Britons Reject Likening Crime Levels To Those Of Baltimore

Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities

December 07, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton , justin.fenton@baltsun.com

LONDON — After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore last month to see if the city bears out the images on "The Wire," The Baltimore 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.

LONDON -- With the television drama "The Wire" airing here, political and law enforcement leaders recently found themselves in an odd position: defending their streets from comparisons to inner-city Baltimore.

The two places share little in common, from size to currency to demographics. This is a country where guns are rare - both among citizens and the police who walk the streets - and where drugs are harder to come by. Baltimore's murder rate, one of the highest in America, well outstrips Great Britain's, one of the lowest in the world.

But the comparisons tapped into a deeper fear about gun crime, and the state of this country's poor. Police statistics show a 17 percent increase in total gun crimes this year, and a doubling of punishment or "respect" shootings where the intent is not to kill. Nationally, 87 percent of people here believe gun crime is on the rise, with an even greater margin - 93 percent - who believe knife crime is increasing, perhaps fueled by a spate of youth stabbings last year that had parents purchasing body armor for their children.

Officials have pushed back, noting that this year's bump in crime still represents the second-lowest figure in the past five years. Though "respect" shootings doubled, that was from an original total of just 33. Total homicides are down for the year, following a 20-year low last year.

"We have a very, very low murder rate for a reason," said London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, who along with his boss, Mayor Boris Johnson, has angled to seize unprecedented control over the Metropolitan Police Department. "And the reason is that we take it very, very seriously."

In Britain, obtaining guns remains a challenge for criminals, and just 20 percent of firearms seized by police are working guns. Instead, criminals reconfigure starter pistols and replica guns, or smuggle weapons from Eastern European and Asian countries. If guns are hard to come by, officers say, ammunition is even more rare. Many shootings avoid a fatal result because the bullets are of such poor quality - spent shell casings repacked and recycled.

"At the end of the day, it's not the gun that's going to kill you - it's the ammunition. But they struggle knowing where to get the ammunition from," said Police Constable Matthew Broome. "So they have to get creative, and refilling a shell of a bullet means a bullet isn't as potent when it's fired from the gun."

But those who get their hands on guns and ammunition adhere to the same shoot-first mentality that afflicts many of America's urban streets, and the crimes that hit the news are often just as shocking and senseless.

In March, a shopkeeper was locking up his grocery store when a shooter on a motorbike zipped by and killed him in a case of mistaken identity. In October, a prominent gang member was shot while sitting in his Range Rover at a traffic light with his 5-year-old stepson beside him. In a killing that police believe was retaliatory, a 21-year-old man was fatally shot three days later as he played snooker at a social hall. With residents pleading for help, police initiated an armed patrol in North London - the kind that later would be condemned.

Police said they are concerned about the gun violence, but do not see a situation that begs breaking with the country's centuries-old tradition of unarmed police. An announcement in October by Scotland Yard that armed patrol units would "take to the streets of London" set off a flurry of anxiety among police advisers, politicians and commentators. One critic expressed "deep shock and horror," while others denounced the move as "totally unacceptable."

Within days, police said the announcement had been made in error and reasserted their commitment to an unarmed agency that polices through consent rather than force.

"We just don't like the idea of carrying firearms on the streets of the United Kingdom," Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said in a rare one-on-one interview. "We don't like it, the public don't like it, I don't like it, and actually the vast majority of cops don't want it."

That attitude toward guns is what fueled national fear about Manchester, an area of 2.5 million that is about 200 miles north. Neighborhood gangs' turf wars and retaliatory violence led the national press to dub it "Gunchester," and prompted formation of a task force called X-Calibre that targets efforts on intelligence-gathering and intervention in gang activity.

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