Article published on March 6, 2015.
The policing of black neighborhoods has been a hot-button issue in US politics and public life for decades but particularly since the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer. The disputed circumstances of the shooting and the resultant protests and civil unrest sparked a vigorous debate about law enforcement’s relationship with African-Americans in general. The overwhelming conclusion among protesters and liberal commentators was, of course, that the real problem is heavy-handed policing which may in part be true but is not the whole story
Another problem – and arguably a more threatening one for African Americans – is identified in Ghettoside, a wonderful piece of reporting by Jill Leovy who has been a crime reporter for the LA Times for twenty years. In 2007 she masterminded and wrote the groundbreaking Homicide Report for the LA Times that documented every one of the 845 murders that took place in LA county that year. In 2013, she points out, “Blacks, just 8% of the county’s residents … accounted for 32% of all homicides … blacks were killed at more than seven times the rate of all other racial and ethnic groups combined.” Why should this be so?
Based on a decade embedded with the homicide units of the LAPD, this gripping, immersive work of reportage takes the reader onto the streets and into the lives of a community wracked by a homicide epidemic. The book provides urgent insights into the origins of such violence and shows that the only way to fight the epidemic successfully is with justice. It is no part of Leovy’s purpose to suggest that African Americans are naturally predisposed to violence or crime but her essential point concerns what happens when law enforcement ceases to enforce and lawlessness floods in to fill the vacuum. The crisis does not stem from over-policing and mass incarceration, she argues. Instead, these are symptoms of a deeper problem which she refers to as “too little application of the law.” “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” Leovy writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”
Ghettoside is a book with few heroes but foremost among them is a cadre of hard-bitten cops dedicated to vigorous response and ending the epidemic. Post-Ferguson, this is the book you have to read to understand the issue of policing black neighbourhoods in the US.
Jill Leovy (c) Jill Connelly
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