They call it “Bodymore” because at the time I visit it’s vying with Compton for the highest murder rate in the country.
I arrive at the police station to find the front door made out of plywood. It’s jerry rigged, the department doesn’t have enough funding to fix the door. Everyone enters through the back – through a dingy parking lot with overflowing dumpsters. In front of one of these is a pile of zip-tie handcuffs. The lot is strewn with the ever-present ghetto glitter of broken glass.
I’m in the Southeastern district of Baltimore in 2010 and I’ve been arranged a ridealong by my bff from Junior High who now works for the BPD. I walk into an episode of The Wire. Only worse.
No cages between the front and back seats of the police car, they are too expensive. The police pay for the one pair of handcuffs they are issued, and if they lose it it’s $50. So they use the zip-ties, because they’re cheap and disposable. The term “underfunded” is an understatement in Bodymore.
This is the first time I realize that police live nowhere near the place they patrol. This isn’t their home, and they don’t care to upkeep their place of work. They’re just trying to get through the next shift.
I enter through the gap that serves as the door. The white, mustachioed police officer calls upstairs for the sergeant who is to be my escort. He speaks with a thick Baltimore accent. He and the other desk cop, a black firecracker who keeps hanging up on some other department for being rude to her and then calling them back to chew them out, they look me up and down but then ignore me. Someone on the inside of the holding cell fewer than ten feet away from the desk is pounding on the door.
“I have to pee.” He screams.
The desk cops ignore him. When the sergeant arrives she is feisty and takes charge. She is shorter than I am, large, but still able to move well, black, and in uniform. My ridealong is a lesbian and has been denied promotion through strategic setups because of her outspoken attitude within the department, and homophobia. I am glad to be riding with her, she shows dominance immediately and addresses the inmate.
“You just peed 20 minutes ago.” the crisp dark blue of her uniform stands out against the greyish green walls of the station.
“I have a bladder condition.” he retorts through the heavy cell door.
“You will address me as ‘Sergeant’ when you talk to me.”
“Yes ma’am. Sergeant. I have a bladder condition.”
“Well you should have thought of that before you broke the damn law.” she says, stepping away from the small hole in the cell door. The guy continues his pounding while she ushers me back around the front desk and through the door into the administrative portion of the department, which seems largely empty. Many rooms, few people, little activity.
We search for a bulletproof vest, looking through the lockers in all the changing rooms. It smells a bit like a high school gym, only neglected by the janitorial staff.
There are no surplus vests in the station.
I text my bff who arranges with her friend to lend us his. So, I will have a private donor so that I can legally take part in the ridealong. I sign my life away and am fingerprinted. All of this goes in a file – then we leave and pick up the vest. I think it’s cute. My first time in a vest. I have them take photos and post it on Facebook. Hashtag Bodymore.
The evening gets less cute and more serious as it goes on, just as the vest gets heavier.
Our primary job is to run a serpentine route through a 2.3 square mile area, running dealers off corners. Research shows they’re less likely to be shot when they’re blocked by buildings. So we run this game to help statistics for the department. They salute her as we pass and walk away down the block in unspoken understanding. Once or twice she circles back to show me that they are standing on the corner again.
“What kind of life is this, herding grown people.” she says, shaking her head.
The dull brown and gray of the Baltimore inner city leaves my Californian senses boggled. I thought I understood ghettos. The row houses, half condemned and vacant, with all walks jammed in atop one another. The youth on the stoop looking up to the workers on the corners. The dealers. The prostitutes. I watch an 8 year old girl mimic the hooker on the corner, dancing, hip juts and shifting from one foot to the other, bending, watching, modeling.
It’s every corner here. It’s rife. There’s nothing else. This is not the sparse, sprawling, diverse Los Angeles inner city desert. This Bodymore.
It’s like being in a zoo, and that is indeed what the police think of it as. A pen that they warden. Hearing black police officers refer to black civilians as “animals” has me unable to participate.
We stop and talk to an alcoholic who the sergeant knows. They speak almost as friends, though later she tells me that she’s sure that there are other substances involved. As if alcoholism alone is fine – after all, it’s not a crime. Certainly she takes part, all shift, she repeats these words:
“Damn I can’t wait to get off this fucking shift, I need a fucking drink. I can taste that beer going down, know what I’m saying? Work hard play hard!” I smile. The last thing I want is drugs or alcohol.
I keep quiet. It’s literally overwhelming.
The sergeant is friends with many on the street. They’re all players in the same game. We’re talking to another heroin addicted prostitute who has trouble remaining upright while at the same time is denying her high. There’s been calls on the radio the whole time. It sounds like chatter and numbers to me.
Then it’s back to the route. It’s dark now. She crawls up in alleys and corners where she knows deals go down and turns on the spotlight, suddenly. We don’t catch anything. She sees a car full of white people.
“Let’s see where these are going. No offense, but I know any white people in this neighborhood in Bodymore are here for one reason only. Buying drugs.” she shakes her head.
We find nothing. The radio chatters on.
She stops at a Korean corner store to talk to the clerk, check up on her district and any news. Meanwhile my bff is texting me “Watch your back, they’re going to think you’re a knocker (plain clothes police)”.
I watch the way that people stand. Everyone is standing with their backs to something. I begin to do the same, widest angle view, back to a wall as I realize, suddenly, that I’m a giant target. I look to everyone like police but I have none of the training and I’m on the frontlines. The times I’ve been on the wrong side of law enforcement come to mind. I’m happy that at this point the experience is almost over.
I’ve been an activist against the War on Drugs for years. Here I am, signing up to be a soldier for the wrong side. At the epicenter. At Bodymore. I ask my ridealong what percentage of what she sees every night is drug-related.
“90%.” she answers.
Another call comes through on the radio.
The next thing I know we’re speeding along at 70mph on city streets, sirens lit. The red and blue lights and the sound of the siren from the front seat of the inside of a police car is intoxicating. I forget about all the disgust and the pain and the dregs and am immersed in the power of the law in this visceral, transcendent moment.
“We caught a shooting” she says, eyes beaming, racing to be first.
And we are.
I am unrolling caution tape on a street in Baltimore while an 18-year-old man lies on the sidewalk, alive, blood slowly pooling. She is knelt down by him, tough, but kind. Alone, I cordon off the scene to her instructions.
I am trying to keep my back to the buildings and keep an eye out in every direction. With every scan of my eyes, I see my ridealong standing now, taking some notes into her endless stream of paperwork, and the shooting victim lying on the sidewalk.
Three more police cars arrive and take my job over. People ask where I’m from, as in what district. They think I’m an officer.
Ambulances arrive – then unmarked police cars and here come the suits and ties, mostly white. They’re arguing. I am listening.
They’re arguing over who will take the shooting, as it’s occurred on the border of the Eastern and Southeastern district. They are judged by these numbers, and they are negotiating to see who will get this one. I see one of them pick up bullet casings and move them, then taking photos of the casings in their new location. I try to take photos of this fakery, but they see me, and there’s an argument.
I’m aware I don’t need to delete them, and argue for my rights, but I am indeed a guest here. Later I do delete them so as not to bring trouble to those that have arranged this Bodymore ridealong and taken me with them.
The police use numbers to shield themselves from the emotional impact of life and death. My ridealong talks about the current numbers, different seasons of higher and lower murder rates. When I ask if there’s anything she can attribute it to, she answers:
“Only the heat. Summer coming and the numbers go up in Bodymore.”
We leave and drive to the hospital, where the sergeant checks in to see how he’s doing: critical condition.
To this day I don’t know if he lived or died.
Driving my own car to my friend’s place that night I can’t believe what she witnesses everyday. The worst of the worst. I turn on the radio hoping to drown some of it out. Usually I love hip-hop of all kinds. That day, I can’t listen to the gangsta rap on the radio. Ain’t nothing cool about Thug Life, least of all it ending as a number in a pool of blood on a Bodymore sidewalk.
Posts about being on the other side of the thin blue line:
2: Pink Taser