By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Jill Leovy
Narration by: Rebecca Lowman
Broken families, broken hearts, but most of all, broken trust are described in Jill Leovy’s book, “Ghettoside”. Leovy’s “true story”, somewhat surprisingly, deals with the relationship between Black communities and local law enforcement in an area known as South Central Los Angeles. The 2000 census shows 749,453 people live on 51.08 square miles of land, made up of twenty-five neighborhoods.
The surprise in the story is that the 2000 census shows 56.7% of the population of South Central Los Angeles is Latino, 38% Black, and the remainder white, Asian, or other. One presumes Leovy chooses the relationship between Blacks and the police because it fits the particular facts of her story. However, it seems fair to suggest broken families, hearts, and trust are equally true for Latin South Central Los Angeles families because “ghettoside”, poverty and gang violence are common denominators.
Though Leovy’s story is not about poverty, “Ghettoside” (a coined word for ethnic groups killing themselves) is partly related to poorly regulated capitalism; just as genocide is partly related to totalitarianism. The poor in American cities have few legal means of escape. Neighborhood segregation and poverty breed Black on Black as well as Latino on Latino violence. That violence is multiplied by a gang culture.
“Ghettoside” appears most obviously in modern cities because of population concentration. The poor have few available living-wage jobs. The poor congregate in run down inner-city neighborhoods because that is what they can afford. Decent education is a cost without immediate benefit; i.e. robbery, extortion, prostitution, and other illegal activities provide gainful employment, put food on the table, and pay the rent. On-job-training is provided by street gang activities. Violence provides “street-cred” and gang affiliation provides power. Money, power, and prestige are as coveted by the poor as the middle class and rich.
This story about South Central is primarily told from the perspective of the police department. Leovy tells the “true story” of a black South Central Los Angeles’ cop who works and lives in a South Central L.A.’ community. He is an exception to the rule of most South Central policemen because he lives in the area he polices. He is an excellent homicide detective, who works hard to solve crimes in a city he loves. He raises a family that exemplifies the American dream. He comes from a lower middle class family, marries a Costa Rican’ wife while in the marines, and returns to South Central to become a cop. They raise three children; two younger children go to college while the oldest struggles in school. With extra effort, the oldest finishes high school. He is not interested in college but is a conscientious, hardworking young man; much like his father. The oldest son rejects the gang culture but, like all teenagers, craves his own identity. He ignores gang-culture’ rules in South Central but he works and plays in the center of its violence. Standing on a corner, with a hat that is the wrong color, he is shot in the head by another teenager that presumes the victim has a gang affiliation.
Leovy explores police department reaction to inner-city homicide to reveal how good cops are overwhelmed by a culture that victimizes itself. As the story unfolds, the police officers’ oldest son dies. The investigation is turned over to a different department that initially fails to solve the crime; not because of lack of effort but because of a bureaucratic way of conducting an investigation. The officer in charge is a meticulous detective but the record of his investigation shows he repeatedly knocks on doors of possible witnesses without actually making contact. The effort is duly noted in a “murder book” but no new evidence is found because he only records his repeated effort to contact.
A new officer, John Skaggs, is assigned to the case. The new officer is equally organized but pursues witnesses until he finds them. A record of attempted contacts is not acceptable to this detective. He tracks down potential witnesses. Leovy details the new officer’s interrogation of the suspected killer. The new officer’s interrogation technique rivals Raskolnikov’s interrogator in Dostoyevsky’s classic fictional story, “Crime and Punishment”. Officer Skaggs’ interrogation is skillfully presented by Leovy. The interrogation description is a pleasure to listen to and high praise for the investigating detective.
The case is solved but one is left with the feeling that justice is not done. A young man, a teenager, is dead. The killer is 17, tried as an adult, convicted, and given a life sentence. When asked why he murdered the police officer’s son, he said he shot him with his eyes closed; he only did it because the officer’s son looked like he belonged to a rival gang, and, after all, he is Black, so who cares? This teenage killer is worried about his mother as he confesses to the crime. Both boys, victim and killer, have mothers that love their sons. How can a killer kill someone who is just like himself?
Leovy systematically reveals how difficult it is for a good police officer to keep up with the murder rate in South Central L.A. Everything from budget cuts, to bureaucratic “cover your ass”’ detectives, to a culture that feeds on itself, makes a good policeman’s job undo-able. Leovy explains how Black families believe they do not matter to the police because murders do not get solved.
When trust between citizens and police is broken, witnesses will not cooperate because they fear reprisal from the accused. Police officers are faced with mistrust that makes solving murders less important than bureaucratic record keeping that shows they are working. Ineffective police bureaucracy is compounded by officers that are not part of the community for which they are responsible. The irony of that observation is made obvious in Leovy’s story of a good officer who lives in the community and has a son murdered by being part of the community. One empathizes with a police officer that has a family and does not want to live in a poor community that “eats” its young.
Being a cop in South Central L.A. looks like the hell described in Sartre’s play, “No Exit”. It is a play where three dead characters are locked in a room with no exit. In Leovy’s story, there are the police, the citizens, and the perpetrators. Sartre is saying “hell is other people” because each is perpetually viewed by the other as the worst part of themselves. “Ghettoside” is a picture of hell; i.e. a picture of broken families, broken hearts, and broken trust.