The statistics are as eye-popping as they are depressing: 158 black men out of every 100,000 between the ages of twenty and twenty-four is murdered in America, a rate somewhere between twenty and thirty times the national average. Although blacks make up just 13% of our country’s population, nearly 60% of adult males in a federal, state, or local correctional facility are black. At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and politicians of all stripes are focusing on the interaction between law enforcement and predominately black communities, far less attention is paid to the everyday incidences of black-on-black violence that drive these alarming numbers.
Into this void steps Jill Leovy, whose book Ghettoside tracks the work of Los Angeles Police Department detectives in one of the highest crime areas of that city. Leovy’s lens, like the city she chronicles, is wide and ranging, using the murder of a detective’s son who was murdered by gang members even though his own involvement in a rival crew was tangential at best as the central story point, but as she dips in and out of the lives of police officers, citizens, criminal defendants, and lawyers who are the protagonists and antagonists in what is a seemingly never-ending story of murder and mayhem, we get a much more nuanced view of how their lives and stories intersect.
Leovy makes a compelling argument that inner city violence is to a certain degree a reaction by people who do not believe the criminal justice system will provide the ends it purports to offer, resulting in a rebellion against it, a process of street justice that substitutes retaliation for prosecutors, courtrooms, and prison sentences while at the same time discouraging cooperation with the police. In a segregated area of despair, where jobs are hard to come by, schools are substandard, the peer pressure applied by young men who see little chance of surviving to see their twenty-first birthday, and the seeming indifference of those who are paid to protect and serve, perhaps this attitude is understandable, but this nihilistic world view cannot excuse a complete erosion of the social contract to the point where it is acceptable to resolve petty squabbles and beefs with gunfire and a generation of newborns, infants, and toddlers grow up without one or both of their parents, burdening older grandparents, aunts, uncles and the foster care system while their mothers and fathers are spending years in prison or are dead.
Leovy gets the broad strokes right - showing what dedicated police detectives can do to achieve justice for victims of violent crime even though the victims are not all innocent, the challenges people in the community face when their options are helping the police or risking the wrath of retaliatory violence, and how the slow gears of justice can often impede its achievement. The book’s main character, a detective named John Skaggs, is a no non-sense guy who pours his heart and soul into his job, does not suffer fools gladly, and operates by a code of conduct that is admirable but often puts him in conflict with peers and supervisors. Leovy walks us through his process, in particular in solving the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a fellow LAPD detective, whose own story flits on the margins of what many in poorer communities experience. Tennelle’s father believes in living in the community he serves, but doing so places his youngest son at risk of the predations of the streets. While Bryant was hustling legitimate jobs, his buddies were dipping their toes in gang life and his association with them ended up costing him his life. Skaggs methodically goes through the evidence, laying snippets of information next to witness statements in an exquisitely patient manner, building his case until, in a scene Leovy frames beautifully, he gets a confession from the triggerman.
But here, we see the limitations of justice. As any Law & Order fan knows, the arrest is only half the battle. Skaggs’s defendant opts for trial, stretching the ordeal out for almost two years, impacting the lives of an accomplice who flipped and witnesses who risked retaliation to provide key information, and requiring its investment of hundreds of hours of time by the state in preparing and proving its case. And while Tennelle’s killer is brought to justice, Leovy points out that clearance rates for murders of black males in Los Angeles do not even approach fifty percent. Imagine that - knowing that if you commit a murder you have better than a coin flip’s chance of getting away with it and conversely, that if you are a victim, your family is left knowing there is less than a 50/50 chance you will receive justice. No wonder people take matters into their own hands.
Ghettoside also gets the small details right - the petty bureaucratic turf battles emblematic of law enforcement, the trade offs made by people living in poor communities when it comes to navigating daily life, and the one-step-forward-two-steps-back challenge they experience when trying to escape a criminal past. This is a testament to Leovy’s dogged pursuit of a compelling story and her diligence is rewarded in vignettes sprinkled throughout her book - of grieving family members holding vigil at hospital bedsides, roll calls where lieutenants try to buck up flagging morale caused by budget squeezes, and the tricky calculus experienced when witnesses are debating about whether to assist in a criminal investigation.
Indeed, the question of “snitching” is both a prominent feature and a roadblock Leovy touches on in considering the remarkably high rates of murder in these depressed communities. It is the classic chicken or the egg problem. Residents in poor neighborhoods are reluctant to cooperate with the police, who they do not think take solving shootings and murders seriously, which makes solving shootings and murders harder, which encourages more shootings and murders, which discourages cooperation for fear of retaliation for crimes that will not be solved. Who is responsible for this cycle starting and how it can be stopped is in a way much of what Ghettoside considers. While hard working detectives like Skaggs, Nate Kouri and Sal Marullo can be counted on to take their case loads seriously and outperform the clearance rate average, many of their colleagues are either too inexperienced or indifferent to perform at a high level. It is a sad commentary that the likelihood of an arrest should be predicated on something as arbitrary as who gets assigned the case, but Leovy makes that inference clear.
On the other hand, “ghettoside” (a term used in the book, not my own) residents often know full well who committed a crime but say nothing, either because street justice is enacted, they fear being retaliated against, or they think the police will not follow through, leaving them exposed as snitches. Of course, it is difficult to fully adopt the community lament over poor policing when so much assistance is withheld and, if given, would make the task of arresting and convicting murderers so much easier.
And even when the police get help, securing cooperation often requires relocation, regular monitoring and check ins with people who may be unreliable, scared, or unmoored from a stable life, adding a degree of difficulty in holding cases together that Leovy points out is not seen in other, less violent parts of the city. The time and effort it takes to nurse cooperating witnesses through months and years of grueling pressure when testifying against those who they grew up with, loved, or feared is daunting and is another reason securing convictions can often be so hard.
It is no wonder the problems of the inner city seem so intractable. When so much effort has to be put forth to not even achieve a fifty percent clearance rate on murders and so much enmity has been generated between the police and these impoverished communities, the tales Leovy tells of cooperation and commitment are a silver lining to an otherwise depressing problem. The small success Skaggs’s star witness from the Tennelle trial experiences as she puts her prior life of prostitution behind her and the continued decline of the overall murder rate notwithstanding, the high crime areas Leovy highlights are still responsible for nearly half of all the murders committed in Los Angeles. The two men who ended up going to prison for life in Bryant Tennelle’s murder are not remorseful when Leovy visits them, pleading flimsy alibis that belie any responsibility or personal accountability for their horrific actions.
Ultimately, Leovy’s observations challenge the reader to consider unorthodox solutions. For example, the passage of a federal law, the Second Chance Act of 2005, expanded access to Supplemental Security Income, thereby providing ex-offenders with mental health disabilities the opportunity to collect a steady check from the government. While some might cringe at the idea of this form of welfare, as Leovy notes, economic flexibility affords people options that change the risk/reward calculus of criminogenic behavior. Other factors, from gentrifying neighborhoods to how illicit drugs are sold have also led to some of the decline in murders Leovy tracks. Absent though, are Leovy’s own thoughts on how these problems should be addressed. Instead, she punts to policy makers, but her silence is disappointing, for having spent years immersed in this world, she surely has insights that might prove valuable. But this is a quibble at the margins. Ghettoside is a must read for anyone interested in a behind the scenes look at the constant battle going on in pockets of our society stubbornly caught up in a generations long cycle of violence.
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