Jill Leovy's "Ghettoside" Examines Why Murders of Black Men Often Go Unpunished

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About 40 percent of murder victims in the United States are black men, though African-American males are only 6 percent of the U.S. population. In her book, "Ghettoside," Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy asserts that police are not adequately investigating those cases, leaving the majority of murders in Los Angeles with black victims unsolved. In her book, Leovy follows a series of these unsolved murders and shows how black communities suffer from rampant crime that goes largely unpunished.

Interview Highlights

On Making Violence Against Adult Black Males a Priority

"Youth violence got a lot of money in the 90s and early 2000s because people responded to it being defined as "youth violence" but that tends to push the mone too young. I would say 18 to 35 year old black males are our highest propensity murder victims and to me should be the center of everything we do when we talk about violence because the numbers put them there - they die the most."

On Assumptions About Causes

"One of the gripping early facts I came across was the idea that this does not start with gangs in the 70s or 80s, it does not start with crack cocaine. You do see the numbers moving up and down through the years, but the disparity between white and black rates goes all the way back to the early part of the 20th century, all the way back to the South. In L.A. in the 40s, you see the same disparity between white and black rates that you would see later on. And that for me really stopped me in my tracks in terms of looking for first causes."


Jill Leovy, reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the author of "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America"


On the Prevalence of Guns

"I've almost never dealt with a homicide in south Los Angeles that involved a legal gun. When that does happen the homicide detectives are really surprised. ... This is universe of illegal guns. ... The other thing I would say is that in American history, you see similar homicide rates to contemporary cities in the 40s, in the 30s, in environments where most of the killings were stabbings and the same homicide rate was achieved with stabbing weapons as opposed to guns. To me, that suggests that really the driver is the level of conflict and the way conflicts being resolved whether they're being adjudicated by the courts or whether they're being resolved through self-help."

On Communities Not Talking to the Cops

"Between investigation and stop-and-searches, and throwing the net wide, and doing sweeps, you -- in the contemporary way of doing policing -- you tend to direct suspicion against a wide swath of people, very few of whom are actually the killers and so the risk there -- and I think there are reasonable arguments for doing policing that way sometimes -- but the risks there are of alientating people. It's scary, it's harrassing, it's humiliating, to be stopped by the cops. Those encounters can be very negative encounters. And so somebody who has only experienced the cops that way is already worried about reprisal, already cyncical because they know of so many unsolved homicides in their neighborhood, and doesn't really have good reasons to trust this time and to come forward and talk to the cops."

On the Impact of Law

"If you're interested in the role of law, this is a history that just screams to that point. Because think about the South, think about Jim Crowe, think about the idea of illegitimate states and states that don't adequately broker factional power. The South is a test case for this for years and years and there's really nothing that's happening post-migration that would change it. You would need really good, 80-90 percent clearance rates year after year after year and a very vigorous response of the state to counter all that and it doesn't really happen."

On Solutions

"Police departments can't invent new mandates for themselves. They are already a conglomeration of all the mandates we've put on them. Some of the things I'm talking about are really a paradigm shift and I think it's on the public to start thinking this way -- to start from the ground up and really talking about what is it that produces high homicide rates. Get away from some of the very simple answers that we've dismissed. Because they don't work. You know poverty is not an explainer for homicide necessarily, otherwise you would not see the great difference between Latino homicides and Black homicides in L.A.

There's all kind of other things that don't correlate well with homicide -- the rate of single motherhood among white Americans has skyrocketed over the last few decades and you don't see any corresponding increase in homicide rates among whites. And we need to have, first of all, a more serious and more scholarly and more curious conversation about the phenonmenon itself and then we need to talk about something we don't talk about much. We talk a lot about what we don't want police to do, what people think is bad policing -- we don't talk about good policing. We don't talk about what is this function, what is this craft, what is it for, how can we support what's best in it and make it better?"

On Community Policing


"I don't think that there's such a thing as a block. I don't think there's a community. I think when you talk about a neighborhood like Watts, it's actually full of divisions, it's very fractious, maybe even more fractious than a place that wasn't so poor and isolated would be. Because imagine, if your very survival depended on your working together with your neighbors down the block, you've got some hustle going, and that's how you're going to eat next week, it's not just 'We're gonna decide whether to tear down the fence between our yards,' which can be a difficult enough discussion, but 'We're going to rely on each other in a dependent way.' The result of thatis inevitably fierce conflicts between people."