Reporter Del Quentin Wilber spent an extended chunk of time shadowing the homicide division of Maryland’s Prince George’s County Police Department. He wasn’t exactly sure what he intended to write about the embedded experience, but he was interested in how detective work had changed in the two decades since the publication of David Simon’s Homicide, a book that Wilber identifies as a major influence on his crime reporting career, and which of course led to the phenomenally popular HBO series The Wire.
Wilber writes that he “decided to focus my research on a place that would be at once foreign and familiar.” He’d been a crime reporter in Baltimore for the Baltimore Sun, then in Washington, DC for the Washington Post, hence his familiarity thanks to DC’s border with Prince George’s, while still being unexplored territory from his perspective.
In the end, the biggest story seemed to be that of a single overloaded month, so he chronicles the methodology of the detectives’ work and how they progress through those hectic weeks. The month was February 2013, when they faced thirteen murders, a record for the year. Quite a tally for the shortest month. The title comes from a dark prediction that after a few quiet months with relatively few incidents, February would be “a good month for murder.”
In addition to the murders occurring in that period, the unit continued investigations into unsolved cases, including some that had caused particularly loud outcries in the community. One of these was the shooting of Amber Stanley, a shining high school honor student unconnected to drugs or violence, making her death in her own home doubly shocking and inexplicable. It’s the department’s “red ball,” a high-profile case that they need to solve or else risk public fury and derision.
The progression of this investigation was one of the book’s strongest stories for me – it was clear from this case how frustrating and blind detective work can be, and how easy it is to potentially lead witnesses down the wrong path with supplied information, either while trying to psychologically outmaneuver them or scare them enough to confess truth. Not to mention the pressure that a red ball case creates the longer it’s open without someone punished.
One detective is haunted by the mystery and shows his fear that he won’t be able to close this one: “In his darkest moments, he imagines a painful phone call ten or twenty years hence, from some young detective who brazenly asks how he had missed an obvious piece of evidence. This is his waking nightmare: that the answer to the Amber Stanley riddle lies somewhere in his seven binders, that he has somehow missed the critical clue among hundreds of facts and rumors, reports and scribbled notes.”
Wilber gives insight into the workings of the detectives, their procedure and relationships with their partners, how they pursue leads, assemble evidence, and conduct interrogations. This type of strategy was quite interesting for me, as usually police procedurals aren’t quite my thing, but reading the steps taken by Homicide after a murder turned out to be more compelling than expected. It’s also interesting that they face many different circumstances surrounding the murders and investigations in the span of the month, so we see different angles of their work.
I also got answers to some questions that I, and I think others with a rudimentary understanding, often have about police procedure. Like one that’s come up repeatedly in recent years, especially in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement and the horrifying, race-driven incidents that gave rise to such a civil rights necessity. We get an explanation here, connected to a shooting of an unarmed woman, about why police don’t always aim to shoot in the leg and incapacitate, as opposed to aiming for the head or chest.
It still doesn’t resolve why many white people seem spared that decision, but that’s another issue entirely. Race is obviously a big element here, but it wasn’t addressed as overtly as I thought it would be in a book about police procedure.
PG County faces a major and disturbing problem of juvenile violence, as the police chief says at a press conference on the topic, “When five high school students are killed within the 2012-2013 school year, we all demand both justice and accounting of circumstances that give rise to juvenile violence.” The response was the deployment of officers to 44 of the county’s most violence-prone street corners between the hours of 3 p.m. and 3 a.m., costing around $130,000 in overtime in an already “cash-strapped” county. But that statistic is understandably horrifying. So this was an interesting aspect too, police response to the county’s specific pain points. Sadly, news from just last week indicates that the area’s homicide unit still sees stretches of excessive violence and murder.
I was bothered that not all of the month’s murders were covered, and some of the ones omitted sounded pretty intriguing, or at least like they should’ve received mention beyond brief notation as an afterword. The author notes it’s for space reasons, but the book isn’t long and the writing is fast-paced and rarely boring, so I would’ve read much more. I didn’t like certain parts about the detectives’ personal lives; some were uncomfortably detailed. This seemed unnecessary, especially since there are so many officers and detectives that it’s easy to lose track, only remembering the too-personal facts. I would’ve preferred those got cut in favor of more coverage of their work.
Readable and mostly intriguing glimpse into the mechanics of an urban homicide unit.
A Good Month for Murder: The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad
by Del Quentin Wilber
published June 7, 2016 by Henry Holt