Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
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Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is a book written by Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon describing a year spent with detectives from the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit. The book received the 1992 Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category.
The book was subsequently fictionalized as the NBC television drama Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–99), on which Simon served as a writer and producer. Many of the key detectives and incidents portrayed in the book provided inspiration for the first two seasons of the show, with other elements surfacing in later seasons as well. It later also provided inspiration for the HBO television series The Wire (2002–08).
David Simon, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, spent four years on the police beat before taking a leave of absence to write this book. He had persuaded the Baltimore Police Department to allow him access to the city's Homicide Unit for calendar year 1988, and throughout that year he shadowed one shift of detectives as they investigated cases, conducted interrogations, executed search and arrest warrants, and testified at trials. Baltimore recorded 234 murders during the year Simon spent with the Homicide Unit.
The "Homicide Lexicon" and its rules
The Homicide lexicon and detective rules in that division were compiled over a year by the author and can serve as a basis for understanding works based on his work, such as television series Homicide and The Wire and their respective fanworks that address such terms and information. However, some of the information below may contain terms related to racism, xenophobia, elitism and copaganda.
The book details a number of slang terms used by the city's homicide detectives.
- Billygoat – derogatory term for whites, specifically those with roots in Appalachia, and their descendants. As with blacks, "billies" do not include those with decent jobs, such as Worden or Kincaid, and Simon suggests that the two discriminations are more class-based. One typical description is that "Billies do not reside in Baltimore, they live in Bawlmer."
- Billyland – area of South Baltimore inhabited by "billies" (hillbillies), the city's "white trash redneck" population.
- Board, The – A dry erase board kept in the squad room. Every squad sergeant's name is at the top of a separate column, followed by a list of the cases their detectives are investigating; each entry consists of a number, the victim's name, and a letter indicating which detective is the "primary" on the case. Open and closed cases are listed in red and black, respectively. This allowed supervisors to quickly assess how productive each detective/squad was and acted as motivation for detectives. Use of "The Board" was discontinued in 1998 due to public relations and morale concerns, but was restored in 2000 at the detectives' request. Closed cases from previous years are written in blue ink, as noted briefly in the afterword regarding Worden's current work on cold cases, "putting blue names on the Board". The show followed this convention as well, though the layout of "the Board" was different: each shift used one full side, with a separate column for every detective on the shift in alphabetical order and an extra column to list suspects for whom arrest warrants had been issued.
- Bunk/Bunky – A term of affection (short for "bunk mate") typically applied to friends and co-workers. McLarney regards McAllister as "my bunky", while Requer is known as "the Bunk". The veteran cops in the Southern District think of Waltemeyer in this way and readily help him find a car used by a murder suspect. The term is also used sarcastically towards suspects.
- Citizen/Taxpayer – A "real" murder victim, as opposed to a drug dealer or gang member murdered in the course of criminal activity.
- Dunker – An easily cleared case (from the basketball term slam dunk). An example from the book: a husband who is arrested while standing over his wife's dead body, covered in her blood, telling cops he killed her and would do so again if he got the chance.
- Dying declaration – A statement made by a dying person who is able to speak and identify their attacker, and definitely knows they are dying. However, useful declarations are rare; instead, they tend to become the stuff of homicide legend. For example, one man, dying from a gunshot, "assured detectives that he would take care of the matter himself". Garvey solves a case using a dying declaration during the book.
- Eyef*ck – To look at someone disrespectfully or in anger. A ceremonial eyef*ck takes place in the book when an unrepentant criminal is convicted. Garvey is disappointed when one criminal, convicted for two brutal murders, does not follow this tradition, describing him as "no fun at all".
- Jake – A semi-derogatory term for a Jamaican-American.
- Number One Male – Police radio description for an African American male suspect. Number Two is for a White suspect, Number Three is for a suspect of another race. Numerical order is most likely based on either Baltimore's African American majority or on African Americans' being the most commonly targeted criminal suspects in Baltimore, in the eyes of the BPD.
- Polygraph-by-Copier – A folk tale in police circles in which detectives use a photocopier as a faux-polygraph machine on a particularly dumb suspect; pages are loaded into the machine with "TRUE" or "LIE" on them, and questions are asked to match them ("What is your name? Truth. And where do you live? Truth again. And did you or did you not kill Tater, shooting him down like a dog in the 1200 block of North Durham Street? Lie. Well, well: You lying motherfucker."). This was used in one episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, and in a Season 5 episode of The Wire. A story from the book notes that several cops in Detroit were punished for using this technique during interrogations.
- Put down/Clear – To close a case, either by arresting a suspect or by establishing that the perpetrator is dead.
- Red ball – A high-profile case that draws media and political attention. Red ball cases are investigated by all detectives on a shift and take precedence over existing active cases. They can and often do make or break a detective's career. They are also known as "shitstorms" and "clusterfucks". Examples during the book include the Latonya Wallace case (Pellegrini's first assignment as primary detective) and the Scott police-involved shooting. Red balls also include major cases that usually fall outside Homicide's jurisdiction, such as nonfatal police shootings.
- Secretaries with guns – Derogatory term typically used by less reconstructed veterans for incompetent female detectives. There are some exceptions to this rule, e.g., Jenny Wehr and Bertina "Bert" Silver.
- Smokehound – Derogatory term for a drunk.
- Squirrel – A criminal, a suspect, a rodent. Typically too cooperative during interrogations.
- Stone Whodunit – A difficult case.
- Ten-Seven – police radio code for "out of service"; may be applied to a homicide victim.
- Ten-Seventy-Eight – police radio code invented by McAllister to refer to "your basic blowjob-in-progress interrupted by police gunfire". This occurs twice in the course of the year, though only one is described in detail.
- Toad – A derogatory term for blacks, specifically those who have or had a criminal history. Not usually applied to Black policemen such as Sgt. Nolan or Detectives Brown, Edgerton, or Requer, or Blacks in other legitimate jobs. If you earn a legal wage and do not have a BOI photograph in the system, the book explains, "then you are a black man".
- Yo – A term for a black youth; used in the place of a name. Example: "Hey, Yo let's roll out " often used as shorthand for inner city residents.
- Yoette – A young black female. Unlike "yo", the term doesn't refer to the individuals as criminals.
Throughout the book, Simon frequently refers to a set of 10 informal rules that apply in the majority of homicide cases, as detectives soon learn. They are as follows:
- Everyone lies. Murderers lie because they have to; witnesses and other participants lie because they think they have to; everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it, and to uphold a general principle that under no circumstances do you provide accurate information to a cop.
- The victim is killed once, but a crime scene can be murdered a thousand times.
- The initial 10 or 12 hours after a murder are the most critical to the success of an investigation.
- An innocent man left alone in an interrogation room will remain fully awake, rubbing his eyes, staring at the cubicle walls, and scratching himself in dark, forbidden places. A guilty man left alone in an interrogation room goes to sleep.
- It's good to be good; it's better to be lucky.
- When a suspect is immediately identified in an assault case, the victim is sure to live. When no suspect has been identified, the victim will surely die.
- First, they're red. Then, they're green. Then, they're black. (Referring to the color of an open case on the board, the money that must be spent to investigate the case, and the color of the solved murder as it is listed on the board)
- In any case where there is no apparent suspect, the crime lab will produce no valuable evidence. In those cases where a suspect has already confessed and been identified by at least two eyewitnesses, the lab will give you print hits, fiber evidence, blood typings, and a ballistic match.
- To a jury, any doubt is reasonable; the better the case, the worse the jury; a good man is hard to find, but 12 of them, gathered together in one place, is a miracle.
- There is too such a thing as a perfect murder. Always has been, and anyone who tries to prove otherwise merely proves himself naive and romantic, a fool who is ignorant of Rules 1 through 9.