In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy Reveals The People Behind The Statistics

This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.

–Jill Leovy, Ghettoside

ghettosideGhettoside might be one of the most important books published this year. As the news covers murder so disproportionately, Jill Leovy addresses the issue of high rates of violence within African American urban communities with intelligence and empathy. She embedded with the Los Angeles Police Department, following the homicide detectives, some dedicated, some overwhelmed, many there and then gone, and she kept her own statistics logs.

The statistics themselves are shocking, staggering, unlike anything I’d heard before although I’d lived in Oakland and seen brief news articles covering weekends of violence, summaries of staggering crime statistics that never went national. African American men are “just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered.”

Leovy’s answer to this staggering statistic, especially affecting Los Angeles, was a Los Angeles Times blog called The Homicide Report, an attempt to give a story to each victim in LA. The intention here was to honor victims that often went nameless and faceless, when suburban white female victims captured so much of the news cycle.

At the LAPD, Leovy followed one case from the murder itself to its successful prosecution. This case, the murder of yet another young black man, Bryant Tennelle, is notable in that Bryant Tennelle was a respected detective’s son. Walking his bike, wearing the wrong color of hat, he was shot and left for dead. Tennelle’s death isn’t the only chronicled in Ghettoside. Focusing on the Watts area of South Los Angeles, the deaths come continually, providing just a glimpse, the tiniest blink, of what residents and police assigned to the area must feel, a continual wave of death followed by waves of retribution as communities seek their own justice through violence.

Leovy also introduces John Skaggs, a lanky white detective with ADD and a coffee addiction that allows him to work what seems like continuous overtime in an underfunded homicide department. The descriptions of Skaggs often gush, as he is the hero of this story. Never jaded in a department of exhausted officers, able to connect with victim’s mourning families and witnesses alike, Skaggs seems like a character pulled out of a novel. With so many videos released recently of police brutality, so many police gone wrong in current events, I was hesitant to trust this man. But this is part of Leovy’s argument–Skaggs is rare, and we need more like him.

Ultimately, a dedicated investigator like Skaggs is required to solve Tennelle’s murder, as the case is going cold until he takes it over. Solving a case takes good police work. It takes knocking on doors, and interviews, and gathering evidence. Just like any other criminal investigation. And this is the argument of Leovy’s book–there is an epidemic of street justice where the criminal justice system is lacking. The police just aren’t good enough in these high crime areas, she says. By the end of the book, Leovy chronicles a gang banger convincing friends to give the police a chance, knowing one of Skaggs’s team will be on the job. Knowing a good cop might offer justice, she convinces her friends to pause on seeking vengeance themselves.

This book is at times exhausting. It shines light on our country’s bleakest moments, things no one wants to look at and the media chooses not to discuss. It takes a hard look at America’s overtly racist history, from slavery onwards. But this is a book about making black crime into crime like any other–something that can be reported on, talked about, and ultimately solved by the police.

Ghettoside on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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