Crime and race: A different world

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

London unit deals with black-on-black gun violence

November 27, 2009|By By Justin Fenton | The Baltimore Sun

LONDON — After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore this month to see if the city reflects the images on "The Wire," The Sun sent police reporter Justin Fenton to London. The swap offered an opportunity to compare attitudes, crime and policing in London and Baltimore. For more observations, visit baltimoresun.com/twocities.

It has been a week since the 22-year-old was shot three times in the head while riding a bike in South London. One arrest was made, but two suspects are at large.

And on this early November day, at least 40 people are involved in the hunt for the killers.

In a large conference room in a downtrodden northern borough of the city, about 25 detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department's Operation Trident unit are packed around a long table in a nondescript room, sharing intelligence and dividing up tasks such as checking surveillance camera footage, searching for evidence and interviewing witnesses. Later they will head to a busy subway station in search of somebody - anybody - who saw something.

Today marks seven days since the victim's death, and detectives want to swarm the area looking for potential witnesses who might be repeating a weekly pattern.

"I feel sure - in fact I'm certain - that somebody saw something, no matter how insignificant," Detective Constable Steve Lawrence tells a dozen transportation officers brought in to assist. "There's a story to tell here."

The Trident program was set up about 10 years ago to address the growing problem of black-on-black gun crime in Britain's Afro-Caribbean and black communities. The impetus was a wave of killings, along with the black community's simmering distrust of police.

With 300 officers and a budget of $44 million, Trident investigates homicides and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on slick public-relations campaigns aimed at diverting young men from gun violence.

The Trident squad gave The Baltimore Sun an inside look at a murder investigation, though because of government-imposed restrictions in Greak Britain on reporting about active cases, police insisted that certain facts and names be withheld to preserve the prosecution.

The victim, who had a record of drug dealing, was riding through a neighborhood on a bicycle when he was shot three times. He stumbled across a few streets, zig-zagging through homes that sell for the equivalent of $500,000 before collapsing at the gate near a housing project, which in England are called "estates."

Detective Chief Inspector John Crossley's squad typically handles cases in the northern part of town but has had to pick up a few cases from South London recently to balance workloads. The workload in London, of course, pales in comparison to that of Baltimore police. London, a city of 7.5 million, has seen 110 homicides this year, only 17 of which involved guns. There is no unit that is equivalent to Trident in Baltimore, where the homicide division, by default, specializes in black-on-black gun crime, with nine out of every 10 of the homicides fitting that pattern.

In the early stages of an investigation, a killing in Baltimore gets assigned to a squad of six, and police can free up additional resources as needed.

But detectives quickly get squeezed: In addition to being a primary investigator on anywhere from four to eight cases a year, they will also investigate untold numbers of suspicious deaths, kidnappings, police-involved shootings or threats to officers, while chipping in on others' cases.

The cases being investigated by Trident squads are scrawled in blue marker on white dry-erase boards at opposite ends of an upstairs office. Each case is assigned an obscure operational name, such as "Operation Tilton," "Operation Conch Key," and "Operation Tavernier." On the board, there are slots for each officer assigned to the case, such as the primary case officer, the officer who will act as a liaison to the family and the officer assigned to inspect closed-circuit television footage. Each board lists about 20 cases - dating to the late 1990s.

Overall, officials say, gun crime is on the decline. Police are seeing more shootings apparently intended only to maim, a trend that police and city leaders believe might be due to criminals' awareness of the stiff penalties they face if charged with murder. Though total shootings have nearly doubled this year, from 123 to 236, gun crime is still at one of its lowest points in the past five years. Fatal shootings investigated by Trident have dropped from six in the past fiscal year to four this year.

In contrast, Baltimore detectives were handed six fatal shootings involving black victims during the Nov. 7 weekend alone.

At the morning briefing on the bicycle shooting, Crossley, wearing a pinstriped suit and bright pink tie, listens as detectives tell the group what they'vebeen working on, including possible connections to other crimes.

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