I assigned Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside to my first-year writing seminar. We just finished Part I. Ghettoside tells the story of what happens when young men with few legitimate job prospects can shoot and kill with relative impunity because the state is too inept or indifferent to hold the guilty accountable. The book is mesmerizing.
Leovy, an LA Times journalist, has written a stellar book on the problem of under-policing in low-income, segregated black urban neighborhoods. The book is based on years Leovy spent on the homicide beat in Los Angeles. These were lonely years, covering an issue, homicide of and by poor black urbanites, that the media mostly ignores or sensationalizes—either way, steamrolling nuance, eroding empathy, and pathologizing entire communities. As David Simon has churned out a pile of creative work based on his homicide beat reporting during the high-crime years of mid-90s Baltimore, Leovy has to some degree hit upon the same winning formula: policing is local, it is granular, and our analysis should be attuned to local relationships among city hall, cop, and citizen.
But what I like about Leovy’s work in particular is that she brings a certain scholarly rigor to her project. Her book, published by Spiegel and Grau in 2015, has a lengthy “notes” section. Leovy has done some serious academic reading on vigilante violence, criminal justice, and the law in the United States, and elsewhere. She’s a deft writer, and I was more than once envious of her light, able touch on dense scholarly topics.
Yet this scholarly approach is also misleading. At its heart, beneath the moving portraits of grieving parents and dedicated detectives, Ghettoside makes an empirical claim: state neglect of violent crime causes more violent crime. Leovy supports this contention by producing a raft of statistics on low clearance rates of black-on-black homicide and the high rate of homicide for black men. She then “supports” these claims with more anecdotal arguments, drawn from her own close observations of homicide policing and conversations with police and Watts residents, about the violent consequences of weak prosecution of murder.
Ultimately, Leovy argues that when the state fails to prosecute murder, the state cedes its (in theory) monopoly on legitimate violence to rogue citizens who then take the law into their hands and mete out justice on the streets. The homicides she focuses on in LA County are retributive killings by rival gang factions. Thus, she presents a clear-cut case that state-conferred impunity for murder causes more murder.
What is her solution to this real crisis? Dedicated detectives like John Skaggs, her central protagonist, who Leovy describes as a true believer in the idea that the state is obligated to secure justice for the poorest and richest alike. Even more, Skaggs and his ilk argue, the state’s failure to prosecute violent citizens, especially for crimes like murder, breeds more lawlessness and injustice.
How good was Skaggs? He and his partner consistently had a clearance rate of 75 percent. Meaning, for three of four murders that came across their desk, they made an arrest. By contrast, the clearance rate for LA County and most poor urban places rarely rises above 40 percent. After Baltimore’s record-shattering murder surge of 2015, the clearance rate dropped from 45.5 percent to 30.5 percent. Think about that: two in three murders did not even result in an arrest. Think about what that’s like at the granular, neighborhood level: what it means for victim’s families, friends, and the surrounding community to know that the killer is still free (while police shake down every third black man who pauses on a street corner).
But the genius of Skaggs presents a sort of unrecognized problem for Leovy: he’s extremely rare. Leovy ultimately wants to reorient the institutional priorities of urban police departments from preventive patrol (stop-and-frisk) to reactive techniques of solving crimes. This sort of work is slow and expensive and unglamorous. But it is—I agree with Leovy—essential for building safe communities and restoring some measure of trust between police and poor black urbanites. Moreover, the sociologist Albert Reiss found in the 1960s that reactive policing was less abrasive than preventive or proactive practices. This makes total sense: a citizen is less likely to protest police contact if it is invited. Being stopped on the street or ordered to move along is more likely to arouse anger and resentment.
Leovy extends this observation to make a claim about the socio-political effects of securing the dominion of state-administered law. This part of her argument got a lot less attention in the press around the book, which tended to focus on her rightly celebrated intervention drawing attention to under-policing. In a pithy line in a book filled with them, Leovy writes that “catching killers built law” (58, original emphasis). Skaggs and his fellow evangelists had the self-assured conviction and dogged persistence of missionaries. Or, as Leovy writes, “Cops and prosecutors felt like door-to-door salesmen, trying to peddle a legal system no one wanted anything to do with” (82).
At times, this line of thinking leads Leovy to compare early-aughts South LA to medieval Europe. She never quite declares Watts “uncivilized,” but amazingly she comes close. Rather, she demonstrates a brazen analytical freedom—which journalists seem uniquely qualified and unburdened to attempt—to understand the particular institutional and interpersonal preconditions for an otherworldly homicide rate among young black men. Taking racist pathology off the table, Leovy dives headlong into the typically racist waters of “black-on-black crime” and comes out with a neo-institutionalist answer: the state, as residents and police realize, has failed in its most basic responsibility to stop violent resolution to interpersonal and clannish disputes.
Notably, little is said of drug and labor markets. Leovy barely mentions the drug war or the shockingly high unemployment rate among young black men without a high school degree as contributors to the violence. I suppose she takes these for granted. But in a book published after Occupy and during Black Lives Matter, I found their absence glaring. Instead, she, like Simon, is true to form: policing is local and so our solutions to policing-related crises must begin there. But how do you produce Skaggs and scale them up? His skills, as she notes, are not taught in the academy. Rather, he and other good detectives inherited an “oral tradition” (93). Will improving clearance rates suppress the killings in the absence of finding meaningful work for would-be killers and victims and ending the drug war? Because Leovy is a journalist, she can ignore these questions and focus on what she is truly great at: interweaving a structural, personal story about the preconditions for premature, violent death.
Stay tuned for my write-up on Part II.