David Simon's 'Homicide' cop battling life on the streets once again

Former Sun writer tells how a character in his book faces another reckoning with the bullets he survived 25 years ago

March 11, 2012|By David Simon, Special to The Sun

March 11, 2012

Seven-baker-twenty-four unit turns at Mosher and rumbles past that stretch of Appleton Street where Gene Cassidy took two in the head for the company, the first one stealing his eyesight, the second lodging in his brain beyond the skill of a surgeon's knife.

Cassidy was 27 then, not even four years on the job, strong and lucky and hard-headed Irish enough that he refused to do the obvious and inevitable thing. He did not die. At University Hospital that night, the other patrol officers and detectives were told it was certain, that their friend would not make it.

But Cassidy breathes still, and Appleton and Mosher looks much as it did in October 1987, when Cassidy tumbled out of his radio car to jack up a man wanted on an assault warrant. The same Formstone rowhouses — a few now boarded-up vacants — the same Amtrak rail bed at the north end, the same rusted fences and weeds in the gaping mouths of the alleys. Hallowed ground, it never was.

Bobby Mitchell is under the wheel of 724 and he concedes that for the last few months, this post is at the quiet end of the sector. Much of the action is down on the bottom end, near Edmondson or on the other side of the highway around Baltimore Street. For sector two, the strip along Bentalou is a hot spot. Corner of Bentalou and Harlem, especially.

"We roam around, follow the calls," says Mitchell, 42, and older than others in his sector. "We try to be there to back each other up."

He knows Cassidy. They all do. There probably isn't a sworn officer in Baltimore who hasn't looked into Gene Cassidy's sightless eyes at one some point. In the years since the shooting, Cassidy became ubiquitous in the life of every new recruit. For years, he's been one of the law instructors at the police academy.

"We all took his class," says Mitchell. "We all know him."

The radio barks and Mitchell picks up a call. Street trafficking on Bentalou. He wheels over the bridge on Lafayette as the radio crackles with cross-talk from his side partners in the sector — Hough and Price, Perry and Hopkins, and Santucci, the sergeant. As Mitchell rolls down Bentalou, fiends and slingers walk sideways, the crowd melting between parked cars.

This is the day-to-day in the Western District, where the truly epic tale — the grand tragedy, the hero's journey — never long endures. Down the hill, over off Monroe, is the runt block of Frederick where, just a few years before the Cassidy shooting, Marty Ward was killed doing his undercover. And near the expressway, the house that claimed Weiner when he answered a domestic call in '93. And down on Pennsie, the porch where Martin got shot. There are ghosts all over the Western, if you know where to look. But few do anymore, and the Western itself has changed.

When Cassidy came on the job there were 100,000 residents in the district, and blocks upon blocks of occupied rowhouses. The streets were full, the corners teeming. Back then, the vacants were the oddity. Now, a quarter-century down the road, the Western has 40,000 souls and long stretches of boarded-up derelicts, if not empty brownfield lots. This is the part of town where the past is never quite present.

Cassidy, of course, is no ghost, though no one quite knows why. Back in '87, they all carried six-shot .38s and the Western credo was fire five and save one for yourself in case you're captured. Not Gene Cassidy, though: "From now on, you can only fire three," he was told after the shooting. "You need three just to kill yourself."

Cassidy would laugh because what the hell else can you do? He came out of Shock Trauma and taught himself to live without sight, or smell or taste — all of it lost to the shooting. He learned to work a guide dog and to maneuver through the world. He refused to retire, began teaching in the academy.

At some point, he went back to Johns Hopkins and got his master's. He and Patti had children, raised them, sold one house and bought another, made that into a home.

When he realized that there was a state scholarship for the children of Maryland police and firefighters who died in the line of duty, Gene asked what was available for those who were 100-percent disabled. Nothing, he was told, and so Gene called a state legislator. That was in January six years ago, with a legislative session already under way. By the end of the session, a bill, as they say, had become a law. And all of this was an answer — a remarkable answer to the gunman and the shots and what happened on October 22, 1987.

He lived a life. All of a life.

Until now, nearly a quarter century later — a new affront, a new challenge. Now, Gene Cassidy is once again dying from what happened at Appleton and Mosher.

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