Homicide: Life on the Streets

Arrest By Judy Berman

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.Crime Scene tape - Do Not Cross

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.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original

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

  1. That profession would be a little scary for me. Of course, I was in Human Resources and those are the people who get shot when an employee is unhappy.

    1. On my job as a reporter, I was aware of the potential for harm. In a business situation like yours, that’d be scarier to me. I just wouldn’t expect a violent outburst.

      1. Normally I would say that you faced it every day and I would only occasionally. However, there was a killing in my area where a terminated employee came in and shot 4 people including his former boss and the head of HR. I myself went through one threat where an employee’s violent boyfriend was released from prison. He had threatened to come in and shoot up her place of employment. We got armed security at that time. (I thought about taking the day off but went into work anyway.)

        note from earthrider to Kate Crimmins: You ARE a brave woman. I might have done the same, but it’s not the job you signed up for. 🙂

  2. Oh my, not sure I could have continued my conversation with the paranoid Schizophrenic man with as much equanimity! 🙂

    1. Madhu, I’m not always that calm under pressure. But this time the planets just aligned. 🙂 I think I get this from my Mom and Grammy who both were unruffled and cool at a time when they were in a dangerous situation. It’s after-the-fact that we often crumble.

  3. Powerful reminder of “reality” in much of the country, and the world. The high school where I taught for 25 years had just shared a sport event and a speech tournament with Columbine High School a few days before the shootings.
    I don’t believe any place is immune to violence any more. And Street Justice is a dangerous, eye-for-an-eye justice that leaves everyone numb and blind to hope.
    Excellent post, Judy.

    1. Sad to say, Marilyn, but you’re right. I’ve been in a lock-down at our school when there was a threat of someone on campus. It is a very vulnerable place to be, especially when people act violently to fulfill their goals. Columbine is a powerful reminder of that.

      I’m glad you liked this.

  4. My goodness Mother, I am glad I never knew the situations you were involved in when I was younger or I don’t think I would have ever let you leave the house!!!! Of course I still worry about your safety when I hear about school shootings but you are tough and only the good die young as they say!! Love you!

    1. Tsk. Tsk. Merely a trifle. By the way, these three incidents happened after you left home when I was working at the paper in Utica. And, if only the good die young, then I shall live forever. Muahahaha! 🙂 (luv you, too, Jenn)

  5. It sounds like it was quite a scary job sometimes! 😯 People often talk about how vulnerable the police are sometimes, but you never hear anyone mention how vulnerable a journalist is while gathering information for the news. It’s very odd how we narrow in on the things we are reminded of on TV or radio, but rarely think beyond what we are fed through that media. I think sometimes too many opinions from various media sources causes our thinking to be limited to what is talked about most often, everything else can become irrelevant! It irritates me that so much is talked of cancer in the news when there are many more illnesses that actually effect a higher percentage of people, and yet a lot of people are not even aware of them, and only fear getting cancer – nothing else. The world is easily swayed in one direction or another!

    I have a cousin who has Schizophrenia, and for many many years he has never attacked anyone, friends, family or stranger, but recently he really let rip on his sister nearly crashing her head through a glass door! She had officially become his part time carer, as she does that for a job anyway, and also works as a counsellor. He couldn’t cope with anyone else, so to save him from going into a care home, she thought it would help him if she became the carer, and would give her a chance to spend a little more time with him. It seemed to work for a couple of years, but went horribly wrong. They hadn’t even had a disagreement about anything, he just flew at her in a rage. I think people with Schizophrenia often don’t deal with the things they need to, it’s as if they won’t face reality, but transfer that anger they have towards someone or something else, so an outburst of rage always comes unexpected, and doesn’t make sense to anyone else, or in fact to them! I feel I can handle my cousin to some extent, because I know him, but the thought of dealing with a complete stranger with those sort of problems would make me feel very wary! 🙂

    1. I’ve joked that when everyone’s told to evacuate a place – out of concerns for their safety, health, etc. – that reporters (cops, firefighters, and emergency responders) head into the thick of things. The job did have some risky moments, but I never let my guard down. It’s when you don’t expect a problem that things can get really dicey. My hat’s off to reporters who cover: war zones, nature at its worst, or who work in hostile situations. While I admire them, I wouldn’t have traded places with them.

      Suzy, once we got over that little hurdle, the man (who said he was paranoid-schizophrenic) was really easy to chat with. My Grammy ran into a situation far scarier when she took care of an elderly woman who was mentally unstable. I suspect I channeled her and my Mom when I talked with him. 🙂

  6. “Tsk, tsk. Merely a trifle.”– now those are nerves of steel you got there, ma’am… : )

    OK, you were joking, my dear Judy, but I still admire your nerve. This was a wonderful piece, especially since it gives us– your fans– some colorful insight into your background as a reporter.

    My wife and I met at Utica Mutual Insurance Company. We made a little nostalgia trip to the area back in June, including a show at Utica’s Stanley Performing Arts Theater, which, you no doubt recall, is in the inner city. Gritty streets, indeed.

    I’m tipping my battered bullet-riddled fedora to you, Intrepid Crime Reporter!! : )

    1. Then you know the turf I’m talking about. Mark, on those same gritty streets, I met many wonderful people. Their stories were part of my coverage as well.

      Guess this intrepid reporter shouldn’t confess just how many times I was quaking in my boots. Being scared – and alert – is good insurance that you’ll be around to do a follow-up story.

      Thanks for your support and your comments.

    1. Courageous or crazy? It’s your call. 🙂 Some of the things I saw and experienced were heartbreaking. Others were heartwarming. It did give me a window into a world I knew little about. Curiosity – more than anything else – prompted me to talk with folks that some go out of their way to avoid. I learned a lot from these exchanges.

    1. Our home is our castle – home being the actual structure we live in or our community. We should feel safe there. A common remark folks make when that image is shattered is: “I never thought that’d happen here in our community.” That is what is so unsettling. I believe that if we watch out for one another, our chances for a safer, happier, healthier community will improve.

      Thanks for your comments, Island Traveler.

    1. I was on the police beat when I read David Simon’s book, “Homicide,” and thoroughly enjoyed it. I could identify with some of his experiences.

      My favorite “Homicide: Life on the Street” shows would be the two years when Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer were on together (1993-1995). I loved the shaky cam, the stories that continued for several shows. Gritty. Real. Dramatic. What were your reactions to both the book and the TV show?

      My husband and I were in Baltimore when it was still on and saw Andre Braugher (who played Det. Frank Pembleton from 1993-1998) reading his lines at a coffee shop, The Daily Grind. I stopped only to tell him I enjoyed his work and then kept moving. He looked up, but I don’t recall if he said anything to me.

      1. I really liked the book. I grew up in Baltimore County and love to read, so naturally I was drawn to the book. I don’t have the background you do, but the book seemed pretty real to me. I have to say that I like the earlier seasons better. Some of the story lines in the last few seasons just felt a bit forced. As for Andre Braugher, I thought he was excellent in the role, he just seemed like a really good actor.

        note from earthrider to Photography Journal Blog:
        Glad you liked the book. Another police beat reporter for the Miami Herald, Edna Buchanan, wrote a great book: “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face.” It was about her experiences in Miami and the stories she covered. I love to read, too. Thanks for your comments.

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