Tales from America’s meanest streets: An extract from Kelvin Sewell’s book ‘Why Do We Kill?’

Kelvin Sewell, former Baltimore homicide detective and author of the book 'Why Do We Kill?'
Kelvin Sewell, former Baltimore homicide detective and author of the book 'Why Do We Kill?'
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Is ‘The Wire’ true to life? DAVID ROBINSON finds out from former Baltimore homicide detective Kelvin Sewell. Our extract from his book Why Do We Kill? tells of one day when the violence truly hit home

IT was 11 in the morning, and the motel bar was still dark. The barman was pulling the curtains apart, and looked at me as though he didn’t particularly want me to be there. I half expected him to say, “Can’t you see we’re not open yet?” and I was about to apologise when I saw an impressively huge black man sitting at a table sipping a glass of coke through a straw. Kelvin. He was expecting us.

Kelvin Sewell, until recently a Baltimore homicide detective – in the gramatically contorted local parlance, “a murder police”. There are 60 murder police in the city, which, in a good year, is about one-quarter of the number of murders they have to deal with. Kelvin is a sergeant in the homicide department – the unit featured in TV series The Wire – and was a 22-year veteran with the force.

In Britain, we know a small bit about the Baltimore murder police. Even before the 60 episodes of The Wire, now routinely hailed as the best drama series ever shown on the small screen, there were the 122 episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets, which wasn’t too much worse. Both series have their roots in Homicide, the book that David Simon wrote when he was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and had been given clearance to spend a whole year with Baltimore police’s homicide department.

That, though, was way back in 1988. Last May, I went to Baltimore to try to find out whether it still is an accurate portrait of the city’s crime and punishment? What do the murder police think about it themselves?

There was just one problem. In Baltimore, all of them are forbidden from speaking to journalists. Anyone caught doing so would risk not only being sacked but losing their pension too.

Without the help of award-winning Baltimore investigative journalist Stephen Janis, I would never have been able to meet Kelvin. Even so, we still had to be careful, which is why we arranged to meet just outside the city limits, why Stephen parked behind some trees on the other side of the road, and why we went in separately.

After the barman had brought over some drinks and gone back to rinsing the previous night’s glasses, Kelvin started talking being a murder police. And into my tape recorder spooled stories that would break your heart, about feckless mothers who kill their own babies, about teenagers who would shoot at a passing pensioner’s head just as easily as they might have aimed at a tin can. About the three decapitated children of Mexicans who couldn’t afford to pay off the people traffickers and how that case haunted the detective who handled it.

I’d never heard anything like these stories, never talked to anyone to whom such things have happened. I’ve never heard a 20-year police veteran tell me about the psychology of the interview room, or what it’s like to work with corrupt colleagues or state attorneys who make it harder than it ought to be to keep murderers off the streets, or white detectives who are just too scared to go out on the streets of a mainly black city in the first place.

Some of the patterns of crime have changed since The Wire, he said. These days, there’s a lot more kidnapping amongst the gangs. And he told me about a case he was working on, where eight teenagers – one of them a girl at college – beat up a man in his hotel room, put him in the boot of their car, drove him to a park, stabbed him and burnt him to death.

He told me how they found out who did it, and how they got them to confess. And the way he told the story, you could just see it happening. The grandmother of the college girl breaking down as her granddaughter confesses what she did. The teenager who set the victim alight after petrol had been poured over him. Who wanted a cigarette before he’d say anything, but who wouldn’t dream of putting it out with his fingers because it would hurt so much. And no, he couldn’t see the irony in that.

Even though I’ve never heard stories quite as compelling or dramatic as this, I promised not to write anything about them while Kelvin was still a homicide detective in Baltimore.

But this year, he moved to be police chief of Pokomoke City, eastern Maryland – he takes over on 1 November – and so became free to write a book, with Stephen Janis, about his time on some of America’s meanest streets. It is called Why Do We Kill? and on 4-6 November the two of them will be promoting it on a mini-tour of Scotland that will take in Lennoxlove and Linlithgow book festivals and a special Aye Write! Event at the Strathclyde Suite of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

The stories I head that May morning in Baltimore, in that still-dark motel bar, made even The Wire seem tame by comparison. Yet when I read the book Kelvin and Stephen wrote together, I realised that I never knew the half of it, I haven’t even quoted from Kelvin himself. So here he is, in an extract from his book that shows how the tragedies of real life on America’s meanest streets go far deeper than most fiction can even imagine.

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 intensive care fighting for his life.

I had just received a call from an Eastern District detective. They had brought a man called Clinton Anderson to the hospital. He had been shot in the head and left to die on East Hoffman Street. 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.

There’s a routine when I knock on the door of a family I don’t know. It’s not callousness, 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 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 to whom I had delivered bad news, 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.