A Surge for Justice

Review: Jill Leovy, ‘Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America’

Los Angeles / Wikimedia Commons
• May 29, 2015 5:00 am


"‘Too late!' she wailed. ‘Too late! You guys always come too late!’"

– From Ghettoside

In the District of Columbia, what Jill Leovy calls the Monster is, speaking in geographic terms, on the retreat, moving steadily east across the Anacostia River, pushed away from the city center a little farther each year by an influx of wealth. The same basic pattern applies in New York City—outward from the center, pushed back by money and gentrification—though 2015 has born witness to an increase in its rate of incidence in Manhattan. In Baltimore, recent years haven’t seen much of a geographic shift, though recent weeks have seen the Monster flex.

In Los Angeles, the focus of Leovy’s Ghettoside, it remains a stubborn fact of life south of Interstate 10, in what used to be known officially as "South Central." The Monster—which Leovy also calls the Wolf, and sometimes, the Plague—is murder, that scourge of American cities since roughly midway through the twentieth century. Even after the dramatic drop in the murder rate that began in the 1990s, the violent taking of life in urban America still occurs with substantially greater per-capita frequency than it did during the first half of the last century and before. The victims are principally young black men. So are the perpetrators.

Leovy argues that American society has come to accept a shocking rate of violent death for young, usually poor black men, so long as those deaths and the gunplay that precedes them are contained in neighborhoods where more wealthy people don’t need to go. She holds that a legacy of racism greatly contributes to this situation, an argument likely to alienate readers on the right. She also argues that the solution lies not in less policing but in more policing—that poor, black neighborhoods in fact have too little rule of law—a line of reasoning likely to alienate readers on the left.

To make her case, Leovy alternates between thematic analysis and a narrative approach, sharing stories that she came across during years as a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, including two extensive embeds with LAPD homicide detectives. The inspiration for the approach seems to be David Simon’s classic Homicide, itself the product of an embed with the Baltimore homicide unit. Leovy’s book lacks the narrative unity of Simon’s, and could be indicted for attempting too much: historical and data-based analysis; an ensemble tale of numerous, interrelated murders and the investigators assigned to investigate them over the course of the last decade; and the central, deeply compelling story that occupies the narrative heart of the book: the mystery of Bryant Tenelle’s violent death, and the heroic efforts of a detective named John Skaggs to solve it.

This central tale is told eloquently by Leovy. Bryant Tenelle was a cop’s son. Not only that: his father, Wally Tenelle, was an LAPD homicide detective. Uncharacteristically for LAPD officers, Wally had made the decision to live with his family both within the city limits and in a neighborhood south of I-10 plagued by the violence that Wally spent his days investigating. It was a principled decision: a cop ought to live in the broader community that he policed.

It was rewarded, in the cruel way of principled decisions, with hardship. Bryant, 18 years old, a decent young man who had stayed out of trouble under the watchful eyes of his parents, had recently taken to associating with a group of gang-affiliated young people. One Friday evening in 2007, while walking with a friend in the street, Bryant was shot in the head by another young man, who jumped into a Chevy Suburban that sped away.

Though some felt that the case, as it involved a police officer’s son, ought to be assigned to the central investigative unit that handled major investigations, political considerations led to it being left to the overworked, under-resourced local division of LAPD detectives. After stalling out, the investigation was assigned to Detective John Skaggs, presented by Leovy as an aging California type, an uncomplicated and relentless Javert, if Javert had been blonde. And a surfer.

Skaggs, one of the more talented investigators in the LAPD, had repeatedly turned down offers to rise in the ranks in more prestigious bureaus away from South Central. He had instead found purpose in the strange, awful role of a poor neighborhood’s homicide detective: a job that was one part investigator, one part salesman for the idea of the law, and one part high priest, ministering to parents confronting sudden and terrible mysteries. Through a sustained, multiyear act of will, Skaggs sees to it that the young man who shot Bryant Tenelle, and the only slightly older man who put him up to it, go to prison.

Neither man had apparently met Tenelle before. Like many killings in that part of Los Angeles, Tenelle’s perceived association with a small, insignificant street gang rival to that of the killers led to his being targeted. His life and individual deeds meant nothing compared with his group identity—a circumstance that Leovy identifies as being common to all lawless societies. Lawlessness is not the same thing as anarchy. In the absence of a state monopoly on violence, the result is not a war of all against all but of loose, shifting alliances of young men—in Los Angeles, gangs. Anthropologists refer to the resulting tit-for-tat violence as "balanced opposition." In biblical terms, it is the regime of Lex Talionis—an eye for an eye.

Leovy’s assertion that the neighborhoods she writes about suffer not from too much police interference, but from too little of the rule of law, is surprising when one considers her manifestly liberal politics (at one point, she describes LAPD officers as being "steeped in right-wing rhetoric about the ‘nanny state’"). The commonplace left-of-center explanations for urban violence are the linked phenomena of poverty and white racism. This analysis is superficial, but, in fairness, it is only as shallow as the right-of-center cliché that a collapse of the family and a lack of personal virtues create the conditions for violence—that if members of these communities could simply get their acts together and stand up to the killers among them, the violence would stop.

In her analysis, Leovy relies heavily on the work of the recently deceased legal scholar William J. Stuntz, whose remarkable The Collapse of American Justice argues that the poor, black neighborhoods of northern cities have been crushed by a perfect historical storm. Blacks in the South had always been alienated, for obvious and terrible reasons, from a criminal justice system that was designed to serve whites. The great twentieth century migration of blacks to northern cities led to concentrations of young men of limited means living in dense neighborhoods far from their families, at precisely the time the Warren court revolutionized American criminal law, making court cases less about the guilt or innocence of the accused and more about the procedures of the police.

Leovy does not emphasize this aspect of Stuntz’s analysis, but it is important. These court decisions—famously Miranda and Mapp—were designed to reduce racial and economic inequality in legal outcomes, but they failed to do so. By making the ability of a defense counsel to try the police central to the fate of the accused, the balance of legal advantage remained with those who could afford better, more attentive lawyers. For those who could not, plea bargains became the norm. Jury trials, that central institution of self-governing communities, became rare. These factors, combined with an increase in the drug trade and a generally lenient approach to incarceration, led to an explosion in crime—an explosion that provoked a reaction, from the 1980s on, towards a national tendency for mass incarceration and harsh, mandatory sentencing. Prison ceased to be a deterrent. It became a rite of passage.

The neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime—predominantly black neighborhoods—grew to have an adversarial relationship to the police, in part a legacy of the old racism of the South, but just as much a function of the fact that the police weren’t there to stop crime but to contain it, to keep it away from the neighborhoods of those with more money, and more political clout. As Stuntz put it, "Neighborhood democracy faded, and was replaced by a democracy of angry neighbors." By the start of the present century, rates of violent crime had indeed dropped, but to the residents of Watts or Anacostia or the Bronx, the difference was not very noticeable.

Leovy, following Stuntz, proposes that the solution to lawless neighborhoods is more law: more police doing better policing. Wading into the debate about preventive versus responsive policing, Leovy, having been jaded by camera-ready, harassment-heavy police "surges" in black neighborhoods after a high-profile crime, comes down on the side of response: every dead Bryant Tenelle deserves a John Skaggs.

She is no doubt right about this, but common sense indicates that no matter how much money is spent, there can only be so many talented homicide investigators. Prevention has to play a role, too, and among the most telling moments in Ghettoside comes when Leovy documents the actions of Greg De La Rosa, the first officer on the scene of Tenelle’s murder. When the call about a shooting comes over the radio, on a Friday evening in one of the most violent parts of L.A., he is 30 blocks away.

Though it is uncomfortable to liken places like Watts to Baghdad in 2006 or Kandahar today, simply as an analytic matter the comparison is apt—they are all lawless and violent places, in quite similar ways. The U.S. military came to realize that if a coalition outpost wasn’t in the direct line of sight of an area, it could not be protected from insurgents. As Stuntz puts it, if an officer responds to a 911 call within five minutes, that is still four minutes too late.

There simply are not enough police. Law abiding members of poor, violent neighborhoods cannot be expected to stand up to armed gangs of young men who are not only engaged in a constant, simmering battle with one another, but are also lethally enforcing a code of silence against agents of the state. Money from the state and federal government to hire more rank and file city police officers, deployed not in radio cars or in temporary surges but in a permanent escalation in networks of small outposts and foot beats, would have an effect.

As with education, an influx of cash would run the risk of being siphoned off by the urban middle class, via unions. Moreover, police departments seem intent on a fetishistic embrace of militarization—bigger guns, armored vehicles, wannabe soldier gear—when in fact what is needed is more policemen, with basic equipment, good training, and small patrol areas. What is needed is statesmanship and a genuine care for those who live in troubled neighborhoods, as opposed to the demagogic exploitation of their situation for profit and power. What is needed is an appropriate number of police to do battle against a national shame: the absence of the rule of law in the hearts of America’s great cities.

Published under: Book reviews