In her timely new book, Jill Leovy examines one of the most disturbing facts about life in America: that African-American males are, as she puts it, “just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered.” Leovy describes neighborhoods steeped in pain: A mother, dressed in a baggy T‑shirt adorned with her murdered son’s picture, spends all day indoors, too terrified to step outside; the brother of a homicide victim purposely meanders through violent streets in the hopes that he too will meet the same fate; grieving parents all wear the same haunted expression, the empty stare that one police chaplain calls “homicide eyes.” Leovy’s focus is South Los Angeles, though similar stories abound in many of the nation’s poorest communities.
This is a world that most journalists never cover, and most of America never sees. Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, argues that as a nation we have grown far too accepting of our high rate of homicide — all the yellow crime-scene tape and sidewalk candle memorials — in large part because the media has paid too little attention. In response, she started a blog at her newspaper in late 2006 called The Homicide Report, in which she attempted to cover every murder in Los Angeles County in a single year. It was a radical idea — at the time, her paper reported on only about 10 percent of homicides — and also a near-impossible task: In a 2008 article, Leovy acknowledged that the report “has merely skimmed a problem whose true depths couldn’t be conveyed.”
In “Ghettoside,” she tackles this “plague of murders,” as she calls it, with a book-length narrative that enables her to write about it with all the context and complexity it deserves. Her protagonist is John Skaggs, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective, whom she portrays as both compassionate and relentless: He gives his personal cellphone number to the mothers of men who’ve been murdered, and he treats every homicide case “like the hottest celebrity crime in town,” Leovy writes, no matter how poor and unknown the victim was. Despite his white skin, Skaggs manages to win the trust of the community.
The narrative arc of “Ghettoside” traces one of Skaggs’s homicide cases: the murder of Bryant Tennelle. (The book’s title comes from a Watts gang member’s shorthand for his neighborhood and others like it — a term local detectives adopt.) One evening in 2007, Bryant walks outside with a friend not far from his home, carrying a root beer and pushing his bicycle, when a stranger jumps out of a car, shoots him and escapes. Like so many murder victims, Bryant is young (just 18 years old) and nonwhite. But as it happens, he is also the son of Wallace Tennelle, a highly respected African-American detective with the Los Angeles police. Tennelle is the first detective to arrive at the crime scene, only to find his son splayed on the grass, his brain matter everywhere.
Reading this scene and the ones that follow — when Tennelle has to reveal to his wife what just happened, when all the family members converge at the hospital — I actually felt physically sick. I can’t ever remember having that reaction to a book before, but in this case it may not be all that surprising. One-third of the way into Leovy’s book, it’s apparent that the true scope of our nation’s homicide problem — the extraordinary pain and trauma and despair that follow the murder of a loved one — is indeed sickening.
Leovy reported “Ghettoside” before the issue of police brutality exploded last year in the national news, and her focus is not on the misconduct of police officers. (Instead, she targets their leaders, revealing how the priorities of a police department can reduce the odds that the murders of young black men are solved.) Still, her book does provide new insights into the current debate. She presents a nuanced portrait of the Los Angeles Police Department, showing divisions within the force. Despite public professions of loyalty and solidarity, sometimes even cops dislike their fellow cops: The homicide detectives get furious when patrol officers at a murder scene speak rudely to bystanders — pushing them away rather than figuring out which ones might be potential witnesses and getting their names.
Credit Matt Dorfman
Decades of acrimony between the department and civilians have left Skaggs and his fellow detectives feeling, she writes, “like door-to-door salesmen, trying to peddle a legal system no one wanted anything to do with.” Getting witnesses to talk, to tell the truth, to show up in court to testify, to not “roll back” on their stories — all of this can be close to impossible. As Leovy tells it, this is not primarily because of a street code against snitching, but a very real fear of being injured or killed. In one case, a victim’s mother actually tells her neighbors that she does not expect them to let their children cooperate with the detectives trying to solve her child’s murder; she doesn’t want to run the risk that any other child might be killed.
Leovy argues that the Los Angeles Police Department — and the criminal justice system nationally — has not placed a high enough priority on solving these murders. Her description of homicide detectives struggling to get the resources they need underscores her point: Computers and cars were in short supply. Detectives had to go to Office Depot to buy their own “murder books,” the blue binders where they kept their case notes. The detectives were not even given tape recorders to record interviews with witnesses or perpetrators; instead they had to buy their own.
As Leovy sees it, the problem in a place like Watts is not only the high homicide rate, but the fact that so many people who commit murder are never punished. In the 13 years before the homicide that opens her book, she writes, “a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles.” This lack of accountability is the primary cause, she argues, of the high homicide rate in some African-American neighborhoods: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” she writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”
There are more than 2.2 million people now confined in American prisons and jails, and yet, in her view, the criminal justice system is not only“oppressive” but also “inadequate.” “Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem,” she writes. “The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and ‘preventive’ policing” — like stop-and-frisk — “remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims.”
“Ghettoside” has its weak spots — the opening feels choppy; there are so many characters it’s easy to lose track of them; some of the historical digressions feel distracting and unnecessary — but these are minor quibbles. Leovy’s relentless reporting has produced a book packed with valuable, hard-won insights — and it serves as a crucial, 366-page reminder that “black lives matter,” showing how the “system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.”
At her book’s conclusion, Leovy writes about the astonishing decline in the Los Angeles murder rate over the past few years. In the wake of this excellent news, it might be tempting to dismiss her book’s message as less than urgent. That, however, would be a mistake. Homicide remains the No. 1 cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 34 — and solving these crimes should be a top priority for any police force.
I was reminded of this two months ago when Dashawn Cameron, 18 years old, was killed inside a Domino’s pizzeria in one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. Several young men attacked him, and he wound up on the floor of the restaurant, curled in the fetal position, blood seeping from his torso where a knife had entered. His death was not huge news in New York City, but a Daily News reporter did track down his father. “You want to honor my son’s life?” the grieving man said. “Find the killer who did this to my son.”
A True Story of Murder in America
By Jill Leovy
366 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.