I got to see crime in Baltimore up close Tuesday night. A little too close. After the Police Department refused an official ride-along, Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton and I arranged to tour the streets with two union officials, Bob Cherry and Gene Ryan.
Given the fact that homicides in the city occur almost daily (and shootings even more frequently), I should not have been surprised that our first call was to a report of a man shot in a car in West Baltimore.
The victim, 28-year-old Joseph Leegreen Taylor, was not dead when we arrived. He died later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
The scene - familiar to officers - was new to me. A car riddled with bullet holes had crashed into another vehicle. Through the open passenger door, I could see blood soaking the seat. And on the ground were bullet casings, circled with red chalk and each marked with a yellow number.
After listening to detectives exchange theories on what might have happened, we left and headed to a public housing complex nearby. There we met two officers who, carrying a catalog of known drug dealers they compiled themselves, were looking for some men suspected of stashing drugs. The four police officers split up. Fenton and I followed the union guys.
Two minutes later, amid the shouts of "Five-0" from residents, we heard a scream. The union officials in the direction of the shout. Fenton and I, for some reason, ran too. When we reached the other side of the project, we learned that the scream came from a man now in handcuffs. After some questioning and a search (no drugs were found) he was released and told to go home.
Our ride-along was nearing an end, but the most intense action was to come. A jovial chat in the car was interrupted by the announcement of a "Signal 13" - officer in distress - on the police radio. That was followed by the scream of an officer: "I need another unit. Give me another unit".
The officers switched on the lights and sirens and blazed through the streets. We did not know what was happening, but we later learned that an officer stopping a vehicle needed help when the men in the car jumped out and fled.
Cherry and Ryan jumped out of the car and, again, Fenton and I followed. We ran into the backyard of a house where officers, some of whom had drawn their guns, were searching the bushes with a handgun. As a helicopter shone a spotlight on the garden, the police radio declared: "The suspect is a black male wearing a blue hat and blue jeans," And then came the following detail: "He is armed. Repeat, the suspect has a handgun."
At this point, I decided that while I am keen to report on crime in Baltimore, I don't want to become a victim of it.
Despite the city's reputation, I have to say that during the short time I have spent in Baltimore, I have never once felt in any more danger than I do when walking the streets of London or any other large city.
But on hearing that radio announcement, I realized that perhaps I had gotten a bit too close to the action. I was armed with nothing more than a notepad and was unwittingly involved in the search for a gunman. In any city, that is a dangerous situation - one best observed from a safe distance, like the back seat of a patrol car, which is where I watched the rest of the search.