A half-decade ago I wrote a long analysis in VDARE of the data in the Los Angeles Times‘ Homicide Report detailing each killing in Los Angeles County over a three year period. Now the reporter, Jill Leovy, behind that invaluable resource has written a true crime book. Here she is interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air:
‘Ghettoside’ Explores Why Murders Are Invisible In Los Angeles
JANUARY 26, 2015 1:14 PM ET
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss., and Eric Garner in Staten Island have sparked debate about whether the police presence in African-American communities is too heavy-handed and often abusive. Our guest today, journalist Jill Leovy, argues that black communities suffer deeply from too little law enforcement, or at least law enforcement of a certain kind. Her new book focuses on the epidemic of unsolved murders in African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the corrosive impact of unpunished crime in those communities.
Leovy’s covered crime for the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade, and as you’ll hear, she doesn’t regard the problem simply as one of poor police work. Part of the problem, she believes, is that these murders are simply invisible to too many of us. In 2007, she started a blog called “The Homicide Report” to document all the murders in Los Angeles County. Leovy spent many years embedded with homicide detectives, and her book is an intimate look at murder investigations and the relationships between police and victims’ relatives, witnesses and suspects. It’s called “Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America.”
Jill Leovy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let’s talk about this blog that you started back, I guess – what? – 2006, 2007, “The Homicide Report.” One of the things that you noticed, then, was that a lot of murders simply were not covered by any media. And you know, a lot of moms whose lives have been shattered by the – you know, the murder of a relative, often a son, often say there was nothing in the paper.
The DEA’s killing of an 18-year-old violist near my house was barely covered in the L.A. Times, but friends of the dead young man and concerned citizens took to the Times’ Homicide Report comments section to publicize the dubiousness of the official story implying that that Ventura Blvd. parking lot was notorious for drug dealing so whaddaya whaddaya … My wife and I ran into the mother at the parking lot a week after the killing and encouraged her to sue. Three years later, a judge awarded the family $3 million.
JILL LEOVY: Well, you can’t cover everything. The newspaper’s job is to cover unusual events, and when it comes to homicide, that always ends up meaning that you’re covering the very low edges of the bell curve. And you’re never the bulge in the middle because that’s implicitly the routine homicides, even though, of course, a homicide is never routine. Those homicides have gone on in the same form, in the same ways, for so long in America, particularly American cities, that they are the wallpaper of urban life. They are taken for granted, and it’s very difficult to make them into a narrative and a story that works for a newspaper.
LEOVY: You know, usually when I get this question, I talk about the statistics, which I think are very important, but honestly, you know, I was frustrated. It’s so hard to tell this story. I could not figure out how to tell it. The newspaper articles I produce always paled to the reality so much. …
A blog is just a stack, an undifferentiated stack of news. You can’t tell the trivial from the weighty. And so it doesn’t work for a lot of things, but it occurred to me that it would work for this, that the form would suit what I was trying to say exactly, which is to give everything equal weight. And so I decided to just list the homicides and to sort of give them as much equivalence as possible as sort of an anti-news story. This is not a new story about the sensational case, about the case getting attention. This is just all of them stacked up in a row so that the reader can peruse them and get an idea of who’s dying.
There are a lot of very bright baseball statistics fans out there, but I’m struck by how few turn their analytical impulses to something besides sports statistics or finance. Granted, sabermetrics is a protected playpen for white males with strong pattern recognition skills to exercise their talents without winding up being demonized on Law & Order. But, still, moneyballers, there’s a world of data out there …
LEOVY: … The way people respond to homicide deaths of loved ones – it’s the worst pain that I’ve seen a human being experience that isn’t physical. It’s astounding what people go through, and it often gets worse as the years go by, instead of better. Doing “The Homicide Report,” I had people who contacted me who had lost their loved ones 20, 30 years before, and would say, you know, I’m just going through my hardest phase now.
You know, I had a mother – in one of the anecdotes that I didn’t include in the book – who, at the funeral, after they cemented the vault in the wall where her son was, she flattened herself against the wet cement, and they – the relatives had to peel her off. She would’ve climbed in there, I think, if she could have.
LEOVY: … And then in very public health terms, it is a plague. The rate of homicide for black Americans has been five to eight times the white rate, going back decades. Year after year after year, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people. I think – I have in my footnotes, 1995, which was after the big crime wave of the early ’90s – 1995 to 2005 – that decade of falling crime – total homicides in the U.S., I think, are 187,000. Well, about 90,000 of those victims were black, mostly black, adult men. And they’re 13 percent of the population. And so that’s astounding – those numbers.
From Leovy’s Homicide Report for 2007 through 2009 for LA County, I calculated the following rates of homicide victimization (not offending) for 15-29 year-old males:
Using the Census Bureau’s estimates of the numbers of 15-29-year-old males in L.A. County in 2006-2008, we can calculate—relative to non-Hispanic whites—the homicide victimization rates among young men:
The offending rates for minorities are probably marginally worse, but no doubt they are similar. So, the black rate in L.A. County in the late last decade wasn’t just five or seven times worse than the white rate, apples for apples in terms of age and sex, it was about twenty times worse. (Los Angeles County isn’t representative of the whole country, it exaggerates patterns seen elsewhere.)
LEOVY: Well, looking at numbers from LAPD from about ’88 through the early 2000s, around 40 percent, if the victims are black men. And I have no reason to think that that’s different with agencies, by the way. I’ve done sort of spot surveys of sheriffs and other agencies. It seems to be pretty consistent across the board. On paper, it’s going to look a little more. When they report it to the federal government, they add in what’s called cleared others.
LEOVY: Yes, and so that gets you maybe up to the high 40s, low 50 percent. But you also have to consider that injury shootings, which are very similar to homicides, have much lower solve rates – in the LAPD, maybe 25 percent if you don’t count cleared other. So if you put that all together, it ends up with better-than-average odds of getting away with it if you injure somebody by shooting them or kill them.
Murder clearance rates differ a lot by city. It might interesting for moneyballers to build a model of the contributory factors, identify the laggards, and focus attention on the overachievers (who either have a lot to teach or are routinely framing people).
DAVIES: So there’s all these families who want justice for their victims, and it doesn’t happen, at least not from the police. What’s the impact on the community of the failure to solve so many of these shootings?
LEOVY: A pervasive atmosphere of fear, rampant intimidation because, I think, the killers are emboldened. I did a story in the early 2000s where a colleague, Doug Smith, and I looked at all the unsolved homicides in LAPD South Bureau over about 15 years. And we came up with the finding that there were 40 or so unsolved homicides per square mile…
LEOVY: …In the South Bureau area of the LAPD. So think about what that means in real terms. It’s one thing if you hear, vaguely, of a homicide that doesn’t involve anyone you know far away from you. It’s another if it happens on your street. And it’s another, still, if you know who did it, and they never get arrested. And by the way, they did it again, and they still didn’t get arrested. And maybe there’s three or four others around you. Imagine what that does to people and what that does to their own assessment of safety and how they’re going to respond.
I spoke to a mother, once, in South Bureau – black woman – her son had just been murdered. I think this was maybe a couple of days after the murder. I had gone to her door. And it was one of these cases where the police just had no witnesses. The case wasn’t going anywhere. The mother told me that since the murder, the killers, who she knew, who were, I think, the gang members who lived on her street, had been knocking on her door and taunting her and laughing at her – her grief. She had another surviving son, and he was, I think, 15, 16. And you could see that he was thinking really, really hard about this situation. And that’s something you see all the time. I go to a lot of funerals, and I always study the pallbearers because they’re generally young men the same age as the victim. And you can just see the smoldering anger and grief in their faces and how they’re trying to hold it down and try not to cry. And then they march out and collect in knots in the parking lot after the funeral, and you could tell what they’re talking about. They’re talking about, what we do now?
DAVIES: You write that when there’s a homicide, you describe situations where there’s a murder scene, and a crowd naturally gathers. And things are said at the police lines that reflect a lot of the community’s attitude towards the police and what they perceive as their attitude toward the crimes and the victims. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
LEOVY: Police hear that all the time. They hear that all the time. You don’t care because he’s black. You’re not going to solve it because he’s black. And it’s very interesting, I – in terms of Ferguson and some of the other recent controversies – I was thinking that this is so complicated because there is, very definitely, a standard black grievance against police that you hear in South LA, that has to do with the generally understood problem – too much consent searches, we say, in LA, too much stop-and-frisk, too heavy of law enforcement, too much presumption of guilt when you take stops.
What I hear, when I’m in these neighborhoods, is a combination. It’s a two-pronged grievance. There’s another half of that. And the other half is, I get stopped too much for nothing, and the police don’t go after the real killers. They don’t go after the really serious criminals in this neighborhood. They’re stopping me for what I’ve got in my pocket, but I know someone who got killed down the street. And they haven’t solved the homicide, and yet, that second half seems to never break out and make it into the national dialogue about it. To me, it has always been that double-sided grievance of too much of the wrong kind of policing, not enough of the policing we actually want in these neighborhoods. …
DAVIES: You know, you write that most of these cases are made not by physical evidence, you know, fibers or that kind of thing, but by witnesses and a phrase that you hear a lot in some of these communities after a homicide is, everybody knows who did it. But it’s the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate that is such a huge barrier. You want to just explore that for a moment and talk about what fears witnesses have and why?
LEOVY: Well, witnesses I think justly fear retaliation. There’s a lot of kind you might call it soft retaliation – signals, hard stares. I had one witness on a case who a couple days after she – the perpetrators clearly saw her at the scene, woke up in the middle of the night, and they’re banging hard on her windows, bunch of guys walking slowly around the house banging, banging on each window for a long time. And they didn’t hurt her, but that’s terrifying. And it’s very clear what that’s saying. What that’s saying is, think about what we will do to you.
So there’s a lot of things that are below the radar of police, a lot of signaling and intimidation that’s going on all the time, and then there are occasional assaults and very, very occasional killings of witnesses.
And I guess going back to what you said at the beginning about everybody knows, to me part of what has kept me on this so many years is it’s so mysterious. It’s such a strange, strange problem. I could not understand it. Why would one group of Americans have a homicide rate that’s seven times that of, you know, counterparts in other groups? It doesn’t even make any sense. But the semi-furtive nature of these killings is one of the clues about what this is. They can’t be completely furtive. They can’t do this in secret because the purpose is to establish powers, to send messages – is to say, we’re in charge of this neighborhood, don’t mess with us, we’re in control. And if you don’t get that message out, then it doesn’t accomplish what the homicide is supposed to accomplish, which is establishing a power hierarchy in the neighborhood. And so you have to boast. You have to put up graffiti that says this gang did it, and that’s something that’s commonplace with these homicides. …
LEOVY: Yes. This is a nuance that doesn’t get talked about enough because there’s I think a general impression that the police are just arbitrarily hammering, for example, drug crimes, possession crimes, probation and parole violations – petty stuff that doesn’t do a lot of harm, and yet there’s a lot of penalties built behind them and so they must be racist. They must be just trying to give people a hard time. What you see on the ground is that there’s a tremendous amount of violence. There’s a tremendous amount of impunity, and it’s, as I say, semi-furtive. It’s well known to everybody in this small enclave who’s doing stuff, who’s boasting about it, who’s dangerous. The police are part of that enclave. They’re part of that community. They hear the street rumors, too. They hear so-and-so’s a shooter and so-and-so’s a rider, and they’re frustrated because they cannot put a case on so-and-so for that assault or that homicide. So they think, well, we can get them on a drug offense. He’s in a gang. He’s selling drugs. If we can just get him on possession with intent to sell, at least that gets him off the street. And so you see certain amount of enforcement that’s shaped by a reaction to the impunity for the serious crimes.
It’s almost – when you make the prosecution of some crimes very difficult and very expensive, as we have with homicide, it almost pushes the bubble. It’s – the cops naturally gravitate towards places where they have more discretion and where it’s easier to do the work and stopping and searching and possession and probation, parole – that is low-hanging fruit. It’s easy, cheap stuff to prosecute. And so they are seeing these victims. They are seeing people who are paralyzed or in comas for the rest of their life, and they can’t make an arrest. But they know that clique from such-and-such gang has been doing this stuff, and everyone knows it. And the graffiti on the wall says it, and they can’t make a case. So if we’re going to focus a drug-enforcement project tonight somewhere, why not focus on them? It’s a compensatory strategy that I think ends up being counterproductive but is also somewhat understandable.