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'Ghettoside' focuses on one L.A. murder to make case for more policing

L.A. Times writer Jill Leovy examines one South Central murder to make a strong case for more intense policing

Any observer of urban policing will note a sharp contradiction. On the one hand, police forces across the country have become more progressive. Officials have made great efforts to bring women and minorities into the ranks. Departments have adopted evidence-based policymaking to measure effectiveness, track crime and allocate resources. And, in places like Los Angeles and New York, officers are working hard to build positive community relationships.

This assessment will no doubt sound a bit out of touch given recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City. According to their critics, police seem bent on maintaining the status quo — unaccountable to the public, racially insensitive and over-the-top and abusive in their efforts to protect and serve.

With the rhetoric so polarized, it is difficult to ascertain whether things are getting better or worse. Part of the problem is that we rarely see and hear from police themselves. The passionate defense of commanders and union shop stewards does not always help the public understand a basic issue: How do police operate, and what is necessary to help them do their work more legitimately and effectively?

Jill Leovy's new book takes us a long way toward answering this question. "Ghettoside" is her penetrating look at the Los Angeles Police Department — the title is taken from the nickname a Watts gang member gave to his neighborhood. A staff writer at the L.A. Times and the creator of a popular blog, Homicide Report, Leovy is not a newcomer to crime reporting. In "Ghettoside," she adopts an anthropologist's gaze to unravel the workings of this tribe. She tracks the daily movements of homicide detectives working cases that rarely attract the media spotlight. Think "Boyz N the Hood," not "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential." This is gritty reporting that matches the police work behind it.

For three decades, we've been told that there is an epidemic of violence in urban black America — "plague" is Leovy's preferred term. Our jails and prisons are filled with minorities, police legitimacy remains low and inner-city families appear resigned to these conditions. Police seem as overwhelmed and frustrated as the minorities whom they must protect. Leovy underscores the urgency to respond but not in a predictable manner.

Her premise is simple, powerful and runs counter to prevailing views. The crisis does not stem from over-policing and mass incarceration per se. Instead, these are symptomatic of a deeper problem that she refers to as "too little application of the law." "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death," Leovy writes, "homicide becomes endemic."

If we saturated minority neighborhoods with the police resources they needed, she argues, we might stand a chance of stemming violent crime and giving families their neighborhoods back.

Leovy's thesis will not appease the critics who say that police are too heavy-handed and unfair. But "Ghettoside" works as provocation because of Leovy's chosen vantage point: In a democracy, we must hand over to the state the monopoly on the use of force. This means we have to figure out how to let police do their jobs well.

The book makes this point while weaving together two stories. Part 1 gives us a broad understanding of homicide investigations, focusing on LAPD detectives who work out of the city's South Central neighborhoods. Part 2 is a detailed account of the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the son of an LAPD police officer; Leovy takes us through the entire investigative process, including the successful apprehension and indictment of Tennelle's killers.

While the Tennelle case tugs at your heart, it is Leovy's masterful dissection of policing that will make you take notice. Our hero is Det. John Skaggs, one in a small band of brothers who refuse the promotions that might transfer them to lower-crime police districts. Instead, Skaggs and his counterparts dedicate themselves to providing victimized families closure by attempting to find the killer of their loved ones. This means working long days and nights, filled with the thought that most cases will remain unsolved.

Skaggs remains undeterred, Leovy says. "He descended into the most horrifying crevasse of American violence like a carpenter going to work, hammer in one hand, lunch pail in the other, whistling all the way. He had molded his life around an urgent problem seldom recognized, and he was unshaken — perhaps even encouraged — by the fact that so many others didn't get it. He had a steady faith that things could improve with the right kind of effort." Skaggs leads the successful investigation that finds Tennelle's killers.

By peering inside the black box of police work, we quickly see that the inequities in criminal justice cannot be reduced to neglectful or racist police. The daily, pragmatic hurdles police must clear ultimately stifle their attempt to help families and communities victimized by gun violence. Take the basic tasks of persuading witnesses who believe that "snitching" will bring about violent retaliation by suspected perpetrators. Why would any rational person cooperate with police? And who can fault an officer faced with an unreasonably high caseload for simply moving on to the next case when witnesses refuse to help? There are plenty of other families awaiting assistance.

In this climate, Leovy writes, an informal street justice blossoms. "People in Watts would argue that street justice was ethically superior. They would pressure homicide witnesses to keep quiet so the victim's family would have a chance to strike back." Vigilante groups and gangs take advantage of these conditions to ply their trade: namely, revenge killings that keep the wheel of gun violence turning.

Only a few detectives, like Skaggs, doggedly pursue witnesses. They return dozens of times until they receive cooperation and testimony. Even after the case is handed over to prosecutors, they remain de facto counselors to the frightened witnesses. Leovy's treatment of Skaggs is at times romantic, but it is hard not to be impressed by his commitment and ingenuity.

Leovy knows that it is foolish to depend wholly on police to maintain public safety. In the current era of tightening budgets and fiscal constraint, police must do more with less. Especially in areas besieged by violence, crime and a history of racially charged policing, city leaders will have to find other ways to restore public safety as well as legitimacy for police.

Leovy has created a book that is part reportage and part sociology. Her diagnosis is clear and compelling. "Ghettoside's" tale is rooted in a specific place, but it's clear that Leovy sees this L.A. neighborhood as a microcosm of American dysfunction and Skaggs as a representative of a path not taken.

And though the situation may sound dire, buried in Leovy's account is at least one note of optimism. She writes, "[I]t is impossible to imagine that the thousands of young men who died on the streets of Los Angeles County during Skaggs' career would have done so had their killers anticipated a 'John Skaggs Special' in every case." Her portrait of police is filled with officers and detectives, equally as caring as Skaggs, too inundated with cases and who lack the support to pursue leads diligently. If criminals believed that a Skaggs-like effort was the norm, this may be the most effective form of deterrence we can create.

Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and author, most recently, of "Gang Leader for a Day."

Ghettoside
A True Story of Murder in America

Jill Leovy
Spiegel & Grau: 384 pp., $28

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