Politics & Media
Jul 06, 2009, 11:36AM

Life on the streets

A conversation with Irving Bradley, who spent 15 years in Baltimore's homicide unit.

Irving Bradley has been a Baltimore police officer for nearly 30 years. Half of his tenure was spent in the department’s elite homicide unit, where Bradley tracked down killers for more than 15 years in one of the country’s most violent cities.

Just four days into his retirement, the 55-year-old lifelong cop agreed to speak with Investigative Voice and share his thoughts about crime, punishment, and the fine line between life and death on Baltimore’s mean streets.I.V.: The city has been stubbornly violent for decades. What needs to change to actually lower the crime rate in Baltimore?
I.B.: I think that the whole system should be proactive rather than reactive. Everybody points the finger at the police department, and we can also use more resources and more cooperation; however, we need cooperation from City Hall and other agencies.

When I was a kid growing up in Baltimore City, months prior to the summer break you could fill out paper work to get a summer job.But the city just hired 7,000 students.Yeah, but how many kids live in the city? How many kids in the city are looking for a job? And it’s not only the kids that are looking for jobs, the parents don’t have the jobs. They have nothing to do but hang on that corner and get involved in illicit activities; they have nothing to do.So unlike the currently popular theory of criminality, that it is a moral failing, most people don’t pick criminality as their first vocation?People are not looking to be criminals but that’s the track they stay on because they see it as the only way out. I think if they had another avenue they would take it. But they see drugs as their best shot.

Let’s be honest: They watch television, they watch the ball players and the rappers have all this wealth and they want it. How else are they going to get it? If they wanted to work and get a job, half of them have records anyway. And who is going to hire you for a job if you have braids in your hair, or that uncombed look or your pants hanging down below your butt?So even when it comes to murderers, is it about options?We have both stone-cold killers and people who took a wrong turn somewhere. If they didn’t have access to a weapon, for example. Or they get into a fight and lose, and then go home and get their gun. They could be the most cowardly kid in the world, and they get a gun and they’re real brave.

So if murder is in a sense that random, what can you do as a police officer?
When I worked out in the patrol, I had the neighborhood where I would just talk to the people, talk to everyone. If there was a problem I would straighten it out. [I heard,] 'He isn't coming home, he isn’t doing this,' and I said,' I’ll take care of it.'

So what would you do?
Go and have a talk with him. I would use some words I can’t mention here, but then the mom would be happy. 'Is he coming home now?,' and I would say, 'Call me when he doesn’t.'

We have kids in the police department I used to police; they were scared to death when they saw me coming but now they’re in the department. We’re talking kids from Cherry Hill, Fairfield, different parts of the city where I worked. It’s just a matter of knowing your area, and you have to not be afraid to go into your area when you’re off-duty, to know the people, to understand the people.

We have a policy in this police department that you should not associate with people of questionable character. I like playing basketball, Druid Park, Cloverdale, Cherry Hill; I go all over the city to get basketball games. A lot of times you got to play basketball and it’s just people from the community, but what am I going to do, run his record?

How am I supposed to police people I can’t associate with? But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way we get separated from the community.Wwe can’t police against people. I’m a big guy, 6' 4', 250 [pounds], I’m not afraid of anybody in this city. Still I’d rather come across somebody in good a way, a positive way rather than a negative way.So why is there so much tension between the police department and the community? 
One issue is I think some of the people being hired now believe there are certain areas where you don’t have to treat people with respect. They drive by and say, 'Get off the steps, get off the steps or I’ll lock you up.' They’re on their steps in their own neighborhood. What are they supposed to do, where are they supposed to go? You gotta be the same everywhere you go, and you have to earn respect. Somebody gives me respect, I’ll give them respect. When they cross that line I don’t care what neighborhood they’re in, then it’s on.

How long were you in the homicide unit?
I was in homicide for 15 years, for a few years I was detailed in the Northwest District because a lot of prostitutes were being murdered; a lot of women were being murdered. It was back in the early to mid-1990s. They put investigators up there, it kind of stopped. I always thought it was somebody who was robbed or given a disease by a prostitute.What are the strangest or the most difficult cases you’ve worked?
As always the babies, the kids. For instance, the Park Heights case, which I can’t get into because we don’t know if the case is going to come back. (In 2004, three children were found beheaded in a Park Heights apartment; the two men convicted are currently appealing.) It was not a pleasant crime scene when you see kids like that. One of the detectives, Tommy Martin, it really affected him. He was on the crime scene for 24, holding it down. He eventually got out of the rotation and got into cold case. He told me, 'Irv, every time I close my eyes I still see those kids.' 

So it’s always the kids' cases, innocent kids, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. To me, when the hustlers go at it, meaning Pookie on Black, both of them with extensive records who have already done mean or evil things to someone else and they just bump heads, I say if you want to be gansta than be a gansta; here’s the result.

As always, everybody says, 'You kill my boy, I’m going back to retaliate.' There’s no consequential thinking. That’s why juvenile justice is so important. To me the first time these kids get into trouble, depending on what it is, you need to punish them. A lot of times you fill out the paperwork and call the parent to the station and they sign the kid out and a few hours later you don’t where he is.Given how intractable violence is then, have things gotten better or worse since you joined the force?
It’s gotten worse; it was bad when I came here but it’s even worse now. You got to hold family members responsible for kids; if you take care of the small things the big things take care of themselves. I grew up in a neighborhood where we would throw a football around, you hit Mr. Wilson’s car, by the time your mother got home your mother knew because people talked. Now you have a murder 12 noon, 90 degrees outside and the only thing people say is, 'I didn’t see nothing.'Timothy Hebron, a witness is a murder case, was gunned down in April. Aren’t people justifiably afraid to share information with the police?I let people make their own decision. We can try to protect you --  if someone says something to you or threatens you, we will relocate you. But I cannot sit on their house night and day and follow them around.

Still, I commend people for coming forward and testifying. I think the BPD should recognize them, should do more for thanking them for coming forward.

Remember, sometimes people are just as fed up as we are. If they come forward we would have an excellent clearance rate.The clearance rate has improved this year, but still there are hundreds of unsolved cases. What do you see beside reluctant witnesses as the barrier to closing more cases?
In homicide, we need more time. There was a period of time recently when a supervisor would say you have two hours to work on the case, just two hours. It can take two or three hours just to track down one witness. You go to the house, you say, 'Is John Doe or Jane Doe here?' and someone at the door says, 'He ain't here,' and yet you know he’s in there.

So you get up early in the morning or late at night, we have an operations unit that will look for them, you have to be creative. But then you’re talking about six people looking for one guy. Believe me, it takes time. A lot of people talk about the overtime -- if it’s only two hours we don’t even put in the overtime slip. A lot of times I’ve worked a little more... I don’t even put the slip in. The guys give back just as much as they think they’re getting. You’re away from your friends, family, you gotta get paid.


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