When Crime Strikes Home

August 21, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Baltimore got a sobering lesson in crime last week -- and a lesson in semantics.

A brutal double-murder in affluent Guilford, across from lovely Sherwood Gardens, sent shivers through the city. Not everyone said it out loud, but most thought it: Where there's a sensational crime, there must be young black males. Maybe drugs, too, but definitely blacks -- young, black and violent.

What a relief when the police charged the grandson of the elderly couple, a white, 30-year-old man whose arrest shocked many people who knew him.

What a tragedy for the grieving family, and what a lesson in the code words in which we couch our fears.

We don't often acknowledge it, but in the national debate about crime, race is an underlying theme. Say the word murder, and the average American doesn't think of a grandchild, or a boyfriend or a spouse, but rather a nameless, stereotypical street thug.

Especially for white Americans, that thug is usually black. And thugs don't deserve prevention -- midnight basketball and the like. They only deserve punishment -- imprisonment and perhaps execution.

Yet race played no part in Guilford's sensational crime. And, ironically, none of the neighborhood's anti-crime initiatives could have saved the elderly victims.

A security system would have been useless; police say the grandson used a key to enter the house. And what private patrol would sound the alert when a family member was spotted in the neighborhood?

In Guilford, thugs have stolen cars and burglarized houses and -- in one case last year -- terrorized the neighborhood by breaking into a house, robbing the occupants and raping the wife.

Police said the crime resembled similar break-ins in several other well-to-do neighborhoods in the Baltimore and Washington areas, including some suburban homes.

So thugs have indeed taken a toll on Guilford, although a private security patrol seems to have had some deterring effects. But it was a family member who is charged with the neighborhood's most heinous crime.

If the grandson's reported confession removes race from at least one volatile case, it also shows that sometimes the most violent crimes are also the most personal.

That's a factor in the case against O.J. Simpson. The extreme brutality of the killing of his former wife and a friend suggests a frenzied passion behind the act, something more than an ordinary killing.

These intensely personal, impassioned crimes are the kind you can't escape by moving to the suburbs or moving up in the world. They may be less random than street crimes but they can be far more fearsome.

When we talk about crime while thinking about race, we conveniently forget that the "thug" we want to execute or lock away for life may be someone we know and love, or once did.

In reflecting on the Guilford murders, it's worth remembering that Baltimore police estimate that about 10 percent of the city's homicides are directly related to domestic violence. This is not just a women's issue, but it takes an especially heavy toll on women.

Nationally, violent crime reports show that women are as likely to be victimized by someone they know intimately as by a stranger, while men face a greater danger from strangers than from intimate friends or relatives. About 1 million women in the U.S. receive emergency medical treatment each year for abuse-related injuries.

So when crime talk turns to the topic of making the streets safe, it's worth remembering that for many people, home is more dangerous.

Another element in last week's events is the complaint that brutal murders happen elsewhere in Baltimore without causing headlines. That is true, and it's also true that each killing eats away at the city's economic health by scaring homeowners into thinking the suburbs will bring them more peace of mind.

But the fact is that murders in Guilford will always draw headlines. One reason is that the neighborhood is relatively crime-free, so violent death is highly unusual.

Another reason is economic. The typical Guilford house carries a much bigger tax assessment than houses in most other city neighborhoods. If enough Guilford homeowners decided to flee the city, property values would suffer and the tax base would take a hit. These days, any city needs all the tax base and committed residents it can get.

That's why police cars will take special care to patrol the area, and why Guilford residents will likely get the traffic impediments the city has promised them, even when it now appears that thugs haven't bloodied the neighborhood nearly as badly as a grandson gone wrong.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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