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GUN CRIME AND RACE: A DIFFERENT VIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

London - -After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore this month to see if the city reflects the images on "The Wire," The Sun sent police reporter Justin Fenton to London. The swap offered an opportunity to compare attitudes, crime and policing in London and Baltimore. For more observations, visit baltimoresun.com/twocities.

It has been a week since the 22-year-old was shot three times in the head while riding a bike in South London. One arrest was made, but two suspects are at large.

And on this early November day, at least 40 people are involved in the hunt for the killers.

In a large conference room in a downtrodden northern borough of the city, about 25 detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department's Operation Trident unit are packed around a long table in a nondescript room, sharing intelligence and dividing up tasks such as checking surveillance camera footage, searching for evidence and interviewing witnesses. Later they will head to a busy subway station in search of somebody - anybody - who saw something.

Today marks seven days since the victim's death, and detectives want to swarm the area looking for potential witnesses who might be repeating a weekly pattern.

"I feel sure - in fact I'm certain - that somebody saw something, no matter how insignificant," Detective Constable Steve Lawrence tells a dozen transportation officers brought in to assist. "There's a story to tell here."

The Trident program was set up about 10 years ago to address the growing problem of black-on-black gun crime in Britain's Afro-Caribbean and black communities. The impetus was a wave of killings, along with the black community's simmering distrust of police.

With 300 officers and a budget of $44 million, Trident investigates homicides and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on slick public-relations campaigns aimed at diverting young men from gun violence.

The Trident squad gave The Baltimore Sun an inside look at a murder investigation, though because of government-imposed restrictions in Greak Britain on reporting about active cases, police insisted that certain facts and names be withheld to preserve the prosecution.

The victim, who had a record of drug dealing, was riding through a neighborhood on a bicycle when he was shot three times. He stumbled across a few streets, zig-zagging through homes that sell for the equivalent of $500,000 before collapsing at the gate near a housing project, which in England are called "estates."

Detective Chief Inspector John Crossley's squad typically handles cases in the northern part of town but has had to pick up a few cases from South London recently to balance workloads. The workload in London, of course, pales in comparison to that of Baltimore police. London, a city of 7.5 million, has seen 110 homicides this year, only 17 of which involved guns. There is no unit that is equivalent to Trident in Baltimore, where the homicide division, by default, specializes in black-on-black gun crime, with nine out of every 10 of the homicides fitting that pattern.

In the early stages of an investigation, a killing in Baltimore gets assigned to a squad of six, and police can free up additional resources as needed.

But detectives quickly get squeezed: In addition to being a primary investigator on anywhere from four to eight cases a year, they will also investigate untold numbers of suspicious deaths, kidnappings, police-involved shootings or threats to officers, while chipping in on others' cases.

The cases being investigated by Trident squads are scrawled in blue marker on white dry-erase boards at opposite ends of an upstairs office. Each case is assigned an obscure operational name, such as "Operation Tilton," "Operation Conch Key," and "Operation Tavernier." On the board, there are slots for each officer assigned to the case, such as the primary case officer, the officer who will act as a liaison to the family and the officer assigned to inspect closed-circuit television footage. Each board lists about 20 cases - dating to the late 1990s.

Overall, officials say, gun crime is on the decline. Police are seeing more shootings apparently intended only to maim, a trend that police and city leaders believe might be due to criminals' awareness of the stiff penalties they face if charged with murder. Though total shootings have nearly doubled this year, from 123 to 236, gun crime is still at one of its lowest points in the past five years. Fatal shootings investigated by Trident have dropped from six in the past fiscal year to four this year.

In contrast, Baltimore detectives were handed six fatal shootings involving black victims during the Nov. 7 weekend alone.

At the morning briefing on the bicycle shooting, Crossley, wearing a pinstriped suit and bright pink tie, listens as detectives tell the group what they've been working on, including possible connections to other crimes.

Noticeably absent from the table are black officers, though the agency says about 10 percent of Trident's staff is black.

Though a week has passed and the crime has fallen out of the headlines, there is a sense of urgency in the room.

"We will resource murder inquiries very well," Crossley tells a reporter. "While it's fresh, given the impact that has on the local community, that's our best chance to get in there and speak to people."

Detectives have located witnesses, who have been helpful to differing degrees. One of them has a "history" that detectives want to fully vet, while they need to verify another's contention that he had called police several times before the shooting. A gun raid is planned for early the next morning with officers from CO19, the only unit in the Metropolitan Police Department that has armed officers.

With Britain the most wired-for-surveillance country in the world, there is also footage from multiple cameras to pore over.

"There is a mammoth amount of CCTV," one detective tells Crossley.

"Brilliant," he responds.

As the meeting wraps up, the detectives fan out. Detective Constables Siana D'Cunha and Sat Samra, who jokingly refer to themselves as the "Bollywood stars of Trident" because of their Indian heritage, climb into a car to visit the homicide scene and re-interview witnesses. D'Cunha said that with two shooting cases in six weeks, she's been pulling 80-hour weeks and has barely seen her family.

Meanwhile, Detective Constable Ali Woods visits a housing project not far from the shooting scene, where a maintenance worker is said to have found a single bullet in an elevator shaft. Although area kids have been known to pry open the elevator and stash drugs there, the bullet comes as a surprise. As police search the grounds, people outside the project bark insults, calling the officers "pigs" and telling them they are unwanted.

It's those reactions that fuel Trident's public relations arm. Its Web site, StoptheGuns.org, features an array of flashy campaigns aimed at getting the message to young people that crime doesn't pay. One is an interactive jail cell, showing a bed ("You've made your bed. Now try and sleep in it," reads the pop-up message), a picture of a girl ("Photo of your girlfriend. But she won't be by the time you get out."), and a meal tray ("Nothing like what your mum used to make.").

One ad campaign shows a body in a chilly coroner's locker. "Carrying a gun can get you in the coolest places," it reads. Other spots include celebrities and influential black role models - a singer, an Olympic gold medalist, and a winner from the UK version of "The Apprentice" - discussing ways to get respect without a gun.

As night falls, Crossley, Lawrence, D'Cunha and Samra meet at the Walworth police station to brief a dozen transportation officers on the case. The officers will help pass out fliers near a subway station, where they will compete for attention with a man in an orange jacket handing out free copies of a local newspaper. The fliers show a picture of the victim with a broad smile on his face.

"Police appeal for assistance," reads the top of the flier. "Were you in the area? Did you see or hear anything? Can you help?"

"If you remember anything, please give us a call," an officer tells one elderly man.

"Yes. Yes, I'll try to remember. Because I do come down and pick up my [news] papers," the man replies.

At the scene where the victim's body was found, an enormous memorial has been assembled: 50 bouquets, candles, T-shirts, hats, empty bottles of Jack Daniels, Courvoisier and beer. "He lived for everything, and died for nothing," reads one sign.

Police anticipate that they might bump into friends and relatives during the canvass. The victim was of Jamaican descent - an ethnic group that police say has had strained relationships with law enforcement here - and the culture calls for a wake of nine days and nine nights.

Lawrence ducks into a corner store, just steps from where the shooting took place, and asks the owner what he heard. Just fireworks, he says. Lawrence asks if he can post a flier in the storefront window; the owner says yes - he's already got one there, seeking help in the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old a year earlier in this area.

No promising leads come in after about an hour of handing out fliers, but as Samra trudges along the dimly lit sidewalks, he is hopeful. And with the good reason: Over the next two days, two more arrests are made in an early morning raid on a home. The unit is still batting 1.000 for the year - making at least one arrest in every case.

"What we're trying to do is make the area safe again, and reassure people that we are aware there's been a problem here," Samra says. "It's one killing too many, and we're trying to keep the mood up for the masses who are good, hard-working people."

He pauses.

"Surely, it's better to overdo it than to underdo it."

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