Briton Compares 'Wire,' Real Baltimore

Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities

November 01, 2009|By Mark Hughes | Mark Hughes,The (UK) Independent

Editor's note: When "The Wire" gained popularity in Great Britain, we were contacted by a London-based journalist who proposed a job swap. Mark Hughes, a crime reporter with The Independent, a national newspaper in the United Kingdom, wanted to come to Baltimore to see if the city's police officers, drug dealers, prosecutors and politicians bore any resemblance to those on the show. We agreed to complete the exchange by sending our police reporter, Justin Fenton, to London to compare crime trends. We'll publish some of their work in the print edition of The Sun, and more observations will be available at baltimoresun.com/twocities.

Baltimore is a city I have never visited, yet it is a place I feel I have spent many hours. Like countless others, I know what the corner of Fayette and Monroe looks like. I've seen drug deals in the low-rise projects. And I've witnessed murders in vacant rowhouses.

It is, of course, all thanks to "The Wire" and the endless weekends I devoted to the box set. But, despite the brief sojourns I have made from the comfort of my living room in London, I have no idea of real-life Baltimore. And that's what I want to find out about.

Statistically, Baltimore's real-life crime figures seem to suggest the fictional drama matches the reality. The city is, officially, the second deadliest in the USA - only in Detroit are you more likely to be murdered. There were 234 homicides in 2008 in a city that has a population of about 650,000. It was a 20-year-low, but still meant that one in every 2,700 people was murdered. In Britain that figure is about one in 85,000.

In my job even one murder is a news story. But will that be true for my new colleagues on The Baltimore Sun?

As Justin Fenton explained to me when I nervously asked how dangerous the city was: "Statistically it is very dangerous," he said, before adding: "But I have lived here a long time and I don't feel like I'm in any danger."

I'm not quite sure where that leaves me.

As well as the differences, I am also interested in discovering the similarities between Britain and Baltimore - and even what we can learn from one another.

The exchange will be an opportunity to see the American police forces and justice system at work and compare it to what we're used to in the UK. The Metropolitan Police recently announced that armed police officers were to patrol the streets of London for the first time. They then backed down in the face of overwhelming fury from politicians and the public. But police carrying weapons is common practice in the USA.

Supporters say that it is only right that officers, who are likely to be confronted by criminals with weapons, should be armed themselves. Detractors claim it leads to more murders than it prevents.

In Britain, there are specially trained firearms police officers who are called upon to attend incidents in which guns are involved and are used to protect VIPs. They do not patrol the streets. It is a system that means instances of the police shooting people are relatively rare.

But in Baltimore, police-involved shootings are not uncommon. So far this year, Baltimore police officers have shot 16 people; the latest a 14-year-old robbery suspect.

While "The Wire" has been an unmitigated success in most quarters, I am acutely aware that the place it received the most hostile reception was, not surprisingly, Baltimore.

Both the mayor and the current police administration are keen to distance themselves from the program. They say it is not realistic.

I'm coming with a totally open mind. But, knowing what they think, I will perhaps temper my enthusiasm for the show when speaking to city officials. And I will certainly resist the temptation to ask directions to Hamsterdam.

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