable homicide suspects were black. Those city neighborhoods with the most murders last year were all in predominantly black communities.

Thus, any given crime scene here is likely to involve black onlookers

and a squad of white police officers, standing over a black body in a black neighborhood.

"Homicide" did dare to reflect part of the reality of Baltimore's mean streets: the uncooperativeness of sullen bystanders, the seeming indifference of the detectives to the victim, and the little games detectives play to trick confessions out of suspects.

The show did put you on the front lines in the war against crime. But the racial overtones were muted.

The producers flinched. They copped out. Thus, we have to raise our own questions for both races about the effects of this racial polarization.

Blacks, who often look at the police department as an occupying army, need to consider whether that characterization is fair. Is it based on the actual behavior of the city's officers or is it based on the community's prejudice against a predominantly white force? More importantly, what attitudes about citizenship, and the importance of law and order, can adults pass on to their children if those adults fear and distrust the police? Does an Us-versus-Them attitude promote public safety?

At the same time, white officers, most of whom live outside the communities they serve, must look at the same set of questions from the opposite perspective. Do their own attitudes and prejudices distance themselves from city residents, from victims and their families? Does this perpetuate the Us-versus-Them mentality? Does this department act as a community-based police force or an occupying army? And, if justice is perceived by residents to be imposed upon city neighborhoods by a hostile, outside force, is it really just?

For my part, I do not believe a system of justice can be just unless the community believes in it, embraces it as its own. We do not have that in this city. The system doesn't work. This is one of the reasons Baltimore's mean streets are getting meaner every day.

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