Almost a decade ago, Los Angles Times reporter Jill Leovy set out to chronicle every homicide in her city. Every single one, not just the small number of high-profile killings that normally made it into the newspaper.
For her, the obscure victims of violence became a top priority. But they were not a priority for the cops. As she discovered, society allows lawlessness to run wild in black communities: Crimes are unpunished, culprits go free, citizens seek their own justice to fill the gap. And it’s hardly a problem just in L.A.
Levoy's bestselling new book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America tells the story. It’s both an intimate tale of a single killing and a stunning expose of a nationwide failure to protect our poorest and weakest.
But “Ghettoside,” the best book about the inside workings of law enforcement since 1991’s “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” isn’t another left-leaning critique of racist and oppressive cops. Leovy challenges both conservative and liberal assumptions about urban crime.
On one hand, she doesn’t attack the black community itself as do some conservatives who call on residents to pull up their pants and start acting right. But neither she share the liberal position that the problem lies in oppressive policing. In fact, she contends, law enforcement’s failure to take urban violence seriously is the problem: It’s not that cops just do too much. It’s that they also do too little, creating a system that’s both too oppressive and too weak.
This isn’t anything new: “history shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order.” It pops up in places where traditional authority has broken down: on the edges of society, in places where minorities are isolated and form their own enclaves like South Central Los Angeles, the bleak focus of “Ghettoside.”
But history isn’t destiny. Leovy makes a strong case as she calls society to account and she supports it with a number of surprising facts about violence, law enforcement, and the lack of respect for black lives. Here are six of the most startling revelations in “Ghettoside."
1. Poverty deserves less blame: Despite what people may assume, “poverty does not necessarily engender homicide,” Leovy writes. In L.A., a neighborhood of poor Latino illegal immigrants had a much lower homicide rate than poor black neighborhoods. This divide is common throughout the US.
“This is because homicide flares among people who are trapped and economically interdependent, not among people who are economically mobile,” she writes. In Southern California, blacks became “marooned” in neighborhoods thanks to segregation, while Latinos faced less racism and more opportunities for work. Segregation leads to isolation and limited chances to move away.
2. The US has long failed to punish blacks who kill blacks: The US has a long history of failing to take black-on-black violence seriously, a phenomenon euphemized into the dry academic term “victim discounting.”
In Los Angeles, severe assaults – “almost homicides” – left many black men severely injured and disabled, but arrests were fairly uncommon. This contributed to the sense of lawlessness and the need for the community to step in with law of its own.
Homicides often went unpunished, too. “From 1994-2006, a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles,” Leovy writes. Over another period, from the late 1980s to early 2000s, the massive number of unsolved cases equaled more than 40 per square mile in South Central L.A.
3. Detectives get little respect, few resources: TV can make detectives seem like the most glamorous cops around. They dress well and rely on state-of-the art forensics labs. This isn’t too far from real life in downtown L.A., where elite units “enjoyed clout and prestige.”
But it wasn’t so out in the city’s crime-ridden neighborhoods, far from the cameras and high-profile celebrity cases. Leovy found signs that the police department gave short shrift to ordinary homicide and assault investigations: “Workaday detectives” in divisions were overweight and “consigned to backwater status ... competing for resources with curfew task forces and vice squads.” Detectives could face obstacles when they simply tried to organize files. Making matters worse, their colleagues often didn’t respect them, reflecting the department’s lack of interest in their work.
4. “Solve” rates don’t tell the full story: If you hear that a police department has a high homicide “solve” rate, you might be impressed by the number. But it might not tell the full picture since many cases can be solved with virtually no effort.
In fact, Leovy writes that police departments can reach a solve rate of 30 to 40 percent by just solving a few challenging cases on top of a bunch of “self-solvers”: those in which the identity of the murderer is obvious. These include murder-suicides, killings witnessed by cops, and cases in which murderers were caught while fleeing. Other cases, especially those involving black victims, would go unsolved but their high numbers could hide amid the statistics about solved cases.
5. Gangs use slang to distance themselves from "murder": In South Central L.A., locals often distanced themselves from the traditional language of language. “Sometimes it seemed that the closer people were to the problem, the more potent their distancing mechanisms,” Leovy wrote. People didn’t say “murder” but would instead use what Leovy calls euphemisms: One man would “smoke” another, “light him up,” “lay him out,” “serve” him.
Police aren’t immune from using language to distance themselves from the toll of killings. While Leovy profiles several detectives who are deeply devoted to finding justice in South Central L.A., she notes that cops have dismissed some murder cases as “no humans involved” – with victims seen as worthless.
6. "Men act touchy" amid lawlessness: The history of mankind suggests that “men act touchy” when authority isn’t reliable, Leovy writes. “They fixate on honor and respect – a result of lawlessness, not a cause.” In South Central L.A., this plays out through the countless murders that result from “men fighting”: “Every grudge seemed to harbor explosive potential.” Then comes vengeance: “In some circles, retaliation for murder was considered all but mandatory,” its merit even debated “from the pulpit at funerals.”
If someone succeeded in seeking revenge, there’s be a good chance that he would get away with it. And, perhaps, that someone would seek even more vengeance.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.