For some people, urban violence is as remote as the Himalayas.
Try explaining that your main objective as a cops reporter is not getting caught in any crossfire. Someone’s bound to question your sanity.
That danger was not confined to some dark alley. It also lurked on a sunny street, during a quiet chat in an apartment, and even back at the office where I worked.
In one neighborhood, rival gangs competed for the drug trade. That the violence claimed one of their own – in broad daylight – was inevitable.
On the TV shows and the movies, it looks so easy. It’s all wrapped up, neat and tidy, at the end. But life is not always well scripted. Like the time I was sent out to follow up on a fatal drive-by shooting in Utica, New York.
Two colleagues went with me in my car. We split up to talk to potential witnesses. We’d agreed on a time to meet back at my car.
I stopped to talk to some teens hanging out on the corner. One came over wearing a towel wrapped around his head. I started to laugh.
“You mocking my religion?” he asked. I could tell he was joking, and we continued the banter until another guy suggested I move on. While he wasn’t menacing, his message was clear.
Where to? I couldn’t leave my co-workers behind. So I walked down the block to my car – which just happened to be parked across the street from where the young man had been gunned down – and waited for them to return.
A car cruised slowly up to the house and then quickly moved on when a patrol car went by on a side street. Then, another car crawled to the curb. Someone in the house ran out. That car also left moments later.
Great, I thought. I’m betting they’re not well-wishers for the dearly departed.
I was relieved when I saw my colleagues heading my way. The drug dealer, who had asked me to leave the area, walked across the street to talk to us.
He asked my male co-worker, “If someone robbed you, what would you do?”
“I’d call the cops,” the reporter said.
Wrong answer, I thought. Drug dealers don’t look to cops to resolve things. They don’t want the cops messing in their business. No, they settle the score themselves. The drug dealer talked about “street justice.”
That’s the MO (modus operandi) of the drug trade. Keep the “shorties” (those that sell drugs on the streets) and the competition in line thru violence and intimidation. If you met him, you’d see what I saw – a polite young man, easy to talk to. That’s what jurors see. They don’t see the victims, or law-abiding neighbors who live in fear.
In another murder case, I was by myself, going door-to-door in an apartment building looking for someone to comment on the shooting.
A man, who lived across the hall from the victim, invited me in. He seemed pleasant enough.
As we sat across from one another, he confided that he’s been classified as a paranoid-schizophrenic. He told me that “If I’m in a hostile situation, I could kill a person one minute, and, the next minute, not even realize what I’d done.”
My face was a blank canvas. What are you supposed to say after that?
Then, as if to reassure me, he said: “I haven’t killed anybody yet.”
I leaned over, patted his arm and said: “Keep up the good work.”
My response was instinctive. No doubt, it threw him off balance. Then, I changed the subject, and we resumed talking about his neighbor.
I tried not to think about the “What if’s?” Like the man who was unhappy with a story I wrote, believing I was working with detectives to implicate him in the death of his former girlfriend.
It was midday and he looked like he’d been drinking heavily when he came to the paper demanding to see me.
Reporter Bill Farrell went downstairs with me to see the man. He threatened to sue the paper. Then, he nearly knocked a woman down as he stormed out. Farrell saw the man had a sharp, shiny object in his back pocket and offered to walk me to my car after work.
“But,” he joked, “I won’t start your car for you.”
I miss that edgy newsroom humor … and knowing the stories behind the headlines.
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Video: Homicide: Life on the Street – Luther Mahoney. Det. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnston) outsmarts Luther Mahoney in the box. Shows like “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-1999), based on an award-winning book, “Homicide,” by David Simon did show some of the gritty reality that cops go thru. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ-k4DQqNic
Photo: Arrest by Danish police in Copenhagen. Taken Oct. 2007 by Riemann. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Danish_police_arrest.jpg
Photo: Crime Scene tape – Do Not Cross – Uploaded by Diego Grez, Taken by Yumi Kimura, Yokohama, Japan on March 25, 2009 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3d/Do_Not_Cross%2C_Crime_Scene.jpg/640px-Do_Not_Cross%2C_Crime_Scene.jpg
Photo: Crime Scene – FBI Evidence Response Team http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/23/FBI_Evidence_Response_Team.jpg/640px-FBI_Evidence_Response_Team.jpg