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The Baltimore Sun

What a Londoner can expect in Baltimore

Baltimore is a city I have never visited, yet it is a place I feel I have spent many hours. Like countless others, I know what the corner of Fayette and Monroe looks like. I’ve seen drug deals in the low rise projects. And I’ve witnessed murders in vacant row houses.

It is, of course, all thanks to The Wire and the endless weekends I devoted to the box set. But, despite the brief sojourns I have made from the comfort of my living room in London, I have no idea of real-life Baltimore. And that's what I want to find out about.

Statistically Baltimore's real life crime figures seem to suggest the fictional drama matches the reality. The city is, officially, the second deadliest city in the USA – only in Detroit are you more likely to be murdered. There were 234 homicides in 2008 in a city which has a population of about 650,000. It was a 20-year-low, but still meant that one in every 2,700 people was murdered. In Britain that figure is about one in 85,000.

In my job even one murder is a news story. But will that be true for my new colleagues on the Baltimore Sun?

As Justin Fenton explained to me when I nervously asked how dangerous the city was: "Statistically it is very dangerous," he said. Before adding: "But I have lived here a long time and I don’t feel like I’m in any danger."

I'm not quite sure where that leaves me.

As well as the differences, I am also interested in discovering the similarities between Britain and Baltimore - and even what we can learn from one another.

In the UK equality groups have been vocal in their criticism of London's police force for their controversial use of stop and search tactics. The law says that the police can stop and search anyone whom they deem to be acting suspiciously. An oft-repeated statistic is that you are seven times more likely to be stopped if you are black than if you are white.

Similarly, in Baltimore I am told that a common tactic is for the police to arrest people for trivial offenses only for the suspect to be released hours later with no charge to answer. Those affected say it is harassment, the police say it is a way of clearing the streets of people likely to commit crime.

So how do you get the balance right between civil liberties and fighting crime?

The exchange will also be an opportunity to see the American police forces and justice system at work and compare it to what we're used to in the UK. Last month the Metropolitan Police announced that armed police officers were to patrol the streets of London for the first time. They then backed down in the face of overwhelming fury from politicians and the public. But police carrying weapons is common practice in the USA.

Supporters say that it is only right that officers, who are likely to be confronted by criminals with weapons, should be armed themselves. Detractors claim it leads to more murders than it prevents.

In Britain there are specially-trained firearms police officers who are called upon to attend incidents in which guns are involved and are used to protect VIPs. They do not patrol the streets. It is a system that means instances of the police shooting people are relatively rare.

But in Baltimore the 'police-involved shootings' are not uncommon. So far this year the Baltimore Police Department has shot 16 people, the latest was last month when a 14-year-old robbery suspect was shot, although not killed.

Finally, while The Wire has been an unmitigated success in most quarters, I am acutely aware that the place it received the most hostile reception was, unsurprisingly given the murderous, drug-addled, bastion of corruption the city is represented as, Baltimore.

Both the mayor and the current police administration are keen to distance themselves from the program. They say it is not realistic and are nervous about my visit.

I'm coming with a totally open mind. But, knowing what they think, I will perhaps temper my enthusiasm for the (fictional) show when speaking to city officials. And I will certainly resist the temptation to ask directions to Hamsterdam.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun
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