On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man was shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of hundreds of young men slain in Los Angeles every year. His assailant ran down the street, jumped into an SUV, and vanished, hoping to join the vast majority of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes. But as soon as the case was assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shifted. Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential American murder -- one young black man slaying another -- and a determined crew of detectives whose creed was to pursue justice at all costs for its forgotten victims. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a new lens into the great subject of murder in America -- why it happens and how the plague of killings might yet be stopped.
Jill Leovy tells a compelling story of murder in South Central LA; In Los Angeles, during the last decade, most black men who were murdered were murdered by other black men and boys; six out of every ten killers of black men went unpunished. She details the deaths of one young man, the the son of a LA detective who had insisted on living in the community in which he worked, insisted on not giving up on the people he served.
She reveals the attitude of some of the police officers who see black-on-black killings as unimportant. And tells us of some superb detectives who work around the clock, with persistence and courage, to solve the murders.
The book occasionally drops down to mundane details that often seem disconnected, as if she wanted to fit all the information she knew into the book, but didn't have a cohesive reason to include many of the snippets of information. However, the main story line of the death of Bryant Tennelle and the detectives' efforts to bring the murderer to justice, and the author's support of her premise makes this a good read.
Ghettoside would be a good companion book to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Leovy posits that the high murder rate is caused by the failure of the authorities to call murderers to justice. Crime is deterred not by the severity of the potential punishment, but by the certainty an offender will be called to account. With just a third of murders leading to an arrest, the solve rate is dramatically lower than in other parts of the city. Police resources are concentrated on popular prevention initiatives, which leave residents feeling both targeted and unprotected. The detectives who work these cases are largely rookies and will leave the area for better positions before they are fully effective. Still, there are a few cops who have decided to remain, buying their own office supplies and working long hours in order to serve a community they value.
Leovy's book concerns one area in one city, but what she learns and takes from her experiences are important and should influence how we police our communities in every part of the country.
When you hear about the 'gang problem' in LA, you might think like I used to. That people in certain neighbourhoods just live a certain way, that whole families are dysfunctional and that there is no hope. But this book goes behind the few headlines of any media reports that ever tried to explore what is going on in South Central LA. It all tales place in the late 2000s and the focus is on one precinct's homicide detective team. These guys are the good guys. They care about solving crimes, the gang-related drive-by shootings, that no one else seems to care about. And this is the main point from the book: that if more of these murders were solved, the murder rate would diminish. The idea being that it is the lack of tangible justice in the gang areas that promotes vigilante justice. This justice is not to be confused with street drug busts, gun confiscations or police harassment of gang members, it is the solving of murders.
This is a sad read, even with the good guy homicide detectives on the cases- they are overwhelmed and under-resourced, on a day to day basis they are faced with dead kids (aged 13- adulthood), grieving families and terrified witnesses. But the good that they can do is emphasised, and it gives us hope. I got the feeling that the uniformed LAPD officers got off lightly in this book. A few times their 'culture' and attitude towards gangs and certain neighbourhoods was mentioned, and then left alone. Maybe that is a whole new book. Overall, this book was fascinating and it unfolded beautifully and cleverly.
Jill Leovy is a gifted writer. She puts words together in a way that paints a portrait of images and emotion. I didn't just read the words, I felt the anger and desperation of the people caught in this cycle of violence. Perhaps more importantly, Leovy's writing shines a new light on an old situation. Being a white girl from middle class suburbs, I've never had much interaction with gangs or extreme poverty - with any race. And though I read a lot on crime and sociology, I have never come across a book that so expertly dissects the cause and effect of gang violence and black-on-black murders.
This book reads like the best crime novel. We have two hero cops, going far beyond anyone's expectations while risking ridicule from their coworkers. We have the victims, innocent kids caught in the crossfire. And we have the killers, not much more than kids themselves, struggling to survive in a kind of inner city Wild West, with no one and nothing to rely on beyond their own code of ethics.
Ghettoside is a powerful statement on our indifference and assumptions. It's an unflinching look at racism and survival. It's a compelling piece of writing that needs to be read by every person, everywhere.
"Irvin Carter, a disabled man in his sixties, died the following day after being slashed by a man walking with a knife in East Rancho Dominguez. And the next day, thirty-six-year-old Keith Hardy died at St. Francis Hospital after someone shot him many times in Compton. Christopher Rice, twenty-two -- also shot in Compton -- was also transported to St. Francis. He died four days after Hardy. The next day, June 10, Rodney Love, fifteen, was shot and killed on the street in the Seventy-Seventh Street Division a block away from where Bryant Tennelle was shot. His mother ran outside just in time to watch her only child die as she dialed 911 over and over and got a busy signal."
Leovy argues that every murder must be treated as important and all efforts must be made to show that Black Lives Matter, that law enforcement is the only way to definitively make the streets safe for black men: "But anyone who tracks homicide in LA County and elsewhere still can't escape the obvious: black men remain disproportionately victimized. Solving this problem deserves every honest effort. People may disagree about the remedies -- particularly the balance between preventive and responsive measures -- but they should not disagree about the problem's urgency."
This is an important book. Highly recommended.
Which attitude would you want the officers investigating the murder of someone you love to have?
This nonfiction story of murder of black, mostly men in LA is eyeopening. It explains why ALL of us should care, why we shouldn't take the attitude that if one gangbanger kills another gangbanger, who cares? It follows the story of the murder of a homicide detective's son, but that is only a part of the story. There are seemingly endless recounts of murders of lower profile people, those who don't even merit a paragraph in the local paper.
It also explains why the poor black communities take the law into their own hands, the rich history of the US legal system marginalizing them at best. And, very much connected to that, why solving murders of those same people is difficult, even when it is attempted, and how often those attempts are superficial.
Occasionally the author's prose got a bit too flowery or sentimental, but mostly this was a clearly written look at why ignoring the violence problem and the underlying issues not only does a severe injustice to the people of those communities but affects all of us who think we are not connected to such problems.
The statistics are getting better. The statistics are still unacceptable.
This is one of those books that I didn't just read, but I marked and notated. It made me look at a problem from a perspective I had not considered before, and I am grateful for that.
I was given an advance reader's copy of this book for review, and the quote may be different in the published edition.
The homicide rate in Los Angeles, in Watts and in South Central in particular, consists of young black men killing other young black men. The clearance rate for these murders is very low. Because of the difficulties in finding witnesses willing to testify and a culture that put a low premium on their lives, many police resorted to arresting those they knew were guilty of murder but against whom they had insufficient evidence, of “proxy crimes.” These crimes included public drinking, possession of drugs, and parole violations. These arrests did get killers off the streets, but they were often viewed as harassment.
Ghettoside is the story of two murders and of John Skaggs, the white police detective who solved both. Skaggs was the detective who actually cared and he and his partners preserved until both cases resulted in convictions. Leovy chose as victims the son of a black police detective and a tenth grader son of a single mother home health care worker. Neither were gang affiliated. One would expect effort to solve the case concerning a fellow police officer, but given the culture of the L.A. police at the time, not the other. Skaggs worked through police budget cuts and the lack of resources his entire career. He and his first partner and later those they trained cared. They cared about the families, the victims and the witnesses. They solved homicides. Leovy gives us a small glimpse into what makes Skaggs tick, but I never learned enough to understand why he was different, why he was driven to solve these crimes that few others cared about.
The unfolding of the investigations reads like a mystery story. Some may get confused about the multiple characters, but I found it no more confusing than reading Ngaio Marsh or Agatha Christie. I did find that Leovy’s digressions into the roots of both black on black crime and white indifference distracting and, in the end, superficial. Leovy is not an historian or sociologist and the strength of this book is her reporting on the crimes and the investigations. She began a blog for the Los Angeles Times called the “Homicide Report” in 2007. The report chronicles every homicide in the city to the current day. Every city should have a similar blog.
Ghettoside ends with a quote from William J. Stuntz. Stuntz was a Harvard Law School Professor who studied the criminal justice system and died much too young. “Poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kids of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good, and too much of the kinds that do the most harm.” This also sums up Ghettoside.
I highly recommend this book.
Although the book touches on details of several other murders, it mostly focuses on the killing of one young man who was the son of a Los Angeles detective and the brilliant police work of another detective who was determined to solve what seemed to be an unsolvable case. Throughout the book the author does a masterful job of telling the story while at the same time exploring and explaining the epidemic and the numerous obstacles faced by law enforcement in their efforts to solve cases and prevent future crimes.
Most of it was well-written, but there were a few sentences that had me going,"Huh???" The description of the trial was well done, and a lot of respect is due to the author for the amount of research that went into the story
Write for us again, Jill Leovy, only next time, spare us the unnecessary repetition.
I received a free copy of this book with the expectation of an honest review.
This is a true crime story. True, and a crime, that so many black lives are lost for no reason other than racism, poverty and easy access to cheap guns.
Leovy writes primarily about homicide detectives, who are most surely a breed apart from police who patrol the South Central streets. The priority of the homicide detectives is to find out and gain confessions for the myriad senseless (though does any killing really make any sense) murders. Although the residents say, "Everybody knows", most witnesses are petrified to identify and testify, with very good reason - fear for their lives and the safety of their families.
The primary case here is a tragic story of a homicide detective who believes in his neighborhood and in staying to help keep it as a good place for all to live. But when his son is murdered, Detective Tennelle berates himself for his decision.
John Skaggs is the detective assigned to the case. By befriending a brave witness, he changes her life and those of the defendants.
Quotes, from the author: "Police had long functioned in the US preoccupied with control and prevention, obsessed with nuisance crime, and lax when it came to answering for black lives."
And from scholar William Stuntz: "Poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kinds of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good, and too much of the kind that do the most harm."
This book belongs on the same exalted shelf as "The New Jim Crow" and On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. All three are essential to understanding why "Black Lives Matter" is a most valid battle cry in the war against indifference and evil outcomes.
Jill Leovy is (or was, I don't know) a Los Angeles Times reporter on this beat for awhile. Her work on a map charting all the murders in Los Angles for a year for a map on the LA Times website is something I still remember. she tells the story simply. The prose is that of a newspaper reporters, straight-forward and plain, and focused on individuals. I read an advanced copy provided through Early Reviewers, and at least that version did not have many notes supporting the reporting. She often does that thing nonfiction writers like to do of telling you what the people she is describing are thinking, and the reader is left unsure how she knows this. But nothing she writes is likely to strike the reader as overreaching; instead her plain prose and careful storytelling works to create a cumulative portrait that I just found devastating to read about by the time I was a little past halfway through.
Things have gotten a little better in LA since the time of the murder she centers on in this book, at least in terms of the numbers of people murdered in the county, and the number of Black men and boys. But the lessons from her book are not dated, and in these days of questions about policing in Black American neighborhoods, and crime in those neighborhoods, the book is essential.
This book is also a set of profiles of several exceptional homicide detectives. Doing the job right is recognizing every murder victim deserves to have his/her crime solved. The author follows the Detective John Skaggs and a few other exceptional detectives through their work and discovers that being a good or great homicide detective is not a job but an art. A great detective has to be constantly alert and probing for clues and if your hunches tells you something is not right, then he/she needs persevere until it is right. Witnesses are a big part of the story when it comes to getting convictions.
Jill Leovy opens the world up inside the black upon black murders. She uses the true story of great detectives to show what homicide detective should be like, involved with the victim’s family. She illustrates how to bring about change between the police and the community.
This book is engrossing and would not let me go until the end. I learned so much from this book and invite you to read it.
I received an Advanced Reading Copy of Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder In America as a win from LibraryThing from the publishers. My thoughts and feelings in this review are entirely my own.