Authors: David Simon
Four hours later, he’s back for the midnight shift, hovering like a moth around the red pilot light of the coffee machine. Pellegrini takes a full cup into the squadroom, where Landsman begins playing with him.
“Hey, Phyllis,” says the sergeant.
“Your case is down, isn’t it?”
“Which case would that be?”
“The new one,” says Landsman. “From Gold Street.”
“Well,” says Pellegrini, the words rolling out slowly, “I am ready to get a warrant.”
“Hmmm,” says Landsman, blowing cigarette smoke at the television screen.
“Only one problem, though.”
“What’s that,” says the sergeant, now smiling.
“I don’t know who the warrant is for.”
Landsman laughs until the cigarette smoke makes him cough.
“Don’t worry, Tom,” he says finally. “It’ll go down.”
This is the job:
You sit behind a government-issue metal desk on the sixth of ten floors in a gleaming, steel-frame death trap with poor ventilation, dysfunctional air conditioning, and enough free-floating asbestos to pad the devil’s own jumpsuit. You eat $2.50 pizza specials and Italian cold cuts with extra hots from Marco’s on Exeter Street while watching reruns of
on the communal nineteen-inch set with insubordinate horizontal hold. You answer the phone on the second or third bleat because Baltimore abandoned its AT&T equipment as a cost-saving measure and the new phone system doesn’t ring so much as it emits metallic, sheeplike sounds. If a police dispatcher is on the other end of the call, you write down an address, the time, and the dispatcher’s unit number on a piece of scratch paper or the back of a used three-by-five pawn shop submission card.
Then you beg or barter the keys to one of a half-dozen unmarked Chevrolet Cavaliers, grab your gun, a notepad, a flashlight and a pair of white rubber gloves and drive to the correct address where, in all probability, a uniformed police officer will be standing over a cooling human body.
You look at that body. You look at that body as if it were some abstract work of art, stare at it from every conceivable point of view in search of deeper meanings and textures. Why, you ask yourself, is this body here? What did the artist leave out? What did he put in? What was the artist thinking of? What the hell is wrong with this picture?
You look for reasons. Overdose? Heart attack? Gunshot wounds? Cutting? Are those defense wounds on the left hand? Jewelry? Wallet? Pockets turned inside out? Rigor mortis? Lividity? Why is there a blood trail, with droplets spattering in a direction away from the body?
You walk around the edges of the scene looking for spent bullets, casings, blood droplets. You get a uniform to canvass the houses or busi
nesses nearby, or if you want it done right, you go door-to-door yourself, asking questions that the uniforms might never think to ask.
Then you use everything in the arsenal in the hope that something—anything—will work. The crime lab technicians recover weapons, bullets and casings for ballistic comparisons. If you’re indoors, you have the techs take prints from doors and door handles, furniture and utensils. You examine the body and its immediate surroundings for loose hairs or fibers on the off chance that the trace evidence lab might actually put down a case now and then. You look for any other signs of disturbance, anything that doesn’t appear to conform to its surroundings. If something strikes you—a loose pillowcase, a discarded beer can—you have a technician take it down to evidence control as well. Then you have the techs measure key distances and photograph the entire scene from every conceivable angle. You sketch the death scene in your own notebook, using a crude stickman for the victim and marking the original location of every piece of furniture and every piece of evidence recovered.
Assuming that the uniforms, upon arriving at the scene, were sharp enough to grab anyone within sight and send them downtown, you then go back to your office and throw as much street-corner psychology as you can at the people who found the body. You do the same thing with a few others who knew the victim, who rented a room to the victim, who employed the victim, who fucked, fought or fired drugs with the victim. Are they lying? Of course they’re lying. Everyone lies. Are they lying more than they ordinarily would? Probably. Why are they lying? Do their half-truths conform to what you know from the crime scene or is it complete and unequivocal bullshit? Who should you yell at first? Who should you scream at loudest? Who gets threatened with an accessory to murder charge? Who gets the speech about leaving the interrogation room as either a witness or a suspect? Who gets offered the excuse—The Out—the suggestion that this poor bastard needed to be murdered, that anyone in their circumstance would have murdered him, that they only killed the bastard because he provoked them, that they didn’t mean it and the gun went off accidentally, that they only fired in self-defense?
If all goes well, you lock someone up that night. If all goes not so well, you take what you know and run with it in the most promising direction, kicking a few more facts loose in the hope that something will give. When nothing gives, you wait a few weeks for the lab work to come back with a positive on the ballistics or the fibers or the semen. When the lab reports
come back negative, you wait for the phone to ring. And when the phone doesn’t ring, you let a little piece of you die. Then you go back to your desk and wait for another call from the dispatcher, who sooner or later will send you out to look at another body. Because in a city with 240 murders a year, there will always be another body.
Television has given us the myth of the raging pursuit, the high-speed chase, but in truth there is no such thing; if there were, God knows the Cavalier would throw a rod after a dozen blocks and you’d be writing a Form 95 in which you respectfully submit to your commanding officer the reasons why you drove a city-owned four-cylinder wonder into an early grave. And there are no fistfights or running gun battles: The glory days of thumping someone on a domestic call or letting a round or two fly in the heat of some gas station holdup ended when you came downtown from patrol. The murder police always get there after the bodies fall and a homicide detective leaving the office has to remind himself to take his .38 out of the top right desk drawer. And, most certainly, there are no perfectly righteous moments when a detective, a scientific wizard with uncanny powers of observation, leans down to examine a patch of bloody carpet, plucks up a distinctive strand of red-brown caucasoid hair, gathers his suspects in an exquisitely furnished parlor, and then declares his case to be solved. The truth is that there are very few exquisitely furnished parlors left in Baltimore; even if there were, the best homicide detectives will admit that in ninety cases out of a hundred, the investigator’s saving grace is the killer’s overwhelming predisposition toward incompetence or, at the very least, gross error.
More often than not, the murderer has left behind living witnesses or even bragged to someone about the crime. In a surprising number of cases, the killer—particularly one unfamiliar with the criminal justice system—can be manipulated into a confession in the interrogation rooms. On rare occasions, a latent print taken from a drinking glass or knife hilt will match up with someone’s print card on the Printrak computer, but most detectives can count on one hand the number of cases made by lab work. A good cop goes to the crime scene, gathers the available evidence, talks to the right people and with any luck discovers the murderer’s most glaring mistakes. But in that alone there is talent and instinct enough.
If the pieces do fall into place, some unlucky citizen gets a pair of silver bracelets and a wagon ride to an overcrowded tier of the Baltimore City Jail. There he sits as his trial date is postponed for eight or nine
months or however long it takes your witnesses to change addresses two or three times. Then an assistant state’s attorney, who has every intention of maintaining a better than average conviction rate so that he can one day come to rest in a better than average criminal law firm, calls you on the telephone. He assures you that this is the weakest homicide indictment he has ever had the misfortune to prosecute, so weak that he cannot believe it to be the work of a legitimate grand jury, and could you please round up the brain-dead cattle you call witnesses and bring them down for pretrial interviews because this thing is actually going to court on Monday. Unless, of course, he can convince the defense attorney to swallow manslaughter with all but five years suspended.
If the case isn’t plea-bargained, dismissed or placed on the inactive docket for an indefinite period of time, if by some perverse twist of fate it becomes a trial by jury, you will then have the opportunity of sitting on the witness stand and reciting under oath the facts of the case—a brief moment in the sun that clouds over with the appearance of the aforementioned defense attorney who, at worst, will accuse you of perjuring yourself in a gross injustice or, at best, accuse you of conducting an investigation so incredibly slipshod that the real killer has been allowed to roam free.
Once both sides have loudly argued the facts of the case, a jury of twelve men and women picked from computer lists of registered voters in one of America’s most undereducated cities will go to a room and begin shouting. If these happy people manage to overcome the natural impulse to avoid any act of collective judgment, they just may find one human being guilty of murdering another. Then you can go to Cher’s Pub at Lexington and Guilford, where that selfsame assistant state’s attorney, if possessed of any human qualities at all, will buy you a bottle of domestic beer.
And you drink it. Because in a police department of about three thousand sworn souls, you are one of thirty-six investigators entrusted with the pursuit of that most extraordinary of crimes: the theft of a human life. You speak for the dead. You avenge those lost to the world. Your paycheck may come from fiscal services but, goddammit, after six beers you can pretty much convince yourself that you work for the Lord himself. If you are not as good as you should be, you’ll be gone within a year or two, transferred to fugitive, or auto theft or check and fraud at the other end of the hall. If you are good enough, you will never do anything else as a cop that matters this much. Homicide is the major leagues, the center ring, the show. It always has been. When Cain threw a cap into Abel, you
don’t think the Big Guy told a couple of fresh uniforms to go down and work up the prosecution report. Hell no, he sent for a fucking detective. And it will always be that way, because the homicide unit of any urban police force has for generations been the natural habitat of that rarefied species, the thinking cop.
It goes beyond academic degrees, specialized training or book learning, because all the theory in the world means nothing if you can’t read the street. But it goes beyond that, too. In every ghetto precinct house, there are aging patrolmen who know everything a homicide man knows, yet somehow they spend their careers in battered radio cars, fighting their battles in eight-hour installments and worrying about a case only until the next shift change. A good detective begins as a good patrolman, a soldier who has spent years clearing corners and making car stops, breaking in on domestics and checking the back doors of warehouses until the life of a city becomes second nature to him. And that detective is further honed as a plainclothesman, working enough years of burglary or narcotics or auto until he understands what it means to do surveillance, to use and not be used by an informant, to write a coherent search and seizure warrant. And of course there is the specialized training, the solid grounding in forensic science, in pathology, criminal law, fingerprints, fibers, blood typing, ballistics, and DNA-genetic coding. A good detective also has to fill his head with enough knowledge of the existing police information data base—arrest records, jail records, weapons registrations, motor vehicle information—to qualify for a minor in computer science. And yet, given all that, a good homicide man has something more, something as internalized and instinctive as police work itself. Inside every good detective are hidden mechanisms—compasses that bring him from a dead body to a living suspect in the shortest span of time, gyroscopes that guarantee balance in the worst storms.
A Baltimore detective handles about nine or ten homicides a year as the primary investigator and another half dozen as the secondary detective, although FBI guidelines suggest half that workload. He handles fifty to sixty serious shootings, stabbings and bludgeonings. He investigates any questionable or suspicious death not readily explained by a victim’s age or medical condition. Overdoses, seizures, suicides, accidental falls, drownings, crib deaths, autoerotic strangulations—all receive the attention of the same detective who has, at any given moment, case files for three open homicides on his desk. In Baltimore, investigations of all shootings involving police officers are conducted by homicide detectives
rather than internal affairs men; a sergeant and a squad of detectives are assigned to probe every such incident and present a comprehensive report to the departmental brass and the state’s attorney’s office the following morning. Any threat on any police officer, state’s attorney or public official is channeled through the homicide unit, as is any report of an attempt to intimidate a state’s witness.
And there is more. The homicide unit’s proven ability to investigate any incident and then document that investigation means that it is likely to be called on to handle politically sensitive investigations: a drowning at a city swimming pool where civil liability might result, a series of harassing phone calls to the mayor’s chief of staff, a lengthy probe of a state legislator’s bizarre claim that he was abducted by mysterious enemies. In Baltimore, the general rule is that if something looks like a shitstorm, smells like a shitstorm and tastes like a shitstorm, it goes to homicide. The headquarters food chain demands it.