After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore last month to see if the city bears out the images on "The Wire," The Baltimore 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.
LONDON -- With the television drama "The Wire" airing here, political and law enforcement leaders recently found themselves in an odd position: defending their streets from comparisons to inner-city Baltimore.
The two places share little in common, from size to currency to demographics. This is a country where guns are rare - both among citizens and the police who walk the streets - and where drugs are harder to come by. Baltimore's murder rate, one of the highest in America, well outstrips Great Britain's, one of the lowest in the world.
But the comparisons tapped into a deeper fear about gun crime, and the state of this country's poor. Police statistics show a 17 percent increase in total gun crimes this year, and a doubling of punishment or "respect" shootings where the intent is not to kill. Nationally, 87 percent of people here believe gun crime is on the rise, with an even greater margin - 93 percent - who believe knife crime is increasing, perhaps fueled by a spate of youth stabbings last year that had parents purchasing body armor for their children.
Officials have pushed back, noting that this year's bump in crime still represents the second-lowest figure in the past five years. Though "respect" shootings doubled, that was from an original total of just 33. Total homicides are down for the year, following a 20-year low last year.
"We have a very, very low murder rate for a reason," said London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, who along with his boss, Mayor Boris Johnson, has angled to seize unprecedented control over the Metropolitan Police Department. "And the reason is that we take it very, very seriously."
In Britain, obtaining guns remains a challenge for criminals, and just 20 percent of firearms seized by police are working guns. Instead, criminals reconfigure starter pistols and replica guns, or smuggle weapons from Eastern European and Asian countries. If guns are hard to come by, officers say, ammunition is even more rare. Many shootings avoid a fatal result because the bullets are of such poor quality - spent shell casings repacked and recycled.
"At the end of the day, it's not the gun that's going to kill you - it's the ammunition. But they struggle knowing where to get the ammunition from," said Police Constable Matthew Broome. "So they have to get creative, and refilling a shell of a bullet means a bullet isn't as potent when it's fired from the gun."
But those who get their hands on guns and ammunition adhere to the same shoot-first mentality that afflicts many of America's urban streets, and the crimes that hit the news are often just as shocking and senseless.
In March, a shopkeeper was locking up his grocery store when a shooter on a motorbike zipped by and killed him in a case of mistaken identity. In October, a prominent gang member was shot while sitting in his Range Rover at a traffic light with his 5-year-old stepson beside him. In a killing that police believe was retaliatory, a 21-year-old man was fatally shot three days later as he played snooker at a social hall. With residents pleading for help, police initiated an armed patrol in North London - the kind that later would be condemned.
Police said they are concerned about the gun violence, but do not see a situation that begs breaking with the country's centuries-old tradition of unarmed police. An announcement in October by Scotland Yard that armed patrol units would "take to the streets of London" set off a flurry of anxiety among police advisers, politicians and commentators. One critic expressed "deep shock and horror," while others denounced the move as "totally unacceptable."
Within days, police said the announcement had been made in error and reasserted their commitment to an unarmed agency that polices through consent rather than force.
"We just don't like the idea of carrying firearms on the streets of the United Kingdom," Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said in a rare one-on-one interview. "We don't like it, the public don't like it, I don't like it, and actually the vast majority of cops don't want it."
That attitude toward guns is what fueled national fear about Manchester, an area of 2.5 million that is about 200 miles north. Neighborhood gangs' turf wars and retaliatory violence led the national press to dub it "Gunchester," and prompted formation of a task force called X-Calibre that targets efforts on intelligence-gathering and intervention in gang activity.
X-Calibre's second-floor office sits in Manchester's traditionally highest crime area, the Moss Side, in a police station that has otherwise been closed for renovations. On the walls are mugshots of gang members, labeled with their nicknames. Red and blue bandanas hang over each group's section signaling their affiliation.
Two of the major gangs have begun calling themselves Bloods and Crips, a nod of admiration for American gang culture; another is made up predominantly of Somalian immigrants. All are racially diverse.
The beefs here are entrenched, passed down through generations, said Detective Sgt. Rob Cousen.
"Many of these gangs are family members - it's almost as if you're born into that family, you're under that umbrella," Cousen said. "It's difficult for lads to get out of that."
Jerome Braithwaite, 20, is among those who know that violence is still a problem on Moss Side. His younger brother, Louis, was killed in January outside a betting hall in a drive-by shooting. Police say the incident elevated Jerome in the Fallowfield gang, with many wearing T-shirts memorializing Louis and urging retribution. The officers say Jerome, however, is conflicted.
"All this gun stuff, it's just rubbish, really. I want to get out of it," Jerome told a reporter while standing outside his home. Of the violence and retribution, he said, "It's just one big circle that keeps going round."
Police are trying to change those attitudes, and there are signs that X-Calibre's intervention is working. Until earlier this year, the city had a 16-month stretch without a killing and went the entire month of August without a "discharging," one of the ways police track crime here. Officials believed that was a first, at least in recent memory.
"As much as we get these young lads arrested for doing certain things, there's an element where we try to intervene at an early stage to steer them off this path," said Police Constable Duncan McNulty.
Police in Britain have broader arrest powers than their American counterparts. They can arrest someone on "suspicion" of a crime, and impose a bail that carries restrictions on their activities, such as a curfew. Controversial stop-and-searches, which have sparked a lawsuit in Baltimore, are in wide use throughout the country, and in times of rising violence the superintendent can grant officers permission to do the searches without probable cause.
In fact, police are reporting success with using the same "targeted enforcement" model Baltimore officials have adopted. Officials in Manchester and Liverpool are zeroing in on known offenders, pressing them for any transgression they can find.
"Firing a gun is like firing a flare into the sky," Steve Moore, the head of Liverpool's anti-gang unit, told reporters. "It is saying to the police 'Come and look at me, my family and my friends for all types of crime we commit.' "
Neighborhood crews are not new, but groups identified as "gangs," with a greater propensity toward violence, may be on the rise. And though guns have caused a scare, knives remain the primary concern.
Malthouse, the deputy mayor, said the gang culture remains isolated, but is growing. "We're nowhere near the level of other cities, but we have to make sure we stay that way," he said.
"We have some parts of the city that have quite established gang structures that are quite sophisticated, and we need to make sure we ramp up on them but also take out nascent groups of youths that have been a bit violent at the moment but in 20 years might be established as more serious gangs."
In London and Manchester, housing projects, called "estates," carry the same stigma as those in America, but they are more likely to be interspersed throughout areas of wealth and neighborhood centers. Brixton, once known as the drugs and gun capital of London, has gone through a gentrification process and has many trendy restaurants and clubs. Along Coldharbour Lane, a notorious stretch of South London, blocks containing fresh produce stands and tidy Georgian homes are as plentiful as downtrodden stretches.
"Coldharbour Lane, five years ago was awful. If you arrest[ed] someone there, you've got a near riot on your hands," said Police Constable Mark Cockburn. "It's generally getting better, but the youngsters are getting worse, if that makes sense. Knife crime, gun crime, gang crime - it's so much worse."
Zievrina Wilson, who manages a youth outreach organization in South London's Lambeth community called Kids Company, said she's seen a shift. On Nov. 5, she said she was riding on a bus when a bullet crashed through the window, narrowly missing her head. It was a startling moment for someone who spends her life trying to intervene in youth violence.
"They go to schools in failing areas, there's not any aspirations, and the teachers don't care," Wilson said. "No one fights anymore. Kids are shooting each other over post [ZIP] codes because they have nothing else to aspire to. It's a mask, so no one can hurt them again."
Stephenson said that while he believes "one crime is too many," he doesn't see the alarm over gun crime necessitating more of the armed patrols that caused a stir this fall. Metropolitan Police carry pepper spray and batons, and the armed officers are part of specialty units that deploy for raids or to back up officers in trouble. The 2005 shooting of an unarmed man mistakenly believed to be a terrorist still stings, and he doesn't see any changes in the future.
"There will be no routine foot patrolling of our [public housing] estates in London unless I see it necessary," he said, "and I do not see it as necessary."