Homicide: Reality and Realism. Burnout Is More Than an Occupational Hazard in the Homicide Unit, It Is a Psychological Certainty

By Hoffman, Tod | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Homicide: Reality and Realism. Burnout Is More Than an Occupational Hazard in the Homicide Unit, It Is a Psychological Certainty


Hoffman, Tod, Queen's Quarterly


David Simon,

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

TOD HOFFMAN, a retired CSIS officer, has spent more than his share of time conducting fruitless investigations, frustrating interrogations, and inconsequential surveillance. Now his frustrations are largely confined to his regular articles for Queen's Quarterly.

IN 1988, 234 human beings were murdered in Baltimore. This represents a fairly tame year by local standards. Over the past decade, only 1987 saw fewer murders (226). Since 1990, more than 300 homicides have been committed each year, topping out at 353 in 1993. So, if anything, journalist David Simon saw Baltimore at its most restrained when he spent 1988 in the company of the city police homicide unit contemplating the frightening, absurd, surprising, and banal qualities of violent death in a city within a country where murder has ceased to be a novel enough occurrence to ensure headlines. The result is Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), the most insightful and honest book ever written about the daily grind of policing, the veritable meat grinder.

Though the routine of people whose job demands that they carry guns and hunt down those who most decidedly don't want to be found is bound to have its extraordinary quirks, routine it is. If it is to be described fairly, the extraordinary elements must be set up in the context of the routines that dominate and define the occupation. Police work is not a succession of chases and gun battles, but time marked while crammed into a compact car undertaking surveillance on people who never appear, watching doors that don't open, following up clues that fail to materialize, interviewing individuals who willfully and without imagination lie, and -- as much as anything else -- slamming headlong into an unyielding and backlogged bureaucracy that has become numb to outrage. And, through it all, Simon was there, absorbing and recording, committing to paper the lives of police and the deaths of the city. Like the detectives, readers have to pause when reviewing victims and suspects to remind themselves of exactly which suspect belongs to which corpse. It is chilling how casual it all becomes.

"Being in homicide is like mowing the lawn," shrugged Simon during a recent interview. He had the matter-of-fact air of someone who knows it from the inside. "There's 250 murders this year, there'll be another 250 next year." Something to count on in America in the 1990s.

Baltimore is a city of considerable character. As befits one of America's oldest cities, it was one of the first of the great northeastern centres to slide toward disintegration. Only through valiant local efforts have breakwaters been erected against the lapping waves of urban decay. The Inner Harbor development is Baltimore's brave face and the city's monument to renewal. Begun in the early 1970s, it succeeded in reclaiming a waterfront tract of dilapidated warehouses and turning it into a mid-city playground. Shopping facilities, restaurants, tourist attractions like the National Aquarium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, major league baseball's showcase stadium, created a vibrant quarter. Another great reclamation project was undertaken at Fell's Point, one of America's last surviving downtown waterfront residential communities. Among the nation's largest concentrations of Revolutionary era architecture, the Point was destined for demolition as recently as 1965. It was saved by those with the foresight to realize its historic importance and potential as a lure for tourists and locals alike. Today it is Baltimore's liveliest nightspot.

For all of this, Baltimore remains troubled by excessive crime, drug abuse, poverty, and pockets of severe neglect. It suffers divisions between haves and have-nots, white and black -- too often, one and the same thing. It personifies urban America in the 1990s: a sheen of glossy, geometrically elegant towers that dazzle and divert one's attention from the swarms of ragged people in their shadow. …

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