One of my favorite television shows is “The First 48” on the A&E Network. Camera crews follow homicide detectives around major metropolitan areas as they try to solve murders. The show’s title is based on the concept that police must try to solve a killing within 48 hours of its occurrence, or the chances of finding the culprits decreases exponentially. People who know me may find it’s a strange choice, considering I’m suspicious of law enforcement. The few times I’ve needed the help of a police officer none are around. But, if I should exceed the speed limit by 5 miles, or have an expired inspection sticker, suddenly they’re on the scene. Still, I admire the tenacity of the homicide detectives I’ve seen on “The First 48.” I also admire their tendency to remain neutral in the face of such tragedies; the worst that humanity has to offer.
While consoling the victim’s relatives, the detectives almost always declare that the person “didn’t deserve to die like that.” True, no one really deserves to be murdered. The adage about playing with fire and getting burned applies just as well to criminal activity.
In one of the “The First 48” episodes, a Miami homicide detective stood in the middle of a street in a particularly crime-riddled neighborhood and announced that it was “haunted by the ghosts of young Black men.” Indeed, it seems so many of the crime victims and perpetrators are either Black or Hispanic. I’m honestly surprised when a White person shows up as either a victim or a suspect. That feeds into the mythology, though, that Blacks and Hispanics are more crime-prone than their White and Asian counterparts.
But, I’ve also noticed many of the homicide detectives – at least half – are either Black or Hispanic also. So are many of the regular police officers. They somehow go unnoticed in discussions of race and crime.
It’s not so much, however, that non-Whites are more likely to commit crimes. Civil rights activists have long accused the criminal justice system in the U.S. as being skewered against non-Whites, especially non-White men. The U.S. also maintains the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world: roughly 2.3 million people, or 25% of the global prison population. When one realizes that the U.S.’s 300 million residents comprise only 5% of the people on planet Earth, it should make folks stop and think. While Blacks and Hispanics each represent less than a quarter of the U.S. population, together they make up 58% of the U.S. prison population.
People may scoff at these statistics and proclaim the U.S. just has a better legal system. If that’s the case, then why do we boast the highest violent crime rate in the world? As of 2011, the U.S. experienced 1.2 million violent criminal acts. One would think we’re akin to Somalia: a completely lawless state with no functioning government.
I’m neither a criminologist nor a psychologist, so I have to rely on whatever statistics I can find and verify, instead of on personal or professional knowledge. But, in viewing “The First 48,” I’ve noticed something critical: whenever police enter a crime-ridden neighborhood and seek help, they’re often met with a wall of silence. No one saw anything; no one heard anything; no one knows anything. It’s as if the victim abruptly turned up with a bullet in their brain, while nearby residents were sleeping, watching TV, or talking on the phone and ‘didn’t hear anything,’ or ‘don’t know nothing.’ At times, it seems such neighborhoods are group homes for the mentally retarded.
In one of the show’s episodes here in Dallas, officials arrived to investigate a shooting death in an apartment complex. When one of the detectives approached a group of young men sitting on the hood of a car, the latter jumped off the vehicle and walked away. They didn’t say anything, but their actions spoke for them: ‘we don’t want to talk to you.’ But, if you’re upset about crime in your neighborhood, then why don’t you talk to the police and tell them what you know? Of course, that’s always easier said than done. The police don’t have to live there. People are often mired in poverty and can’t afford just to get up and move to a safer place.
In one episode of “The First 48,” a resident of a Miami housing complex complained to a detective that police only come around to issue tickets for cars parked in front of the trash dumpsters. I can understand her point. Police get frustrated when people won’t communicate with them. But, why should they, if all police officers are going to do is write up parking tickets? I can see both sides of this issue. Criminals don’t just hurt one person; they terrorize the entire community. People become scared and lose hope that law enforcement will help them.
There are no easy answers to these complex social issues where race, gender and socio-economic circumstances often factor into the discomforting mix. People have noted that, when a White female goes missing or turns up dead, police not only move Heaven and Earth to find out what happened, the story goes national. Think Jon Benet Ramsey; think Natalee Holloway.
Still, things really are different when you compare a child who is kidnapped from their own home in the middle of the night to a 20-something in an impoverished neighborhood who’s trying to get into the drug trade because of the easy money.
Consider the case of Gary Leon Ridgeway, known colloquially as the “Green River Killer.” From 1982 to 1998, Ridgeway murdered as many as 66 women and teenage girls in the state of Washington. He dumped the bodies in wooded areas near the Green River. Most, if not all, of his known victims were prostitutes. The teenaged ones were most likely runaways. Ridgeway had become a suspect in 1983, a year after he’d been arrested in Seattle for patronizing a prostitute. He took and passed a polygraph in 1984, when police again questioned him about the string of murders. Thus, he remained on police radar for nearly two decades, before being arrested in 2001. In 2003, a judge sentenced him to life in prison; a shocking outcome to one of this nation’s worst serial murderers. But, prosecutors took the death penalty off the legal bargaining table to coax Ridgeway into confessing to other slayings; including some in the state of Oregon. How he managed to escape a massive police dragnet for so long confounds even the most seasoned homicide detectives.
But, the families of many of the victims say they know why: Ridgeway murdered prostitutes, not choir girls. That many of his victims were Black or Native American added the ubiquitous and disturbing racial component. Except for Ridgeway’s teenaged victims – naïve girls who may have fled broken homes – I think it’s fair to say the adult women knew what they were doing. Yes, prostitution is illegal. But, don’t expect police to stand by and ignore the interactions between hooker and client, unless the latter turns violent. Police can only do so much to protect average citizens.
It’s tough for me to have empathy for someone who consumes alcohol for half a century and then complains when they develop cirrhosis. As a former alcoholic, I can see where my life was headed and got hold of the problem years ago. And, it’s equally tough for me to have sympathy for a drug dealer who ends up in a dark alley with scores of bullet holes in his or her body. I’m not being judgmental. I’m just pointing out the obvious.
In yet another episode of “The First 48,” homicide detectives in Memphis looked strangely at a suspect when he told them that murder is just how some people die.
“Do you realize how serious this is?” responded one of the detectives.
Obviously he didn’t, as he sat in the interrogation room with a sour expression. He was young, but already emotionally hardened by a community that seemingly had accepted its dire fate as a crime pit.
Most people don’t deserve to be murdered. But, when individuals deliberately engage in criminal activity and end up on a mortician’s table, what did you expect?