The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What you think about dangerous inner-city neighborhoods is wrong

David M. Kennedy is a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the director of the National Network for Safe Communities. His most recent book is “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.”


A True Story of Murder in America

By Jill Leovy

Spiegel & Grau. 366 pp. $28

Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy has spent more than a decade in her city's most dangerous neighborhoods, with killers who are more scared and embarrassed than they are brutal; mothers who do everything they can but still lose their kids to the streets anyway; neighborhoods wracked by violence, where nearly everybody is a good person trying to do right; dead and wounded who are no more drug dealers and gang members than they are saints; adolescent hookers with more courage than most cops; cops who see their responsibility to protect the neighborhood as a holy mission. She brings them all to life with grace and artistry, and controlled — but bone-deep — outrage in her new book, "Ghettoside."

"Ghettoside," if there's any justice, will be the most important book about urban violence in a generation. And in one of those rare moments of utter kismet, it has appeared just when we need it most. In the world of after-Ferguson (and after Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the rest), as we debate the harm done by police — which is real and must be corrected — Leovy focuses on the harms that come from those things undone by police. She has visited, and she speaks for, the dead, their survivors, their neighborhoods and the cops who deal — and more important, don't deal — with them all.

She breaks down the lives of people living in the nation’s most violent neighborhoods, which are beset by two terrible burdens.

One is the pure fact and weight of the violence. Black men are about 6 percent of the nation’s population and more than 40 percent of its homicide dead. They are concentrated in the poor neighborhoods that are the book’s focus. In those places, at a moment when the national homicide rate has fallen to about four killings per 100,000 people every year, young black men are murdered at upwards of 500 for every 100,000; add in nonfatal gunshots, and it’s closer to 3,000 for every 100,000: about one in 30 shot every year.

Leovy has organized “Ghettoside” around one central narrative: the investigation of the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the young black son of a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. But she limns story after story, pages upon pages of the dead, son and family upon son and family. In these neighborhoods, everybody knows someone who has been killed, usually many. Loving street shrines dot the corners. Everybody is scared — if not for themselves than for their loved ones. In the crack years, LAPD homicide detectives called the worst wave of killings “the Monster.” In one of Leovy’s many stories, La’Mere Cook was shot down in front of his house as his mother watched. He was identified to the police by a neighbor, whose own son had been murdered five years earlier. Cook’s killing was witnessed by a young man who refused to talk to the police; he’d been shot in the throat not long before and survived. Cook’s mother worked with the police but didn’t expect — or get — much. Her husband had been killed years before in New Orleans, and that hadn’t been solved, either.

This is normal in these neighborhoods.

Many at least sort of understand this; it is no secret that America has a problem with black-on-black violence. But what Leovy understands is why. She shows us that the normal easy cant about drugs and broken homes and heartless young men won’t wash. What, then?

Leovy understands that the second terrible burden is that we — and especially the police — have grievously failed to make the community safe. We are not protecting the young men and their families. The violence has raged for generations, and we have not stopped it. The cases get short shrift — in L.A., homicide detectives couldn’t get notebooks or computers at the same time that administrative staffers at headquarters got take-home cars. Black victims too often are diminished or worse; Leovy reports something I first saw nearly 30 years ago — LAPD officers writing “NHI” on homicide incident reports: No Humans Involved. Terrified witnesses stop cooperating, and investigators, carrying huge caseloads, give up. Prosecutors eyeing their conviction rates turn away from cases in which all of those testifying have records and credibility problems.

Leovy writes eloquently of how policing in black neighborhoods today takes place in the shadow of our shameful racist history. A low-level misdemeanor arrest may be motivated by zero-tolerance ideas about crime control instead of the frank racism of the South after emancipation, when police and prosecutors deliberately criminalized whole communities to drive black men into the for-profit prison-labor system. But the result is too similar, profound and odious. The police and the law are not seen as there to help. Low-level offenses get a lot of attention; violence doesn’t. Angry communities withdraw, don’t report, don’t testify. Homicides don’t get solved; prosecutions for black-on-black killings in many such neighborhoods are in the low double digits. Police laugh when asked about clearance rates for nonfatal shootings. Victims, their families and their friends get guns and take care of things themselves.

One of the best parts of “Ghettoside” is a wonderfully apprehensible crash course in legal anthropology. This is not about America or Los Angeles or black neighborhoods, Leovy shows. It’s about law. Law is there to provide help to those who most need it; to remove from them the obligation and burden of self-protection; to say — and to mean — that when you and yours are threatened or hurt, the state will step in and protect you. Where the state does that, its machinery takes over after your son has been killed. Where it does not — whether that’s in Watts or in vendetta Sicily — you and his friends have to step up. And that way, we know, lies madness. The first gang member I ever interviewed told me 20 years ago in Boston that young men were killing each other “because they don’t believe in the law. The law don’t work, never will, in my neighborhood.” He didn’t make it to the end of the year.

"Ghettoside" should change our understanding of and the debate about what's going on in our most troubled neighborhoods. They are not hopeless places filled with incurable problems. They are dealing as best they can with horrific conditions not of their making and mainly not under their control. The book should bring some much-needed balance to the current debate about what post-Ferguson policing should look like. It should show why making policing more effective — while, yes, doing far less collateral damage — is an absolute necessity for helping those neighborhoods find safety and justice. When, to take one extreme, the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition in Madison, Wis., calls for the police to withdraw from the community and says that the method of interaction they want with the police is "no interaction," we should see both why that is understandable and why it is deeply, deeply wrong. We have in fact gone too far in that direction already, and black neighborhoods all over the country are paying the price.

"When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way," Leovy tells us. "That's what the criminal justice system is for." She is exactly right, and she has done an enormous public service in making what should be obvious, and has not been, obvious once again.