Precision on the “Homicide” Board

(Note: This is the first entry in my Summer Reading series. I will be reading David Simon’s two books, Homicide and then The Corner, and writing pieces on how those books establish major concepts that become crucial in The Wire. I invite you to read along with me as I go through these essential texts.)

By Peter Honig

As a teacher, I sometimes wonder what, if anything, my students will remember ten or twenty years after they leave my class. When those thoughts come to my mind, I console myself by remembering the lessons that still stay with me many years later.

As I begin reading David Simon’s first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, my mind goes back to one lesson that I always remembered from my freshman Earth Science class. Like many of the best lessons, this one wasn’t planned. It belonged to the category that current bigwigs in the pedagogical hierarchy have dubbed “teachable moments,” but what I like to call an unplanned rant.

It was a Monday, the day after the Philadelphia Eagles suffered (yet another) tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys. They lost when they failed to convert a fourth down on a last-minute drive. The chains came up maybe a link short, but the replays showed that the Eagles were the victims of an unfavorable spot. This is what evoked my Science teacher’s wrath.

He had been teaching us about the basic concepts of scientific measurement, focusing on accuracy and precision. Even though the finer points of these concepts got lost somewhere in the past 20 years, his reaction to that Eagles’ loss never left me. The problem with the way the NFL determines first downs, he said, is that they use a highly-precise tool to measure a highly-imprecise phenomenon. To be more exact, they use chains of exactly 10 yards to measure how far the offense has advanced the ball. The problem is that the placement being measured has been determined by the eyeball-measurement made by the referees. The chains give the illusion of precise measurement, but the true placement of a ball lies far outside of the observational powers of any human being. Thus, the Eagles lost. Again.

So how does this apply to Homicide? One of the great joys of reading this book as a Wire fan is spotting characters, events, and circumstances that are the clear ancestors of the elements of the show. It’s like reading The Wire’s genetic code. One of the key features that Simon observes in the BPD Homicide unit is the board. He describes it thus: “The board reveals all: Upon its acetate is writ the story of past and present” (37). It is a public display of every Homicide case for the year, along with the detective working it and its status (red=open, black=closed).

“Supervisors in the homicide unit regard the white rectangle as an instrument necessary to assure accountability and clerical precision” Simon writes. “For this reason, too, detectives in the unit regard the rectangle as an affliction, an unforgiving creation that has endured far beyond the expectations of the now-retired sergeants and long-dead lieutenants who created it. The detectives call it, simply, the board.” (37) It almost sounds like a medieval torture device. Here is a tool that purports to measure success in a precise, easily-quantifiable way. It is interesting to note that, while the supervisors see it as a necessary tool, the detectives see it as a scourge.

This scourge comes up quite a bit in The Wire, most notably in the 14 red Jane Does that mock Rawls throughout Season 2, and the more general obsession with statistics that dominates the ComStat meetings of Season 3. Of course, this type of measurement is essential for the functioning of a force responsible for investigating over 200 murders a year, but there are drawbacks.

One of them, as Simon discusses, is the fact that this type of statistic turns people who should be colleagues into competitors, each one protecting their own personal clearance rate, and that of their squad. “Created to promote cohesion and accountability, the board instead left the two shifts–and each of the six squads–to compete against each other in red and black ink for clearances.” (page 40) This competition, involving a board and two colors, vaguely suggests chess. More importantly, it explains the driving force that motivates Rawls, Landsman, and all of the detectives on the show.

The bigger problem, however, is a problem the board shares with all measuring devices, from a thermometer to first-down chains. It tries to convert a complex system into two dimensions. It would be simple enough if a homicide case could be broken down into a binary choice of open or closed. But reality doesn’t follow that pattern. “Every detective in the unit was willing to concede that the board was itself a flawed measurement…Even with the murders themselves, much of what clears a case amounts to pure chance.” (41) Simon then goes on to define two types of murders: whodunits and dunkers. This suggests a great variety in the degree of difficulty from case to case. If a detective is the primary on six or seven cases a year, that is a small enough sample size that one or two unlucky breaks (wrong turn in the rotation, picking up the phone at the wrong time, etc) can be the difference between a great year and a terrible year. But the board does not show this.

As with many things, this distinction is one that arises any time we make a step from complex reality to the attempt to quantify that reality. A statistic is straightforward, and the right statistic used by the right people can be incredibly powerful (just look at the work done by Sabermetrics in baseball, or actuaries in insurance). But a statistic will by definition fall short of the level of complexity of the thing it is measuring. Temperature can be measured in degrees, but that doesn’t account for factors like humidity, wind, dew point (whatever that is), or pollen count. Each one of these factors can in turn be quantified, and you can get a better sense of the weather, but no number can ever describe the feel of being outside on any given day. As Bob Dylan said “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Statistics will never describe the full reality of the thing they are trying to measure, be it a clearance rate or the actual point of advancement of a football. The best it can do is offer an approximate but illusory sense of an objective reality. The problem, as both Homicide detectives and Eagles fans will tell you, is that illusion too often becomes its own new reality.

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2 thoughts on “Precision on the “Homicide” Board

  1. The board does, however serve a real and important purpose. It is, literally, the handwriting on the wall. A constant reminder of the task at hand.

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