Appropriately, winter is also setting in as David Simon finishes his year embedded in the Baltimore Police Homicide Unit. Throughout the book Simon has talked at length about the life of a detective. In his fly-on-the-wall style he’s dissected nearly every aspect of the job: crime, criminals, investigations, autopsies, paper work, the media, court cases, lawyers, the chain of command, mutual respect and after work drinks.
It seems he’s left no stone unturned until the final chapter, which opens with Donald Waltemeyer standing in a cemetery watching a backhoe dig up a long-burried body. The detective is retrieving the body of a man who was the potential victim of one of his suspects. The whole process is messy and in the end becomes even messier when the body turns out to be the wrong person. Waltemeyer confronts the cemetery’s caretaker and finds out the large majority of bodies aren’t where they’re supposed to be.
This totally creepy detail had me wondering if grave site mix ups are a common thing. After a bit of Googling I found a handful of examples, ironically the first one being a mix up involving the remains of a young Baltimore man. Creepy, and super disrespectful on the part of the cemetery.
But, back to the book. The misassigned bodies led Waltemeyer to the cemetery’s burial records where he came across many recognizable names. Not because they reached any kind of star status, but because they were the victims of violent crimes that the homicide unit had covered.
This situation brings the job full-circle in a way. Revisiting the victims in their final resting place contextualizes the crimes. Simon’s descriptions of victims at crime scenes is very detailed but it’s also very straight forward. There’s a gaping gunshot wound here, and a blood spray pattern there. Her eyes are open, but she’s expressionless. She’s pretty.
It reads the way it’s supposed to: like a detectives notepad. There’s no emotion and at the end of most chapters I felt like I knew the criminal better than I knew the victim. The cemetery makes those victims seem human. Our traditions surrounding death are recognizable.
After this week, homicide detectives are a little more recognizable as well. On Tuesday, James Jewell, a former Winnipeg Police Service homicide detective told my class about his experiences first-hand. He talked about cases that stay with him and interrogations that were particularly challenging. It was like getting a one-on-one with a “character” from the book and being able to ask him about the most fucked up things he’s seen. It was a really amazing opportunity and I wish we had longer than an hour of his time.
Prior to this semester and prior to reading Homicide I had a little interest in the field of policing. I recognized its difficulties and I know several police officers, but I never thought beyond “wow, that must be a tough job.” I want to call it enlightenment, but that makes me feel cheesy, so I’m going to call it fascination.
I’m utterly fascinated by the opposing forces of humanity and bureaucracy that rule the job. It’s so, so strange, and I’m noticing these themes playing out in the news about Ferguson. I could never be a police officer, and I would never want to, but I’m a little bit in awe of the policing world.