Why do so many murders of young black men in the US go unsolved?

Author Jill Leovy tells Tim Walker about the difference between policing and actually catching killers

Jill Leovy
Monday 09 March 2015 20:27 GMT
Bryant Tennelle
Bryant Tennelle

Last year, protests erupted across the US following the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: two black men, both killed by police officers. Those fatal incidents, it was said, epitomised the over-policing of African-American communities.

But in her timely new book, Ghettoside, Jill Leovy of the Los Angeles Times tackles another troubling aspect of the relationship between them: many in those same communities also believe they are under-policed, with too many uniformed cops and not enough plain clothes detectives. Young black men are frequently stopped and frisked; but when they are killed, the murders often go unsolved.

African-American men comprise just 6 per cent of the US population, but almost 40 per cent of its murder victims. In LA, their deaths are so commonplace that, if mentioned by the media at all, they tend to be dismissed as "gang-related". It suggests some lives are worth less than others.

When Leovy began reporting crime in 2001, fewer than half of such murder cases were solved. Her work soon convinced her that all the stereotypes of the South LA "ghetto" were wrong. "There's a theory that, for some reason, these people think in ways the rest of us don't," she says. "But how would you feel if your brother was killed and you got pulled over for nothing every three days...? And next time your life was threatened, how much more inclined would you be to just stick up for yourself?"

Ghettoside is a gripping, bestselling true-crime narrative, interwoven with engaging theory and infused with quiet outrage. (Martin Amis, no less, has called it "exceptional".) It revolves around one heartbreaking murder that was solved, and the homicide detective who solved it. Bryant Tennelle was the 18-year-old son of a respected police officer who, unlike many of his suburb-dwelling colleagues, still lived in the heart of South LA. In spring 2007, Bryant was shot dead in the street close to his home. The case naturally had a particular, poignant significance for the LAPD, and eventually it fell to John Skaggs, a seasoned detective whose success rate in solving homicides hovered over 80 per cent.

In some respects, Skaggs resembles fiction's maverick cops: driven, gifted, admired more than liked by his peers. But unlike Rebus, say, he is a happily married father who approaches his career not as a calling, but as a job to be done well. "He wouldn't work as a character in a novel," Leovy says. "He's so unreflective."

In spite of his ego and a deep competitive streak, Skaggs also appeared unaware that he was to be her protagonist. "I interviewed Skaggs I don't know how many times," the journalist says. "Many, many hours. And maybe a year and a half into it, he said, halfway through another three-hour interview, 'So what's this for, anyway? What's the book about?'"

The book is about the importance of catching killers, instead of simply trying to deter them. Television dramas depict murder investigation as the most prestigious of policing disciplines, but in reality, detectives are often under-resourced and under-appreciated by their departments. That allows killers to get away with their crimes while society looks the other way.

"There's a tremendous amount of public pressure to have "police presence" – that is the rhetoric that has guided all policing in LA," Leovy explains. "Nobody demands more highly skilled homicide detectives, though. They just say, 'more uniforms'.

"But law is not based on everybody being watched all the time, which is costly, intrusive and impractical. It is based on implicit understandings, and if you want to create those understandings, then outcomes are really important. A successful homicide investigation sends a powerful and effective message."

A year or two after Leovy was put on the police beat, she asked the LAPD's South Bureau if she could be "embedded" at its 77th Street Division, where she found a desk in the detectives' squad room. And while the relationship between her newspaper and the LAPD is traditionally fractious, Leovy says the city's cops and hacks have much in common.

"My office mates at the 77th and the Times would say terrible things about each other, and I would tell them, 'You guys are just alike...' The police found it very disappointing when I didn't live up to my reputation as a hostile reporter. I was out on a ride along late one night and we were hungry, so we stopped at a convenience store and I bought a hot dog. The detective I was with had really hoped I would order granola."

In 2006, Leovy launched a blog on the Times's website called The Homicide Report, which addressed the old biases of crime journalism by reporting every murder in Los Angeles County in identical fashion, with a comprehensive yet unadorned blog post. The statistics became human stories, which then grew into Ghettoside. And although Leovy has not heard any official response from the LAPD, she has her hunches. "I found myself very often in South Bureau surrounded by police who shared my outrage and had haunted looks on their faces, and for whom the most traumatic thing was the indifference of the outside world."

In recent years, homicide rates across the US have dropped dramatically. In 2011, there were 297 murders in LA; last year there were 259. Yet, even as fewer people are murdered overall, black men remain grossly, disproportionately at risk. "Very consistently, thousands and thousands of people [are] dying," says Leovy. "If you are not talking about adult black men when you talk about homicide, you are not serious about homicide."

Jill Leovy will appear at 'The Spoken Word' event at Kings Place, London N1, on 16 March at 7pm; kingsplace.co.uk. 'Ghettoside' (Bodley Head, £16.99) is out now

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