Jill Leovy on South L.A.’s Homicide “Epidemic”

The veteran crime reporter talks about her new book <em>Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America</em>

In May 2007, 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, the son of an LAPD detective, was fatally shot in the head by another teenager in South L.A. The shooter had no motive except for the need to prove himself. It was a senseless murder and an all-too-common one, according to Jill Leovy, the author of the new book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (Random House). As the discussion of overreaching law enforcement and the value of African American lives intensifies nationwide, Leovy’s investigation into Tennelle’s murder describes the “plague” of black male homicide, a pervasive culture of crime that goes largely unresolved and seems impossible to stop.

We asked Leovy about her work and perspective for the CityThinker column in our March issue. Here is an extended version of that interview:

What brought you to write about crime against African Americans?
I had started covering crime more in-depth and wanted to cover it out of South L.A. I got embedded in the 77th Street station around 2002 and you just can’t not see it. You see the numbers when you’re covering it day-to-day and everything that you learn backs that up many-fold. I had many heartrending and powerful moments reporting on the beat.

When I think of the gripping moments for me, one of the first was when I looked up the mortality statistics that the Centers for Disease Control keeps on homicide and tracks over time by race. Those numbers on paper are so very, very stark. One of the statisticians at the CDC once told me that she had a community activist call and ask for the numbers on homicide death rates for young black males relative to everybody else, and she said that when she gave the activist the statistics over the phone he started to cry. I completely understand that. It is earth-shattering to look at those numbers just on paper. The black difference is so conspicuous and mysterious. I think that’s what got me.

I have an intellectual curiosity, as cold as that sounds. Why would the homicide rates be that different? It doesn’t make any sense, especially in L.A. L.A. is a Latino city. For everyone who lives here, that’s just the context. We eat tacos, we hear Spanish all the time. A lot of the crime, as you’d imagine, is Latino. It’s Hispanic on Hispanic. Hispanic gangs get a lot of press. So when you look at those numbers and you realize that the black death rate by homicide in L.A. is so much higher than the Hispanic rate, that really is jarring. You’re talking about a small population within the ethnic mosaic of this city, maybe 9% these days or a little less than that, and yet its homicide death rates are two to four times that of Latinos.

In the book you go into some of the reasons why that is. Can you briefly lay them out here?
It’s history. History is what makes blacks black in this country. It’s what makes their experiences different. History and the mechanics of segregation, which are related ideas.

Even though blacks and Hispanics are both minority populations living in urban areas with similar rates of poverty and what we think of as urban ills, their histories, their ethnographies, the things that are happening to them are really quite different. The difference in the homicide rate is a consequence of that.

Ghettoside’s conclusion, if there is a conclusion, seems to be that there needs to be more police and more law enforcement in black neighborhoods, which sounds counterintuitive to much of what we’re hearing about the Ferguson case.
It is counterintuitive. It`s not more police that’s needed, though. It’s better police and it’s quality of policing. The underlying problem here is under-policing, not over-policing. These are two sides of the same coin.

Crime historian Eric Monkkonen, who I quote a lot, makes this point about human beings and law. He says weak systems have to be harsher. The king who barely has control of his kingdom has to behead people in order to secure his authority, but when you have a great deal of authority already in place, you can be more lenient. In a way, the harshness of our system arises from its essential weakness. That seems like a paradoxical point but what I try to emphasize in the book is that the essence of law springs from its response to violence.

Violence is really the key to everything. That physical protection of the human being is where all good law is actually rooted and everything else has to come after that or you get in some real trouble. If you measure law in terms of its responsiveness to the injuries and deaths of human beings, you see the weaknesses of the system particularly as it pertains to African Americans.

Why did you devote so much of Ghettoside to the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the teenaged son of a black police officer?
I chose that case kind of randomly, actually. There were so many cases that I could have done and were really compelling. Detective John Skaggs alone has hundreds of cases in his career. I had experienced as a reporter the difficulty of engaging readers who are completely outside this world in these problems. I thought there were aspects of the Tennelle case that would overcome that difficulty, that the Tennelle family and situation was very relatable. Also, Bryant really isn’t a special or exceptional victim in the circumstances of his death. Eighteen is a really high-risk age for homicide victimization. Where he died and the way that he died is very typical of scores and scores of other cases. He was in a sense representative.

Bryant Tennelle's homocide was reported on "The Homocide Report" in May, 2007
Bryant Tennelle’s murder was reported on “The Homicide Report” in May, 2007

There’s a point in the book where Wally Tennelle reluctantly concedes that he was willing to put his own personal life into the situation of policing in Los Angeles, that it was part of the reason he had lived in that neighborhood. It was one of those moments for me as a reporter where a subject says something in the middle of an interview and you have to go home and recover from it for the next few days because it’s like being hit with a baseball bat. People who live in Los Angeles are going to understand that, I think, because the issue of police living in the city has been discussed so much here, and there is so much emotion around the idea of the police as occupiers historically.

Do you agree that police should live in the neighborhoods where they work?
My sympathies go all ways. I sympathize with black men in these neighborhoods who are harassed and menaced many, many times a day by police officers.

At the same time, policing in L.A. is a dangerous job. It’s a really stressful job. Police officers deserve to be safe. They need to make the decisions that they make for their own safety. People don’t realize this, but there are an awful lot of threats that happen. Police officers’ houses get graffitied in the middle of the night. The job is antagonistic and I’m forgiving of people who play it very conservatively relative to that antagonism. There’s a lot of violence that police officers have to contend with in their daily lives that is not covered in the media and people don’t fully understand.

In the book you talk a lot about how both victims’ families and also the police seem wounded by the lack of media attention.
A really distinct characteristic of writing about violence is to deal with the wall between those who experience it and the rest of the world.

Violence is so impenetrable. It’s so impossible to describe and it’s actually fascinating to watch people grope for words. It’s a really common thing. Cops and witnesses will open and shut their mouths. They will say, “I can’t find the words.” They will say, “It’s indescribable. I can’t talk about it.” That’s probably the most common thing that people say in response to direct experiences with violence. It’s really silencing. So if you go in as a journalist and say, “I’m going to try to say this for you,” it’s extremely powerful and I would get very powerful responses. I would have black people in South L.A. say to me, “Tell them. Tell them this is happening.” which is a very powerful thing for a reporter to hear and a lot of responsibility. Sometimes I’d think, “Why can’t somebody else tell them? Why are you putting that on me?” A lot of it is a very positive response, the fact that people are desperate for this to be told and they want you to tell it.

For the police I would say it’s the same thing. Lots of cops who work in South L.A. don’t know what to make of it. Their heads are spinning, they’re speechless and dumbfounded and angry. They have been called again and again and again to see these dead bodies that they never see on the news.