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A member of the 18th Street Gang being arrested in Los Angeles in September 1994.

“Ghettoside” Author Jill Leovy on What We Have Learned Since Rodney King

Not nearly enough, she says

Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of last year’s reporting tour de force, “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” for which she embedded with detectives investigating murders in the more violent precincts of Los Angeles. The following correspondence with The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book covers the scourge of black homicides in South Los Angeles, and by extension many other urban communities across the country. To oversimplify a bit, "Ghettoside" points out that, while much attention has been focused on recent cases of police excesses, African-Americans also are victims of police indifference -- and, by the way, media indifference -- in the face of an epidemic of black homicides. The alienation in many black communities is as much a result of under-policing as over-policing.

I think of homicide, not as a social or cultural problem, but as a material one – an absence of effective law. We can’t see law. We can’t touch it. And yet, when it works, it swaths us from birth to death in safety like a bulletproof shield. Just as widespread vaccination comes of well-developed public-health bureaucracies, freedom from personal violence comes of fully-realized state legitimacy, manifest in a functioning legal system.

The safe take safety for granted. They assume that they are safe because safety is a state of nature, and that violence is an aberration. They fail to realize that, historically, it’s the safe people who are the strange ones. The wealthy suburbs of, say, the San Fernando Valley, where “The Brady Bunch” was filmed, are relatively crime-free, not because they are normally functioning “communities” -- another loaded and unexamined term -- but because their inhabitants are the inheritors of centuries-long legal, bureaucratic and political processes that have manufactured high levels of personal safety. They don’t have to negotiate with killers. Their neighbors don’t coerce them. Their living rooms are not firebombed if they break ranks with the community. They are the beneficiaries of institutional progress that has shifted the burden of conflict resolution from individuals, families, clans or sects to a highly developed criminal justice system, rooted in democratic processes, controlled by an independent judiciary, and governed by the rule of law. They don’t know how lucky they are.

Not seeing this, both the political right and left treat violence as exceptional, and thus, as pathological and anti-social in origin. It follows that the problem of urban violence must proceed from some kind of exotic misfire – some psychological, social or cultural wrong turn. the phrase “senseless violence,” that chestnut of police press conferences, reflects this mistaken framework for understanding homicide. Mostly, violence among black men in places like Watts and Compton is anything but senseless. It is, in fact, extremely useful -- “instrumental,” as the academics would say – and insofar as it produces results and can be used with impunity, it represents a crushingly decisive application of sense. Those who wield it stand to gain. Nor is violence anti-social. Far from it. Many urban homicides are inherently social acts, arising from close social contact, interdependence and communal ties. Violence is a means of regulating social relations -- specifically, conflicts – and it’s terrifically effective. This is why homicides stem most often from arguments. When there is no other means available to regulate conflict – to put an argument to bed, as it were, once and for all -- that’s when the chance of a violent resolution soars.

An LAPD officer responds to a domestic violence call in Los Angeles in September 1994.

An LAPD officer responds to a domestic violence call in Los Angeles in September 1994.

I don’t think this notion of violence is especially original. Many historians and international scholars conceptualize violence as a consequence of legal development, or the lack of it. I’m reading a terrific nineteenth-century history book, “Eternity Street,” by the historian John Mack Faragher, about bandits, brigands and lynching in frontier Los Angeles. “Most violent crime went unpunished,” he writes. “In the absence of formal justice, lethal violence runs rampant and outlaw justice prevails.” Well, yes. Somehow, the importance of a functioning formal justice system is taken as self-evident when talking of the American frontier or of various failed states around the world. But when it comes to contemporary black inner cities, with their very similar patterns of violence, the notion flies out the window.

So before we talk of addressing legitimacy, we have to be clear about the problem we are trying to fix. The real problem is that formal justice is materially lacking among populations that suffer high rates of violence. It’s missing, and it must be supplied.

That means no amount of warm and fuzzy talk will fill the bill. More than half of killers of black men go free in cities all over the country. The unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County posted solve rates for homicide in the thirty-percent range through some of the most violent periods of the eighties and nineties. This translates to thousands of killers operating with impunity over decades in America’s poorest urban enclaves – dozens per square mile in South Los Angeles over just a few years. And that’s just a glimpse of the uncharted depths of the impunity problem, a statistical dark zone, where no good information exists on the frequency of non-lethal crimes, assaults and threats. The resulting lawlessness is a cruel form of deprivation afflicting tens of thousands of mostly poor, minority residents of America’s inner-cities, who get roughed up, robbed and raped with appalling frequency and live in daily fear that their sons might be killed. Its remedy must be to supply official justice, not just engage in “dialogue.” Violence is not a problem for coaches and pastors to solve; the state must do its job.

You're a reporter, not a prescriber, but did you emerge from this work with any sense of how to go about repairing trust between police and minority neighborhoods?

What is so strange and interesting is that the political back and forth over policing has been so consistent, for so long, with the same durable themes and complaints sounded on both sides, not just since Rodney King and the millions of dollars spent on police reforms after the L.A. riots, but since long before, back to the 1960s, even the thirties and forties. Much has changed and yet nothing has. We are chasing each other around a box.

Self-styled progressives, especially, often talk as if legitimacy-building were merely a matter of creating “improved relations” between police officers and minority residents of urban neighborhoods. If police were just nicer, more sensitive, had a better understanding of civilians, or vice versa, things would improve. This is as hollow, in its way, as conservative talk of self-generated cultural and moral renewal in black neighborhoods. Legitimacy will not be built solely of community meetings, youth programs, skillful official propaganda, or artful expressions of empathy. They may have value, but as a cure for lawlessness I think they miss the core point, and in some cases risk deputizing civilians to assume conflict-resolution functions that rightly belong to the state. The state’s job is to intervene in conflicts – yes, even between people of the same color – and it must do so unequivocally and consistently.

So, police need to annoy and alienate fewer non-offenders, and arrest more serious, violent offenders. Pull back from broken-windows-style saturation, targeting patches of geography, and stop-and-search tactics, and concentrate on ensuring judicial resolution of serious crimes. Broken windows sprang from the premise that police were too focused on violence at the expense of quality-of-life crimes. But the premise is based on error. American criminal justice has never been very effective at investigating and prosecuting violence, especially in black communities; the reported statistics that claim otherwise are flawed. Violent crime in America today, as in generations past, begs for more systematically thorough and effective investigation, and clean, vigorous prosecution. A mother who grieves for a son lost to an unsolved homicide should not go years without hearing from police about new investigative efforts. A witness who testifies in spite of threats should not be abandoned to deal alone with the long-term consequences. Homicide units in high-crime areas should be solving nearly all murders, not half or less. The system will build legitimacy through its constitutionally constrained yet vigorous, response to people who are hurt, violated and bereaved by violence. The criminal justice system must deliver.

I’m not arguing for a hammer. Tensions between police power and civil liberties are real and involve high stakes; their resolution need not tilt toward law-enforcement. But those who claim the mantle of civil rights should not forget that crime victims -- not just defendants -- are disproportionately black, and that they suffer unspeakably. My newspaper just reported the killing of a one-year-old baby, Autumn Johnson, in Compton. The mother of this black child said: "I feel like my life is over. I wish it would have been me instead of her.” I don’t assert black crime victims are the only constituency that matters. But they deserve more somber, respectful consideration than they get, and they belong at the center of any serious discussion of police reform. Very often, these victims want and need their attackers to be caught and prosecuted. Omit their names, elide over their sufferings, relegate them to footnotes -- as is the case in so many popular criminal-justice critiques today -- and you lose the claim to humane advocacy.

There’s a long list of potential remedies detailed in “Ghettoside” – better witness protection, better detective-training and selection, improved coordination between police functions to solve crimes, etc. Better minds than mine have recommended more radical steps. But I think the first task is getting oriented about what the problem is – getting our heads straight about how essential formal criminal justice is to basic well-being. People need law, that’s why we have it.

Some defenders of the police​ use the alarming numbers of what they call “black-on-black” violence as a rebuke to the media and the Black Lives Matter movement, as if to say "​Why are you paying ​so much attention ​to ​Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Walter Scott ​when this other problem looms so much larger.​"​

How do you feel about that argument?

Both sides are talking past the issue, for different reasons. There exists an inarguably anomalous homicide problem among black Americans, and it is both poorly understood, and a source of truly immense human suffering. We are in desperate need of serious, detached and in-depth research aimed at understanding homicide dynamics among black Americans, and conducted with an eye to improving people’s safety, especially black men’s safety, since they are statistically the most vulnerable of all Americans. Neither talk of blame on the one hand, nor defensive minimizing, would seem to have much relevance to this task. We face extremely difficult questions of why outsized American homicide rates have endured for so long, why black Americans suffer with such devastating frequency and how we can reduce this mortality. Homicides by police are a small but significant share of overall homicides; anyone serious about the topic of homicides considers them both, especially since police homicides tend somewhat to mirror trends in overall violence.

It is as if both forms of homicide were measures of the same unseen aggregate levels of conflict and diffusion of violence to individuals. I think it's significant, for example, that police homicides, killings of police officers, and overall murder rates have all tended historically to be highest in the South, which reinforces some of the assertions I make in “Ghettoside” about the links between personal violence, state legitimacy and the long after-effects of civil war and insurgency. But there remain many questions, particularly in the area of historic trends and attendant conditions. We know that both killing of suspects by police, and killings of police officers by suspects, are far below the levels of previous eras. I would like to know much more about these changes, how they happened, when, where, as a result of what, and what related circumstances altered with them. I would also like to see more comparative studies of policing and homicide internationally.

Los Angeles Police Department officers question people if they witnessed a shooting in September 1994.

Los Angeles Police Department officers question people if they witnessed a shooting in September 1994.

Obviously, I don't think black Americans generally ignore black-on-black homicide. That has not been my experience. Especially those living in high-crime neighborhoods do talk about the problem of homicide, all the time. In fact, they agonize over it – it’s just that no one is listening to them. One of the most poignant events I have ever attended was a march through South Los Angeles organized by employees of local mortuaries -- embalmers, funeral directors, all of them black -- who were tired of burying so many young homicide victims. And there certainly should be no rebuking of ordinary black residents of urban neighborhoods on the grounds of their high homicide rate. It is not their fault. They can’t do anything about it and shouldn’t be expected to. Homicide is not a collective moral failing -- or if it is, it's a collective moral failing of human beings universally, since it flares across cultures and throughout history. With us since Cain and Abel. Nor do I think the usual social explanations hold up especially well, for all that they are parroted as gospel. As for more heavy-handed policing being the cure, well, see above. Smarter policing, yes, but figuring how to do that is a devilishly difficult task, and we are nowhere near there yet.

At the same time, I understand why many police officers perceive a double standard in those who claim to speak for the poor, yet in many cases appear unwilling to acknowledge the almost daily ravaging of poor neighborhoods by shootings, stabbings and beatings. Cops feel moral outrage, too. They are not racist for feeling so – they are human. A detective I know got a Christmas card every year, sent from a man whose brother, an older black man, was the victim in one of his homicide cases. The killing of had gotten no press at all, and the detective failed to solve the case. The man sent him a card every year anyway, the tone forgiving and kind -- but also saturated with unceasing pain. I happened to be present one day when the card arrived. Guilt and sadness engulfed the detective’s face; he slumped. For those exposed daily to urban homicide, the emotions are visceral. The maimed and bloody bodies and unrestrained weeping are real, and those who haven’t experienced this world first-hand can't know what it’s like. The hardest part to handle for any frontline worker is the public indifference. That is the part that can make you crazy -- much harder to handle than the sight of blood. Victims get no press coverage, no protests. I beg to differ with those who assert otherwise – I have been to the scene of hundreds of homicides, and closely tracked their aftermath over many years, and the lack of press coverage and public outrage is conspicuous. It feels like no one cares. And on some days, coming home and flipping on the TV news can feel like rank mockery. I understand why cops are resentful. I’ve been there. It is not to be dismissed.

There is also a lot of just plain muddy thinking and silly assertions far too casually thrown about for an issue of such crushing weight. The blind faith of police and their supporters in the broken windows dogma is puzzling. On the other side, you see breathtaking distortions resulting from dubious math. Yes, blacks are the victims of police shootings at a rate far out of proportion to the percentage of blacks in the population. But black neighborhoods are far more densely policed than white ones, as they should be, because they have more crime. Higher deployment in black neighborhoods is one of the important reasons why police on average, have disproportionate contact, and hence force incidents, with black people. Similarly, to suggest a police officer with a gun pointed at him or her should expend seconds thoughtfully weighing how to respond in a non-lethal manner is silly.

One thing I know for sure is that we don't possess deep understanding of our problems with policing, legitimacy and violence. These are mysterious and multifaceted problems -- very, very challenging. What bothers me most, on both sides, is those who behave as if we have all the answers. We don't.