Ghetto reportage—gritty depictions of crime and struggle in the city—has come to be dominated by two schools of journalism. The first is represented by David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” who, in his pre-television days, covered the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun and wrote books about homicide detectives and drug dealers that often involved him hanging out in a police precinct or a crack-infested neighborhood for a year or so. Each character is rendered at length, their dramas, delusions, and failures patiently laid out. Simon reclines with his subjects on dirty mattresses as they shoot up again and again.
The second school is associated, most recently, with the law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Her approach is numbers-based; all context, little story. More criminology, than true-crime. The Alexander approach is powerful not because we’re empathizing with characters, but because we’re convinced that her arguments about the causes of injustice are undeniable.
Ghettoside, a new book by Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy, falls somewhere between Simon and Alexander. In this non-fiction murder mystery, Leovy’s central message is simple, contrarian, and extremely convincing: The plague of “black-on-black” homicide is the result of under policing. What’s troubling our criminal justice system, she argues, is not preventive policing techniques (e.g., stop and frisk), but rather an abominably low solve rate for black homicides. When the son of a black detective is murdered senselessly in South L.A., a relentless white detective is brought in to solve the case, and Leovy gets a riveting story in which to package her theme.
Below, Leovy discusses what it was like to spend a decade immersed in incredibly dark material.
Dan Slater: When you started out on the crime-reporting beat, did you see yourself doing a book on homicide?
Jill Leovy: No. On the education beat, you throw a paperclip and hit a think tank. There are armies of doctorate students working on it, and everyone has a paper and a theme. There’s nothing like that in homicide. There are a few scholars working on it, and they don’t have much cushioning around them. … When I suggested to one scholar that he should do more on black-on-black violence, he said, “Why not put a sign on my back saying, ‘Kick me’?”
DS: People harp on the problem of over policing. But you’re talking about under policing. You’re saying that black homicide flourishes because killers operate with impunity—that it’s easy to kill a black man in America and get away with it.
JL: If you talk to people in the black urban underclass, they’ll tell you, “Why don’t they go find the killers? They never catch the guys who did it.” The national conversation is about over policing. But many black people in ghettos say they want more policing. It was the same in the Jim Crow south. Yes, the police could be brutal. But they would also say, “We need more protection than we’re getting.”
But Ghettoside is actually an argument for limited government. State power is a profound and potentially menacing thing. When it’s applied, its justifications should be clear. I believe murder is one of those justifications. If we can think about applying state power where it matters the most, then we can consider building the rest of the system in the most limited possible way.
DS: What’s the hardest part of your argument to support? What was the most inconvenient fact, or the wall you kept hitting?
JL: It was that the murders in Black and Latino communities are solved at pretty much the same rate—both low—and yet the murder rate in Latino communities is much lower. In other words, killers in both communities benefit from impunity. But somehow that fact doesn’t cause the same spike in murders in Latino areas.
So, at first, that seemed to undercut my argument that low clearance rates in homicide investigations are responsible for high black murder rates. If that was the case, then it should’ve held true in Latino communities as well. The impunity is the same. So why wouldn’t its effect on homicide be equal? Then I read American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton. And I realized that the fact of segregation is what changes the math. When you have a group that’s uniquely isolated and concentrated, in the way that blacks are, the effect of low homicide solve rates is magnified.
In Black and Latino communities, there is similar poverty and similar family issues. What’s different is segregation. Latinos, at least in California, are basically white ethnics—like Irish or Italians on the east coast. It’s very possible Latinos’ relative social mobility—they’re living in the suburbs one or two generations after immigration—compensates for the impunity that surrounds homicide in Latino communities.
DS: You write: “Fundamentally, gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.” Can you explain that?
JL: Let’s use this analogy: In my old public school, the exceptional learners sat in front. The go-along-to-get-along students sat in the middle. And the troublemakers and bullies sat in back. Of the latter, maybe one or two kids were really seriously troubled. Now, imagine that the teacher announces: “Okay, you all can do whatever you want to each other and not get in trouble.” Then the teacher leaves. What’s going to happen?
DS: Lord of the Flies?
JL: Sort of. But it’s more nuanced. First, they’ll clique up. They’ll get in groups to watch each other’s backs. Then the one or two seriously troubled bullies will take advantage of the situation and start hurting people. Maybe some of the kids who aren’t naturally inclined to hurt others will go along with the bullies just to stay safe. Or maybe they’ll stay quiet. Maybe others will bravely try to stand up and then be victimized. The point is that the kids will group together out of necessity. But now imagine this: The teacher comes back, from time to time, and raps some knuckles for something minor like gum chewing, then leaves again.
DS: That sounds like preventive policing.
JL: Exactly. And the problem is that preventive policing assumes that the source of the problem is the individual.
DS: Why are we so obsessed with preventive policing in this country?
JL: Policing came of age in America in the nineteenth century, later than it did in Europe. This was a time when many progressive movements were at their height, promoting the power of things like abstinence, hygiene, and preventive health. Police adapted that preventive model.
Preventive policing techniques like stop and frisk are also very seductive. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could stop it before it happens? In a more sinister way, though, prevention is favored because it’s entirely open-ended; there’s no end to what you can justify in terms of surveillance. On the streets, all preventive policing means is stopping people, bothering people, tracking people, and following them. It also means subscribing to every new piece of technology that comes out, and we love technology.
DS: At the moment, everyone is focused on police shootings. What’s your take?
JL: It’s unbelievably upsetting when the police shoot someone. But I think what gets lost in the conversation is the fact that police are just part of these communities. And the reality is this: When police are murdered, there’s a 43 percent chance the killer was a black man. What does that tell us? It tells us that there’s a situation of intense combat out there.
But I think police shootings are part of a continuum. In a society where people have guns, there may be an irreducible number of these things. People are going to make mistakes. But on a policy level, the mistakes of a panicked cop offend me much less than rudeness in cops. It’s a huge problem because it’s a trust problem. And, unlike panic, rudeness is entirely discretionary. It comes down to training.
DS: Ghettoside is dark material. The reporting process was long and grueling. What was the hardest part of reporting this book?
JL: On a concrete level? The dogs. Literally. Being a reporter in South L.A. is like being a mailman. Dogs often aren’t chained. And when you’re going to houses, opening the fences, you have no idea what’s going to pop out at you.
DS: How about emotionally?
JL: The families of all the victims are what made my head spin. Seeing people in so much pain. It’s impossible to translate that to the outside world. Homicide detectives talk about this too. The inside world and the outside world. In the inside world, you’re surrounded by people who are seeing the same things. So you can talk to them about it in shorthand. You don’t need to explain anything. But then you try to come out and translate that. It’s so hard to explain. And it’s painful when you’re misunderstood. Homicide cops often don’t talk to their friends or wives about their jobs because they’re used to people saying: “Well they’re just a bunch of gang members so it doesn’t matter. We’re better off without them.”
DS: It’s still murder. It’s still someone’s son.
JL: The nice thing about covering homicide was how apolitical it is. You can believe nothing else in the world, and still believe that homicide is wrong.
What I felt as a writer is what my families felt in the book: I don’t have words. Language and violence are working against each other. It’s hard to be silenced as a writer, but I was almost silenced. The book took me ten years, and I did think many times that I’d never finish it. It swallowed my life. It runs in cycles. It’s hard at first. Then you learn to handle it and you have a few good years. Then you go back to feeling crazy again. It’s like that for the detectives, too. I always told myself that this problem I’m writing about is straight from Satan. I would think: We’re going to lose, but at least I can throw a pebble back. I’m so glad this book is over.
This interview has been edited and condensed.