Juvenile homicides expose kids' vulnerability - and ours

July 14, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE PAGER went off in Martin O'Malley's hand, and the mayor of Baltimore took the awful news and clenched his jaw tightly: Some kid on the west side, shot to death in an alley for reasons the cops were still trying to figure out. Initial, unconfirmed report: shot in the head.

"Drugs?" somebody asked the mayor.

"Head shot," O'Malley said.

"Drugs?" he was asked again.

"Head shot," he repeated. "It wasn't casual, whatever it was."

As it turned out, it wasn't drugs, it was a bicycle. And it wasn't in the head, either, but a shot in the back. And in the end, none of the distinctions matters. It's another life ended in bloodshed in the city of Baltimore. This time, it was a 15-year-old named David Stewart, walking down an alley and swiping a 10-speed bike from a neighbor's yard and the neighbor, Edward Day, 54, a Vietnam veteran and community good guy, perhaps getting ticked off enough to grab a gun and shoot the kid in the back before he could get away.

The previous day, Wednesday, O'Malley was talking about a recent spike in juvenile homicides: 16 in the first six months of this year, vs. nine in the first six months a year ago. "I don't want us to continue to the end of the year and be the capital of juvenile murder in America," the mayor said. But he also noted, hopefully, a drop in nonfatal juvenile shootings, from 60 to 39.

Most of these shootings, it is believed, are tied to the narcotics trade. This is a bulletin to absolutely no one. But in a study released by Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, this additional background emerged on 34 recent juvenile shooting victims:

They averaged 16 years old, and all were black. Twenty-eight of the 34 were males, and 26 of them had criminal records. Average age of their first arrest: 12 1/2 . Average number of arrests since then: five.

Ponder that for a moment: 12-year olds getting arrested, and then arrested over and over until it becomes just another piece of routine business in their lives, and the grownups around them are watching this happen, and letting it happen, and it ceases only when the guns come out.

"And every one comes across my pager," O'Malley said now. "Every killing." The kid in West Baltimore, Stewart, was the city's 139th homicide of the year.

"As mayor," somebody said, "what does that do to you emotionally?"

"It breaks my heart," he said. "But the kids are especially tough. So many of them have gotten caught up in the drug trade. The dealers have decided these kids are theirs. We have to decide they're ours."

He talked about the Baltimore Believe anti-drug campaign, to enlist help from people who want to make a difference. He said the response was encouraging. He said the city had developed more summertime jobs to keep kids off the streets. He said more kids were in summer school, and after-school programs, and there were encouraging signs out of school testing. He said Commissioner Edward Norris told him "his lobby is packed with some of the most qualified people he's ever seen, who want to be police officers."

But the mayor also had these new juvenile homicide numbers, and when he spoke to school board members earlier in the day, he said, he'd told them that they had to target kids who were clearly headed for trouble.

"I don't have the luxury to be patient," he told the board. "I'm glad the reading scores are higher for third-graders. But it doesn't help if our third-graders are living in a city where it's more dangerous to be a kid than a cop."

So now we have David Stewart, 15, who managed to make it past third grade but not by very much in the span of a normal lifetime. This time it was a stolen bicycle; usually it's a grudge over drugs. And in the places where they cart the bodies off, it doesn't matter.

"As a father," O'Malley was asked now, "what does this do to you emotionally?"

"As a father?" the mayor replied. He didn't say anything for a moment, and then for a few moments more. The pager that brings him the news of every homicide in the city reaches him in his official capacity. A wall is erected; the messages are received within the precincts of his profession, and not his privacy.

To think about these kids who are killed, and to connect them with our own lives, and our own parenthood, is to feel the worst kind of vulnerability. So we try not to do such things to ourselves.

"There's an old Irish expression," the mayor finally said. "`It's easier to sleep on another man's wound.'"

We can feel sorry for the deaths of someone else's children. But if we wish to sleep soundly through our own nights, we must protect ourselves, and our own. And deal with those who are vulnerable but, inevitably, keep some emotional distance.

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