Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Leovy

20th Apr 2015

Journalist Jill Leovy examines the mounting issues surrounding police and race on the LA streets through a mix of intimate first-hand reports and shocking statistics.

The issue of the relationship between America’s black communities and its police force is, at the moment, where it should be: in the spotlight. Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson last year led to months of protest and unrest in the Missouri town, and launched a new mass movement to draw attention to the issue. Only last month, another black man – so unarmed he was naked – was shot dead by police in Atlanta.

Thanks to the efforts of campaigners to direct attention to the issue, there has been plenty of justifiable outrage in recent months, but little considered journalistic response. Ghettoside, the début of LA Times journalist Jill Leovy, who details every homicide in the city for the paper’s “Homicide Report” blog, is a determined attempt to give context to the decades-old problem, to look for the reasons behind it and to point to where a solution may be found.

She does this by dealing, not with the killings of black people by police, but by looking at an issue often pointed to by those dismissive of the Black Lives Matter protests: the killings of black people by black people. “In modern-day Los Angeles”, Leovy writes, “young black men are murdered two to four times more frequently than young Hispanic men, though blacks and Hispanics live in the same neighborhoods”.

“In modern-day Los Angeles”, Leovy writes, “young black men are murdered two to four times more frequently than young Hispanic men..."This is explored by focusing on one murder in particular, that of policeman’s son Bryant Tenelle, who was shot the head whilst out walking with a friend; and on one area: LA’s 77th Division in the South Central district. This is split into two communities which Leovy examines in parallel, the black residents under almost constant fear that their sons and brothers will be killed, and the police detectives going to varying degrees of effort to prevent or solve the killings.

One in particular, John Skaggs, is the hero of the tale. A Californian who looks like “someone right out of GQ magazine”, Leovy tells how “his whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive… and worth answering for.” He is drawn in fine detail, from his bewilderment at his colleagues’ antipathy to black murders to the cleft in his chin. The vast array of other people who populate her study get the same treatment: homeless men, abused women who testify despite being “maimed by gunshots to the mouth”, mothers hysterical with grief and fathers wordless with it.

These intimate pen portraits are seemingly a speciality of Leovy’s, and balance well the large chunks of stats and journalistic examination necessary to give the detail needed. No fingers are pointed – incompetent police chiefs are at least well-meaning and gang members the victim of chaotic circumstance – but Leovy doesn’t shy away from drawing a firm conclusion about what is causing the huge problems. Her contention is Skaggs’s: that the huge disparity between white and black homicide rates is due to lack of effective police presence, not a surfeit of it.

She pours her energy particularly into showing how cuts to the police service, which first made them understaffed and then made overtime impossible, directly impact on their ability to get results for the victims of crime, particularly those from black neighbourhoods when police have to work harder to get witnesses to come forward. Historical police indifference to black citizens is also pointed out: Leovy shows how this has led to young black people forming gangs as a way to misguidedly protect themselves, creating communities impenetrable to police as well as their parents.

Her argument is put together so neatly and the evidence presented so well that it is difficult to disagree with it. However, by focusing so directly on one community she misses the bigger problems, common across the entire western world, which exacerbate and fuel the problems she points out: a structurally racist society kept so by excluding voices of colour from the debate about their lives and future.

Leovy is clearly passionate about calling for a police force which treats all people equally, and goes to great lengths to treat the black people she writes about with as much attention and respect as the mainly white police force. It’s difficult to end the book, however, without wondering when a black voice from South Central will be the one writing about the issues facing black people in South Central – and if, until we get to that point, books on ghettos will only be describing them, not breaking them down.