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Kelvin Sewell was Baltimore police officer for 22 years.  An African-American in a predominantly (64%) African-American city, he served in homicide, narcotics and internal affairs.  Stephen Janis is an investigative journalist.  Together they have written Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore (Baltimore True Crime) which is presently available in the UK on Kindle.  Kelvin Sewell is currently on a tour of Scotland and spoke the Lennoxlove and Linlithgow Book Festivals this past weekend.
Sewell and Janis set themselves the task of explaining Baltimore’s phenomenal levels of violence.  To put that in context, Glasgow, with the highest murder rates (2008) among western Europe’s cities, had 5 murders per 100,000 people.  Baltimore, in the same year, with a rate of 37.5 per 100,000, seven and a half times that of Glasgow, had the second highest murder rate in the US.  By 2010 the Baltimore murder rate had fallen by 0.3 to 37.2, a marginal fall which saw Baltimore drop to fifth in a league table no city aimed to top.
These figures suggest that no direct comparison of events and policies on the two sides of the pond bear much analysis.  In the light of this summer’s riots in English cities however, no comparisons should be ignored.
This book leaves the reader reeling.  It paints a picture of poverty and dysfunction, racism and corruption and detached, hopeless communities.  When once economically-active communities lose the staple industries on which most livelihoods rested, other activities, drug-dealing and other crimes, will fill the void and seem as normal a part of life as the steel plants or the textiles mills once were.
Sewell starts by making the point that large numbers of murderers, whatever else they do or not have in common, are under-educated.  They are not the smart, sophisticated criminals shown in the duelling with the investigating officers in the TV cop-shows.  His standard first line in the interrogation box was not to question the suspect about the crime but to ask him to recite the alphabet.  “If you’re so tough,” I say, “recite the alphabet.”  The challenge stuns them.  No-one, he claims, has succeeded.
This introductory sally epitomises both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.  The images and examples are stunning but are based on case studies, written in conjunction with Stephen Janis, formerly of Baltimore Investigative Voice, now with Fox.  Case studies offer insightful examples but whether they aggregate a representative sample is questionable.
At one point Sewell reports on a teenage girl who has been part of a gang which burned another teenager to death.  Puzzled beyond imagining as to motive, he asked her why she had executed such a horrific act.
“Because that’s what we were told to do,” she said.  The gang, he concludes, was more powerful than the family, enabling a child to commit a horrific murder.  That also goes to the heart of one of Sewell’s key conclusions, that empathy has disappeared among significant numbers of young, black Americans.  They have been isolated and marginalised, often raised in single-parent households, in many cases with a drug-abusing mother and have never learned to feel another person’s pain.
He compares Baltimore’s adjacent extremes of wealth and poverty to a third world country, with the gulf between the extremes becoming a universally destructive vacuum.  He adds to that list of pressures systemic police racism, a culture of violence so pervasive as to have become normalised, the breakdown of family and community values, and rotten municipal politics.
Some of the harshest criticisms are of the police chiefs and politicians whose policing policies, especially so-called Zero Tolerance approaches, only exacerbated the problems.  Mixing politics and policing Mayor O’Malley sought major reductions in crime statistics.  What followed was a wave of essentially illegal arrests (without due cause) to create the appearance of police activity.  That created a backlash from those, mainly poor and black, at the receiving end of this treatment.  That resentment in fact worsened the problem.
The strength of the book is that it identifies a series of decisive factors in creating and developing a pervasively violent culture: decades of poverty; massive economic disruption; the impact of drugs; police tactics which harden anti-police and anti-authority attitudes.  From this side of the Atlantic, one obvious question not even mentioned is the legal possession of firearms by large numbers of the population.  (The ready availability of legal hand-guns in Finland has always been accepted as a major factor in that country’s high murder rates.)
Perhaps definitive judgements about the central causes of Baltimore’s violence would have been impossible for writers so close to the issue.  Perhaps the relatively populist style ensured that the emotive examples would outweigh measured conclusions.  Yet Sewell and Janis steer close to profound ethical statements.  They ask, “What takes hold of a community, if what we think of as a community no longer exists?”  They tell us that the immune system of the community has been seriously, almost fatally, compromised.
The challenge that Kelvin Sewell poses us is to ask whether all trends set in the US inevitably become the norm on this side of the Atlantic, to ask if Easterhouse and West Pilton can avoid the fate of East Baltimore and West Garrison Avenue.
This article appeared in The Caledonian Mercury on 10 November 2011:

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