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Sunday Book Review: Ghettoside

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This is a guest post by Joseph Ellis, assistant professor in political science at Wingate University. Follow him on twitter at @EstoniaEllis

Jill Leovy’s new book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, examines the rash of homicides that occurred in south Los Angeles – the area “south of the 10” freeway – in the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s. Leovy asks a straightforward question: Why did this area experience such high homicide rates, and why have the victims of these homicides overwhelmingly been black? It is the sort of question we all ask ourselves at one time or another, knowing that provisional explanations involving racism, income inequality, and social and family structures play some role. But Leovy’s hypothesis is more straightforward: Blacks in Los Angeles have suffered disproportionately from a lack of effective policing.

The argument is deceptively simple. If black citizens had access to better policing, fewer crimes might be committed, and those crimes that were committed would result in arrests and imprisonments. When Leovy talks about policing she is not necessarily discussing problems like police brutality, which is why reading this book in light of the Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland-era of citizen-police relations is quite fascinating. Her argument rests on Max Weber’s basic tenant of state legitimacy, which says that states must “possess a monopoly on legitimate violence” within a given setting. Police officers should not only be the most powerful actors to wield legitimate force in a given community, but they also must follow up on criminal activity, in particular violent crime which results in death.

The Los Angeles police “south of the 10” haven’t effectively wielded force, and certainly weren’t good at solving crimes. This resulted in a borderline lawless environment in which street gangs could operate freely. Weber’s line should look familiar to any social scientist, but her inclusion of Weber in the text is a good reminder of what “good” states are able to do. This line of reasoning is seen in Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, and Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he by and large seems to lament his support of the Iraq War for the stateless environment it created.

The reason Leovy’s book is so important (and good!) is her reporting on the minutiae of life inside a south Los Angeles homicide precinct, and its subsequent description of life in the streets of L.A. in one of its most dangerous periods. As a L.A. Times reporter, she was able to embed herself among south Los Angeles detectives. This is where we meet John Skaggs, the neat, clean-cut, hard-working detective who drives Leovy’s story forward. We also meet another detective named Wallace “Wally” Tennelle, whose son, Bryant, is the unfortunate victim of an all-too-common gang shooting. Bryant Tennelle had no ties to gangs and was a good guy who worked several jobs, but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Without giving too much away about the case (all of which can be found with an easy Google search now), Skaggs through hard work and determination, but in reality, just very basic detective work, is able to piece together the perpetrators in the Tennelle murder. One such example of this was when a younger detective went through months of receipts at a local hotel to find the one receipt that could destroy the alibi of one of the accused. After several days of what appeared to be hopeless work, the receipt was found, and the accused’s fate was clinched. The task was not intellectually challenging, but it was time-consuming, and it wasn’t the sort of work detectives had been known to do during the worst years of the violence.
Leovy does not want to give the impression, however, that other structural forces weren’t at play in south Los Angeles. She traces the historic nature of black-on-black homicides, and how dating back to the Jim Crow-era, black homicides (no matter the perpetrator) simply weren’t prosecuted by white district attorneys or investigated by white sheriffs. Moreover, in what is one of the most chilling moments of the book, one of the accused alleges Tennelle was shot most likely because he was black. It was assumed that a black man walking in south Los Angeles had to have some gang ties, and Tennelle was a good enough target for a young gangster to test their mettle and earn street cred.

Leovy’s book is an important read in the current climate, especially in trying to sort out what good policing and criminal investigation looks like. In Ghettoside, the best cops and detectives are those that show up, take short lunches, jot down good notes, follow-up on leads, and basically, treat people as humans. The majority of bad cops and detectives are not necessarily brutal, but just indifferent to the situation at hand. Black-on-black homicide is just a fact of life for these folks, and not wanting to be bothered is the main priority for this breed of law enforcement. The tension in understanding modern citizen-police relations – especially in black neighborhoods – Leovy rightly points out toward the beginning of the book. Young black men are excessively subject to police harassment for seeming petty offenses, but when the most violent and heinous offenses occur, that’s when the police are perceived to be most absent. Reconciling this discrepancy will go a long way to improving relations between police and the cities they patrol.

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