There is certainly no shortage of cop books.
That’s why when I decided to collaborate with Kelvin Sewell a former Baltimore city homicide detective, on “Why Do We Kill?” (out now) we decided to start the book with an underlying question that gets beyond the mere phenomena of violent crime and into the realm of why it occurs so regularly in Baltimore.
The idea was to offer the reader more than a series of grisly tales. Instead we wanted to provide some context.
We used the cases that Kelvin worked, some of the most grisly in the past few years. But the idea is to work from the particular, from examples, and expound from there. But Kelvin didn’t just learn about the pathology of murder. He also learned about himself.
In this chapter, Kelvin takes a personal and painful look at a case that broke down the psychological buffer that a homicide detective uses to get through the day. In this case, the victim was his brother. - Stephen Janis
An excerpt from “Why Do We Kill?”
As I’ve said a number of times before in this book, one of the worst parts of my job as a homicide detective is having to tell a mother her child is dead. There is no sound more horrific than the scream of a mother when she learns that her son has been shot in the back of the head and is lying on a gurney in the morgue.
But even though I have brought bad news to countless families and done my best to comfort dozens of grieving relatives, I never thought I would have to knock on the door of my own mother’s house and tell her one of her children had been shot and may not live to see another day.
I’ll never forget the night when I entered Johns Hopkins Hospital, suspecting in the back of my mind it was my brother in the ICU fighting for his life.
I had just received a call from an Eastern District shooting detective, Joshua Ellsworth. They had transported a man named Clinton Anderson to Intensive Care.
The victim had been shot in the head and left to die on the 2000 block of East Hoffman Street. Detectives said they had possible witnesses.
And then there was one inescapable detail that forever changed my life. The man lying on the operating table with a bullet hole in his temple was, in fact, my brother.
A child from my mother’s marriage to another man, Clinton was no different to me than the rest of my family. And of course, like any good mother, all of her sons were loved just the same.
So when I knocked of the door of my mother’s West Baltimore home, it was, to say the least, surreal.
I know the routine when I knock on the door of a family I don’t know. It’s not callousness that gets me through it, just a sense that I have a job to do, a painful but necessary job that I try to do as professionally as possible.
I try to get through the door before all hell breaks loose. I try to sit the mother down. I try to say a few words before the grieving begins, even though it’s difficult to get a word in once they learn I am a homicide detective.
But with my own mother? All the space between me the detective, and the victim’s family evaporates when it’s your own family. The wall you create to deliver the news to bereaved relatives again and again as professionally as possible just doesn’t work.
When it’s your own mother on the couch sitting across from you and your own flesh and blood in the hospital it’s just not possible to draw any lines. It’s just a mother and her son, and in the end, nothing but pain.
So when my mother opened the door I really didn’t know what to say.
“What is it, Kelvin?” I remember her saying. “What’s wrong?”
“Sit down mom,” I said. “It’s about Clinton.”
And then it started, she started, because like any other mother she could read her son like an open book.
She knew something was wrong.
“What happened? Tell me. What happened to Clinton?” she demanded, gasping.
And then I told her. I told her Clinton had been shot in the head, that he might not make it, and that we didn’t know who did it.
And then my mother, like all the other suffering women I had delivered bad news to, broke down.
Sitting in the living room I felt like a man in between two worlds. I knew the drill; I knew how to build a wall, how to fill the void with conversation. But this time I was speechless. It was my mother after all.
So I just held her and acted like a son. What else could I do? Later I went to the hospital.
Again it was something I’d done a hundred times. Check on a shooting victim on the verge of death. Talk to the doctors. Obtain a prognosis. And wait.
But this time the feeding tubes, the whir of the heart monitor, the death glow of the EKG was all coming from the body of my brother.
I know this sounds odd, as if it’s some revelation that the people I see every day are human, like the dead bodies in the morgue that pile up in a holding pattern like so many grounded airplanes outside the main examination room.
But the truth is, the truth that homicide detectives know but will never talk about, is how we really make it through the day. How we see through the corpses and the tortured faces of family, twisted in pain over the violent death of a loved one.
We do it by summoning a sort of benign detachment. Don’t get me wrong, I take all my cases personally, I work hard to bring closure to the families who suffer.
But I deal with death, the worst sort of violent death every day, particularly in Baltimore, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.
And the truth is, I couldn’t do it without a bit of a wall. A respectful wall, an honest wall between me and the dead, the families, the suspects. A wall built on the vague sense of “the other”: the other who suffers, the other who lies dead behind a stone wall in Baltimore’s ad hoc “cemetery” on the cusp of Leakin Park.
That other never becomes you. Never assimilates into your reality. You’ll never get shot in the back of the head. Your leg will never twist behind your shoulder after you’ve jumped from the ledge of a bridge. Your face will never be torn apart by animals after someone strangles you and leaves you for dead in the woods.
You won’t die alone, left on a sidewalk to be carted to the morgue while a detective lifts your fingerprints from your necrotic fingers.
The twain shall never meet.
But in the hospital that night that wall for me disappeared.
My brother was dying, a victim of the same senseless violence I fought to curb regularly, but never seems to end in this city. - Kelvin Sewell