We are all thinking this January 2015 about relationship between the minority – in particular, black – communities and the police. Ghettoside by Los Angeles reporter, Jill Leovy, is a timely addition to the conversation.
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.
This was first published as a review for LibraryThing with an Advanced Readers Copy. The book will be available on January 27.