The Washington Post Magazine

By Bob Thompson
Sun., March 29, 1998

















It's a gray winter morningPhoto Illustrations by Exum
and Brian Wiersema is steering his Mazda Navajo east on Landover Road en route to Prince George's County police headquarters. He drives past Jimmy's Crab House and some other places familiar from the local crime reports ("A 19-year-old Suitland man was fatally shot in the 3400 block of Dodge Park Road"). He turns onto Barlowe Road, pulls into the Police Services Complex parking lot, picks up his visitor's badge at the front desk, ducks through an airport-style metal detector and checks in with his police contact, Lt. Michael McQuillan, who heads the Prince George's homicide squad.

"Keeping busy?" Wiersema asks.

"Five in six days," McQuillan says.

They walk down the hall to homicide, where McQuillan directs Wiersema to a tiny interview room. It has a small table and two chairs. A single handcuff hangs from a bolt on the gray-carpeted wall. Wiersema puts his IBM ThinkPad on the table and fetches a battered blue logbook that's held together with packing tape.

This is the Homicide Book, as its handwritten label announces, in which the essential details of each Prince George's County killing are recorded. These are the data that Wiersema, a 40-year-old University of Maryland criminologist working in conjunction with Maryland's Department of Health, has come to collect.

He switches on the laptop and types, using a set of numerical codes.

"02-Oct-97," he types. Case number: "1538." Race of victim: "2" (meaning black). Gender: "1" (meaning male). Age: "30." City of residence: "Cheverly." City of injury: "Capitol Heights."

He codes the injury "1," which stands for "gun shot wound(s) (projectile)." He codes the type of firearm "8," for "shotgun: full-length." He codes the connection between the dead man and his killer "9," for "relationship unknown."

He moves on to another murder. "V shot after apparently bumping O's bike w/her vehicle," he types, referring to the October 8 shooting of 19-year-old physical therapy student Joy Enriquez by a shouting, cursing cyclist at the corner of Riggs Road and University Boulevard in Langley Park, a couple of miles from Wiersema's College Park office.

In the main room, the detectives are bantering and working the phones. Scraps of dialogue drift through the open door.

"I'm telling you," a voice says, "I couldn't have got any closer to the ground. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow."

Some Different Questions About Guns
"If I knew why, I'd probably be a rich man," Brian Wiersema will tell you. "Nobody knows. It's all just speculation and opinion."

The subject is homicide, or more specifically, the sharp declines in America's murder rates that have made news in recent months. Big-city mayors, police chiefs and federal politicians will tell you why it's happening: Because of them, and the anti-crime policies they've pursued. But Wiersema won't advance any sweeping theories to explain the change. He knows how complex the subject is, how difficult it is to identify and weigh all the factors that may have contributed. He can rattle off some possible factors readily enough: more jailed criminals, a stronger economy, changing demographics, maturing drug markets, better police work. But the best thing he read when the story broke, he says, was a quote from another skeptical researcher, who warned that "all the usual explanations" can't really account for the trend.

Wiersema is a soft-spoken man, tall and handsome in a Clark Kent-ish way. He is cautious by nature. He's collecting his homicide data cautiously, and he'll analyze the data cautiously as well. He won't overstate his conclusions, and he'll dislike being drawn into political arguments about them. You couldn't imagine a less likely scientific revolutionary.

But he is one.

(continued on Page 2)

Page 2   |   Page 3   |   Page 4   |   Page 5   |  Page 6

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

National Section
Navigation image map
 Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!