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A "red ball" is Baltimore Police Department terminology for a top priority case. Red ball cases are handled by the homicide unit, regardless of whether the case involves a murder. When a red ball appears, work on all other pending cases is suspended, and all homicide personnel and resources are temporarily reassigned until the case is closed or completely stalled. Red ball cases tend to fall into one of the following categories:

By way of example: both the murder of eleven-year old Adena Watson on Homicide: Life on the Street, and Latonya Wallace, the real-life case which inspired it, were red ball cases.

This term was first introduced to the general public by David Simon's memoir of a year spent with the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and introduced again to a much larger audience by the TV series the book inspired, Homicide: Life on the Street. Interestingly, the term also appears in the movie Minority Report (but not the original Philip K. Dick short story), in which it refers to a murder case with little to no premeditation, which requires a similar degree of urgency. I believe that this is a direct nod to the actual Baltimore tradition; while the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., the lead character is noted to have started his police career in Baltimore.

The exact etymology of this phrase is uncertain, but it appears to be derived from railroad terminology, in which a red ball is a fast freight train which has priority over other trains on the track. Given the importance of Baltimore in railroad history, vis a vis the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, this derivation seems quite plausible.

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