Walled Cities: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part III

Ghettoside is fundamentally a book about segregation. Previous posts (Part I and II) have examined how Jill Leovy builds a case for the vigorous policing and prosecution of violent crime, especially murder, as a critical means to suppress historically high black homicide rates. By the end of the book, perhaps as the reader’s expectation for concrete “solutions” bears down, Leovy shifts gears to discuss more explicitly the costs and ramifications of hyper-segregation—the walled city of the racial ghetto.

(This post will discuss Chapters 18-24 and the epilogue, or what I’m calling Part III.)

The final chapters are less analytically dense than the first two-thirds of the book. Leovy mainly charges, full-tilt, through the suspenseful lead-up to the trial and the trial itself, and then briefly touches upon the aftermath. We learn of the extraordinary efforts that Skaggs takes to protect his key witness, Jessica Midkiff, who drove the SUV that unloaded the teenage boy who shot, wildly, in the direction of Bryant Tennelle, striking him dead. We learn about the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, their preparation for the case and their courtroom styles. In the end, as Leovy notes, the trial and the guilty verdict were anti-climactic. Skaggs, per usual, didn’t even attend the final day, to hear the verdict.

A searing dimension from these chapters, at least for me, was the danger that witnesses faced. Many refused to testify voluntarily; instead, they were subpoenaed, and cops literally had to carry the more recalcitrant ones to the stand. The friends of defendants occasionally stood in the hallway to intimidate witnesses as they entered, or they sat glumly and gave a “hard stare” throughout the testimony. Murder witnesses were filled with terror when told they would have to “snitch.” With few economic prospects, they could not easily escape the geographic confines of South LA. To a large degree, since murder is so intimate, involving perpetrators and victims known to each other, witnesses had to testify against people who lived in the same social universe as they did.

In Chapter 8, “Witnesses and the Shadow System,” Leovy tells us, “The reluctance of witnesses to testify was the primary reason so many murders went unsolved” (74). In 2008,  40 percent of homicide cases, or 108 murders, went unsolved due to uncooperative witnesses. During the first five years that Skaggs worked Southeast homicide, an average of 7 to 12 witnesses were killed in L.A. County per year. State aid to relocate or protect witnesses was paltry; some front-line officers even disapproved of giving state money to poor people. Veteran homicide detectives thought differently, knowing the ordeal faced by witnesses.

The failure to take care of witnesses indicates a larger, systemic failure in the state’s response to black civilian violence. “Relative to the challenge,” Leovy says, “to work ghettoside homicide was to dwell in the weakest outpost of the criminal justice system” (216). Yet, the state did devote carceral resources to black neighborhoods. Except, these resources were about suppression, saturation, preemption.

During a gang war—tipped off when a 13-year-old wannabe gangster is murdered in broad daylight—the LAPD deploys hundreds of police, many of them from gang or tactical units, who sweep through black neighborhoods, “jacking up” young men, even those gathered at the memorial shrine to the slain 13-year-old. The governing rational is to send a message. Like so much preventive patrol, it’s political theater: the police boss this corner, not you.

Leovy draws a nice, important distinction between fast, aggressive, preventive patrol and slow, painstaking, intimate detective work:

Up at headquarters, where crime was all maps, numbers, and abstractions—’policing by the dots,’ one detective said—the enforcement of law was essentially about prejudgment. But down around Eighty-ninth and Broadway, where Nathan Kouri plied his trade, crime was what happened to individuals—real people—who were now his own. Kouri was not, like the LAPD airship, an instrument of law that hovered at such heights that those below were rendered an indistinguishable blur, victims and perpetrators and blending into one mass of ‘at risk’ inner-city blackness….[Kouri’s] job was to anchor the law in the suffering of real human beings, to bring it down from on high and straight into the living rooms of Watts (264).

“Policing by the dots” was invented in the 1960s. Its most vocal proponent was Orlando W. Wilson, the legendary postwar reformer, criminologist, and Chicago’s police superintendent for most of the 1960s. Wilson wrote the “bible” of police administration, first published in 1950, which promoted a cost-cutting corporate model for police operations: top-down hierarchy, clear delegated lines of command, efficient use of resources (motorized patrol over foot patrol), and so on. Wilson helped to innovate random preventive patrol, deterring crime through a sea of blue uniforms and black-and-white squad cars. He gave “crime prevention” a modern look and feel at a key moment in police history, when violent crime started to tick upward.

Wilson also introduced computer-assisted centralized dispatch. He set up a map at headquarters and stuck pins at locations of past crimes. The Chicago PD then distributed officers on the basis of this data. It was a very crude form of Compstat. It also represented everything that is wrong about police, according to Leovy. And since the department focused preventive patrol on “high-crime areas,” Wilson’s brand of policing got its start—and earned its rationale—in the racial ghetto.

Likewise, stop-and-frisk became a top-down, deliberate, official strategy of police in the racial ghetto. Its purpose was to institutionalize, formalize, professionalize an old tactic: to monitor suspicious characters, stop them on the street for questioning, fill out a field interview card, and then store the card at headquarters, creating a database of leads for future unsolved crimes. If you at all follow police developments in 2016, all of the above should sound familiar.

The racial ghetto, ultimately, helps Leovy to explain the high homicide problem of young black men in places like Watts. Conservatives like to point out that not all poor people commit crime and poverty is not a perfect predictor of crime. Leovy (and much empirical evidence) offers some agreement. “Poverty does not necessarily engender homicide,” she writes, comparing a low-homicide, high-poverty, predominantly immigrant neighborhood to Watts (240). So what explains the difference between these two places? Leovy again avoids cultural explanation and offers an institutional, structural one: “homicide flares among people who are trapped and economically interdependent, not among people who are highly mobile” (241).

“Blacks lived in figurative walled cities,” she writes (242). This is key and easily overlooked in public conversations on the “black crime” problem.

Leovy, again:

Segregation concentrated the effects of impunity. This helped explain why relatively modest differences in homicide clearance rates by race produced such disparate outcomes. Indices of residential segregation are strong homicide predictors. Homicide thrives on intimacy, communal interactions, barter, and a shared sense of private rules. The intimacy part was also why homicide was so stubbornly intraracial. You had to be involved with people to want to kill them. You had to share space in a small, isolated world (242; emphasis mine).

This passage showcases the strengths of Leovy as a writer. She’s able to put complex ideas simply, often beautifully. Browsing her footnotes, it is obvious she’s familiar with many of the relevant texts. She’s digested them and is able to restate their arguments cleanly and succinctly, in ways that do not disrupt the narrative flow. It’s harder than it looks.

In the epilogue, Leovy allows herself to consider more overtly political solutions to high homicide. “Cold cash paid out to individuals is a powerful thing,” she says, in noting the violence-reducing effects of Supplementary Security Income benefits. “Money translates to autonomy. Economic autonomy is like legal autonomy. It helps break apart homicidal enclaves by reducing interdependence and lowering the stakes of conflict” (317).

On the following page, she calls prison “a rotten—and expensive—way to combat the problem” of high homicide (318). But short of a robust welfare state arriving in the near future, I imagine her saying, we should insist on vigorous prosecution of killers as the correct response to criminal violence that has swallowed up multiple generations of young black men, and their surrounding communities. Not only is it correct, she might argue—it represents justice too long denied to those who reside in walled cities.

The conclusion is so bitterly unsatisfying, for all the right reasons. So, I’ll leave it there.

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One thought on “Walled Cities: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part III

  1. Pingback: In Defense of Incarceration: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part II | Get-tough

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