Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore (1/3)

Retired Baltimore Homicide Detective Kelvin Sewell and investigative journalist Stephen Janis explain why they decided to write “Why Do We Kill?”

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

From the outside, Baltimore is perhaps best known for death and violence–yes, as seen on The Wire. For those of us who live here, that violence is something no one likes to think about, we all hope never touches us or loved one. But do we ever ask the question why? What’s at the root of it? Why? It’s a simple question with no easy answers.

But our next guests are in a unique position to address it. In fact, they wrote a book all about it: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to begin to understand that deeply important question. The book is a scathing indictment of our law enforcement, the media, political leadership, and, by extension, us, the public, for not confronting this fundamentally important issue.

The authors are Kelvin Sewell–Baltimore born and raised, 22-year murder police veteran. He’s won many awards and recognitions along the way. He currently serves as the chief of police for Pocomoke on the Eastern shore of Maryland.

We’re also joined by Stephen Janis. He’s a longtime award-winning investigative journalist, currently a producer at Fox 45.

Thank you both for joining us.

STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER, FOX45: Thanks for having us.

KELVIN SEWELL, POCOMOKE CHIEF OF POLICE: Good to be here.

JANIS: Good to be here.

NOOR: So we’re going to do a series of interviews today. But I want to start with your personal story. You were born and raised in Baltimore. When did you decide that you wanted to be a police officer?

SEWELL: Well, at very young age. I can recall when I was with my mother back in an area called Cherry Hill of the city, and I seen police officers my first time as a kid. And I asked my mother, who are those two guys? And what were those things on the side of their hips? And after my mother told me they were police officers, they’re here to keep us safe, and those things on their hips are called guns, I said, and what do they use them for? And then she went into a story of what they use the guns for. And I said, well, can they hurt somebody with those? And then [incompr.] story, went into the whole story of what police officers do, and she explained it to me. And from that point on, at the age of seven, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

NOOR: And Cherry Hill today, it’s known as a violent part of the city. What was it like growing up? And what was your relationship with law enforcement as a young African-American man growing up in Baltimore City?

SEWELL: Well, back when I was a kid in Cherry Hill, it wasn’t as violent as it is now. However, I had a good relationship with the police. I’d never gotten in any trouble on the streets, ’cause I was never on the streets as you see so many youth today. I had a mother and father, and they were very strict on me at a young age. And I wasn’t allowed to do some of those things that you see these kids doing today. So that’s what helped me carry my career out, my goal out as becoming a police officer.

NOOR: And you won many awards and distinctions along the way. When do you decide that you needed to write this book?

SEWELL: Well, I spent years before the book was written, I wanted to do something, write down my experiences in the police department, and I always had individuals in the police department tell me my career wasn’t, like, a normal career and what they had. So they would always tell me, you should write some of this stuff down. And one day I just started writing. I was in homicide, had some free time. There’s not really a lot of free time in homicide, but when I did, the little bit of free time that I had, I started writing it and I started keeping it on the computer, just writing things down. And at that point, that’s when I brought the information to Stephen Janis here. And then from there we worked on it together and we came up with Why Do We Kill?

NOOR: And so didn’t always have a friendly relationship. Talk about when you first met Stephen and how this book came about on your end, ’cause this is kind of a dream come true for a lot of journalists, getting the inside scoop.

JANIS: Yeah. Well, I mean, the thing is that I–it wasn’t that Kelvin and I didn’t have a friendly relationship. It’s just that because I became a reporter in Baltimore during the height of the zero-tolerance and I was writing a lot about crazy arrest stories and the fact that the police were arresting tens of thousands of people, many of them illegal, I was not a favorite of the police department. But I became friends with Kelvin over the time, just bumping into him at crime scenes. And we started talking. And we started talking about, you know, there are a lot of–we talk about good police officers. Well, I believe fundamentally that Kelvin was one of them. And he would discuss with me, say, yeah, Stephen. I’d be like, why are you arresting people in the back of a van without [incompr.] This is just wrong. We know it’s wrong.

We started having very serious conversations. Like, late at night he would call me on the way back, driving up out of the city, and we’d talk about a lot of the fundamental aspects of policing that he believed were misguided and that I could see ostensibly were misguided. And we decided, we need to put this down in some way so there’s some sort of actual record of these thoughts, that some people actually care. And I think Kelvin was one person who cared and it was very clear.

And also, some of these issues, one of the biggest problems we have with law enforcement is how secretive it is, especially in the city, where there’s really not a lot of transparency, not a lot of discussion about fundamentally what are we doing. So we decided to create a book sort of posited around the idea of why.

If we just wrote a book about Kelvin’s cases, which are amazing in terms of their breadth and scope, it might not be as interesting. But we both decided to sort of say, we’re going to posit a question and we’re going to filter all these cases through a fundamental question that we think speaks at the heart of why you police at all. Right? If we understand people’s motivations, we understand the social conditions better, then maybe we can better understand what policing needs to be. So it was really a collaboration. I mean, the time that we–can I talk about when you filed a complaint against me?

SEWELL: Oh, yeah.

JANIS: Yeah.

SEWELL: Yeah.

JANIS: Well, when we were–the police department doesn’t like police officers having relationships with reporters, even good, trusted police officers with excellent records, like Kelvin. And he was worried they were figuring out that we were talking a lot. So he filed a complaint against me with the police department that was harassing him. And they called me. I think he gave it to them, and ten minutes later I got a call from the mayor’s office that, do you know Kelvin Sewell? And I’m like, yeah. They were like, stay away from him. He filed a complaint against you. This is very serious. You know, you could be arrested if you keep bothering him. And that was just–so they wouldn’t think that we were friends.

SEWELL: I was like, watch how fast I can get you in trouble.

JANIS: It was pretty funny. Anyway.

NOOR: So you write this book in the hope that it reaches people, that it makes an impact, that it changes things.

SEWELL: Yes.

NOOR: Talk about what you hope it accomplished.

SEWELL: Well, basically I wanted people to see the real part of homicide, what was out there on the streets, not just the statistics of it–we have 200 homicides this year. We wanted to go inside of these investigations and let people know the people prior to them being victims of homicide and then becoming a homicide victim. And we went into their lives prior to and afterwards, and it was amazing, ’cause some of the stories involve so many people of different ages, some of the victims, there were so many of different ages from 11 years old up to an elderly person. And we went into their lives prior to, just to let the readers see that these are actually cases out here, real crime cases, and this is what Baltimore City homicide detectives go into on a daily basis.

And I wanted to get to the readers and let them know that this is actually a real–this is real out here. If you see it on TV, when an individual see a homicide or see a deceased body on TV, they’re going to see it in the casket and everything, they’re going to see it neatly in a suit or gown or whatever. But we wanted them to get the idea that when we see these type of people, they’re not at the funeral home, they’re not inside of a casket with suits on and gowns. They’re actually on the scene with gruesome scenes of blood and everywhere, and this is what these little kids–.

And it’s funny, because one of these bodies are on the scene, little kids are out there sometimes, these daytime homicide, and they’re watching this. And what I wanted people to see was this is really–it shouldn’t be the norm for these young kids out there who are watching these deceased people on the streets. So we try to get to the reason in that way.

NOOR: And so we reached out to City Hall, the Police Department, to invite them on for this discussion, but they declined.

You did, during your career, you filed a discrimination case against the Police Department. So what would you say to people that just say you’re just, like, settling a score with the Police Department, that you–talk more about, like, why you feel it was important to do this and to kind of hold nothing back, ’cause if you held anything back from this book, it would be a shock to anyone who’s read it, ’cause it’s a really honest and open assessment of your career and your experiences.

SEWELL: Well, I wouldn’t call it settling a score. I really loved being a Baltimore City police officer. I loved being a cop on the streets of Baltimore City. I loved the investigations, and I loved to work on cases where people who had gotten hurt. And just to bring that closure to their families was very important to me, because a lot of the people, they don’t close that–they don’t close their life out until they get that phone call from homicide detectives saying, we got the person who killed your loved one. And that meant a lot to me, just to make that phone call and say, now the case is closed, the person’s in jail, he’s gone away. And you will see a change in the people once we make that phone call. So I loved being a Baltimore City police officer. I loved being a cop and doing these investigations.

However, I always said it right in the book, there’s more problems in the department than on the streets of Baltimore City. And that amazed me through my career, to be involved in situations like that.

During that, yes, I did file a racial discrimination lawsuit against an individual in the Baltimore City Police Department. And that was at the end of my career, during my career. And afterwards I retired and then went to work for another law enforcement agency.

NOOR: Okay. Well, that wraps up the introduction to our longer discussion. But we’re going to get right into it in our next segment. So thanks for joining us for this part of this interview.

JANIS: Thank you.

SEWELL: Thank you.

NOOR: And stay tuned for the following parts of this discussion. We’re going to go deep into this book and what it means today. Join us at TheRealNews.com. Thank you for joining us.

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