‘Ghettoside’ focuses on one L.A. murder to make case for more policing

by Sudhir Venkatesh – January 22, 2015

The Los Angeles Times

Any observer of urban policing will note a sharp contradiction. On the one hand, police forces across the country have become more progressive. Officials have made great efforts to bring women and minorities into the ranks. Departments have adopted evidence-based policymaking to measure effectiveness, track crime and allocate resources. And, in places like Los Angeles and New York, officers are working hard to build positive community relationships.

This assessment will no doubt sound a bit out of touch given recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City. According to their critics, police seem bent on maintaining the status quo — unaccountable to the public, racially insensitive and over-the-top and abusive in their efforts to protect and serve.

With the rhetoric so polarized, it is difficult to ascertain whether things are getting better or worse. Part of the problem is that we rarely see and hear from police themselves. The passionate defense of commanders and union shop stewards does not always help the public understand a basic issue: How do police operate, and what is necessary to help them do their work more legitimately and effectively?

Jill Leovy’s new book takes us a long way toward answering this question. “Ghettoside” is her penetrating look at the Los Angeles Police Department — the title is taken from the nickname a Watts gang member gave to his neighborhood. A staff writer at the L.A. Times and the creator of a popular blog, Homicide Report, Leovy is not a newcomer to crime reporting. In “Ghettoside,” she adopts an anthropologist’s gaze to unravel the workings of this tribe. She tracks the daily movements of homicide detectives working cases that rarely attract the media spotlight. Think “Boyz in the Hood,” not “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” This is gritty reporting that matches the police work behind it.

For three decades, we’ve been told that there is an epidemic of violence in urban black America — “plague” is Leovy’s preferred term. Our jails and prisons are filled with minorities, police legitimacy remains low and inner-city families appear resigned to these conditions. Police seem as overwhelmed and frustrated as the minorities whom they must protect. Leovy underscores the urgency to respond but not in a predictable manner.

Her premise is simple, powerful and runs counter to prevailing views. The crisis does not stem from over-policing and mass incarceration per se. Instead, these are symptomatic of a deeper problem that 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.”

To read the full review, click here.