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There’s a good chance that you believe you understand the roots of urban violence, the gang-based warfare that bloodies the streets of American cities.
If you lean to the left, you might blame poverty and warn of an oppressive police state. Conservative? You may think the answer to the problem lies in stricter policing, more guns in homes and a culture of personal responsibility. Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy, author of the stunning new bestseller “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” thinks you’re missing the bigger picture.
After years of reporting from violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles, she’s come to a surprising conclusion: Inner-city neighborhoods, especially the black ones, are riven by crime because cops focus on the wrong things. While they try to prevent crimes and respond to them when they happen, they fail at solving homicides and assaults. How bad is it? “From 1994-2006, a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles,” Leovy writes.
This means those who kill and beat up others go free, creating a gap in authority that neighborhoods fill on their own. “History shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order,” she writes. “It pops up in places where traditional authority has broken down: on the edges of society, in places where minorities are isolated and form their own enclaves.”
San Diego doesn’t face the same issues as Los Angeles. Blacks here aren’t as isolated: Many live in the neighborhoods of southeastern San Diego amid Latinos, whites and Asian-Americans. And murders are fairly rare in the city of San Diego: Reflecting a nationwide decline in crime, 32 were reported in 2014, compared with the deadly years of the 1980s and 1990s when the annual murders in the city regularly topped 100 and even reached 167.
But murder here still disproportionately affects blacks. Countywide, statistics show that blacks made up 21 percent of homicide victims in 2014 despite making up only 5 percent of the population. Blacks are much more likely than people of other races to die in gang killings and be the victims of violent crime.
In addition, assaults often go unpunished here just as in Los Angeles. Leovy says law enforcement in L.A. doesn’t devote enough resources to solving these cases, which can leave people seriously injured and disabled for life.
In an interview with VOSD, Leovy talks about the violence gap between Latino and black neighborhoods, the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow in Southern California and some fairly simple solutions that we can turn to in the future, especially if the toll of gang violence begins to rise once again.
About 10 years ago, you became part of an extraordinary effort by the L.A. Times to chronicle every homicide in the city. What struck you the most as you began studying urban violence?
I thought the numbers were very strange. We have a homicide problem among urban Latinos, but it’s just starkly less intense that the homicide problem that we see among urban blacks. This stands out more in California because of the makeup of the population.
In the conventional way this has been talked about over the years, all these things — gang violence, urban violence, drug violence — apply equally blacks and Latinos in urban areas in California. But what you see in Los Angeles is that blacks have 2-4 times the homicide rate as Latinos.
If you define the problem as gang violence, that doesn’t make any sense, especially since there are as many if not more Latino gangs. It started the thinking process.
You connect the higher levels of violence in black communities to a history of injustice for black murder victims going back to the Jim Crow era. When authority isn’t reliable, you write, men “fixate on honor and respect — a result of lawlessness, not a cause.” How is Jim Crow injustice relevant now?
A ragged, shabby and poorly funded criminal justice system in the South was part of a system that maintained the color line. The law enforcement system was generally weak and fragmented and not particularly good at investigating and prosecuting personal crimes of violence.
You might think that’s a long time ago, but it isn’t actually so long in terms of Southern California, where our black migration came later than in other parts of the country. We’ve had huge numbers of people coming from the South in the 1960s, 1970s and even today. I meet many people who were born in Louisiana or East Texas before the Civil Rights Act.
This makes blacks different. The history is very distinct.
In the South, black communities created their own kind of law. What happens in communities like the South and South Central L.A. where law enforcement doesn’t do a good job of solving cases of homicide and assault and getting killers off the streets?
They settle scores and take the law into their own hands. It’s what people do naturally when legal systems are not functioning. To me, it says homicide is the norm unless you have a system to interrupt it.
Just think about it. Let’s say you’re in a sixth-grade classroom with a few bullies. The teacher says you can do whatever you want, and nobody gets trouble, then locks you in there for a year. Think about what happens. You get all the dynamics of a high-crime environment.
But we hear a lot about how cops are too aggressive and violate people’s rights. How does that fit in to the picture you paint of a inner-city society abandoned by law enforcement and left to its own devices?
Quantity is not the same as quality, and control is not the same as protection. If you hammer the little stuff but fall short on the big stuff, it creates distortions.
If that teacher returns from time to time and doesn’t do anything to rein in the bullies who are hurting people, and just raps the knuckles of the kids who are chewing gum, it will have no effect. And it probably poisons the attitudes toward authority even more. When there’s a perception that there’s inordinate punishment for minor crimes, it’s a recipe for cynicism and creates the conditions for self-policing.
Your book chronicles the LAPD’s neglect of solving homicides and assaults in the South Central neighborhood: Detectives had few resources and got little respect from their colleagues. They couldn’t solve cases, and people who hurt each other got away.
You call for more attention to solving these cases. How does your position fit into the usual liberal and conservative divide?
There’s romanticism on the left about community and communalism, and there’s romanticism on the right on the power of individual self-improvement. On both sides you see a rejection of the centrality of the criminal justice system. Neither one thinks that the police and the courts are the answer.
Some of that is just the American character. We don’t love state authority, we don’t love the idea of these flawed, creaky and shabby bureaucracies being super important. To come out and say this is a material need, that you have to have a highly functioning criminal justice system, and you have to pay for it and understand its flaws, is not something that’s popular.
What’s the solution?
One of the messages is to solve the homicides. It’s also hugely important to solve the assaults: There are four to five serious gunshot assaults for every homicide. I looked at 2004 and found that only 17 percent of assault cases resulted in conviction. We’re talking about crimes that leave people paralyzed and on life support.
Witnesses are the other piece. The way to look at it is to assume there are people who will never talk, some who will always talk, and then there a lot of people in between and on the fence. You want a hearts-and-minds campaign that offers a general and reasonable expectation of safety.
What sort of hope do you have that things will improve?
There’s a lot of talk about amorphous ideas. But if we’re only solving 40 percent of the homicides, let’s solve 60 percent. This is something concrete, something right before us, and it doesn’t require a lot of abstractions. It’s simple, and anyone who was bullied in a fourth-grade class knows what I’m talking about.
The bright side is that we don’t have to go too deep. This is a practical problem that might have practical solutions.