Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
Crime stories, Raymond Chandler tells us, demand heroes. True crime stories, it appears, are no different. Vigilance, Blue, and Ghettoside, three overlapping accounts of modern-day urban crime and our efforts to curb it, all celebrate men who, by their authors’ lights, have the vision, skills, moral fortitude, and commitment to take on the nation’s most intractable crime problems. Each book is in its own way a success story—of police prevailing over criminals, as mysteries are solved, crime rates drop, order replaces disorder, and justice is restored. But the fact that the author and hero of one of the books, Vigilance, is one and the same—former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly—provides an early warning sign of the pitfalls of this heroic idiom. It is all too easy, when focusing on asserted champions, to lose sight of the bigger picture. Responding to urban crime requires far more than heroic police officers.
Vigilance is more press release than genuine memoir. If Ray Kelly has had introspective moments, he’s not inclined to share them. Instead, he tirelessly trumpets his many self-proclaimed successes, mostly from his tenure as NYPD commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013. Objectivity is not his strong suit. He boasts, for example, that his department disrupted sixteen terrorist plots. Many of the plots seem far-fetched, but Kelly treats them all as if, without his interventions, they would have led to another September 11. They include the hare-brained notion of a truck driver, Iyman Faris, that he might bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, and several plots hatched by dubious FBI informants who entrapped young men of limited mental capacity into engaging in fake terrorist attacks. In one such instance, the FBI’s informant, among many other blandishments, offered an unemployed man $250,000 to bomb two synagogues. At sentencing, the presiding judge stated:
The essence of what occurred here is that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism, came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own. It created acts of terror out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true. The government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot—there was no nefarious plot to foil.
Kelly nonetheless takes full credit for saving New Yorkers from this imagined attack.
Kelly is perhaps best known for ramping up “stop-and-frisk” as a policing tactic targeted at New York’s high-crime, and largely black and Hispanic, neighborhoods. When he began, in 2002, the NYPD conducted 97,000 such stops per year. By 2011, the stops had mushroomed to 685,000 (a number Kelly callously dismisses as “business as usual”). Young black and Hispanic men were overwhelmingly targeted. Indeed, the total number of black males aged fourteen to twenty-four who were stopped that year exceeded by 10,000 the entire population of the city’s young black men in that age group.
The stops were ostensibly designed to keep guns off the streets, although from 2004 through 2012 the police found no gun in 99.85 percent of the approximately 4.5 million stops they conducted. The practice prompted widespread protests and a class action lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights. In 2013, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD had violated the principle of equal protection by disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic citizens, as well as the Fourth Amendment, by conducting thousands of stops without the requisite degree of suspicion.
Kelly remains adamant that the program was legal and vital to fighting crime. Indeed, he claims it “helped to save literally thousands of innocent lives.” He objects that there is nothing inherently wrong with the tactic, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court. But here his argument relies on a straw man, because no one has suggested otherwise. The complaint is about how the tactic was deployed, not about the tactic itself. The Supreme Court has ruled that the police may briefly stop a suspect, on the basis of “reasonable suspicion” that he may be engaged in criminal conduct, in order to ask him some questions to confirm or dispel the suspicion, and may subject his outer clothing to a pat-down, or frisk, if there is reason to believe he is armed.
The problem cited by critics, and confirmed by Judge Scheindlin, was that the police were stopping people without reasonable suspicion, and were subjecting tens of thousands of innocent black and Hispanic men to treatment that no one else had to tolerate. (The Bloomberg administration appealed Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, but when Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014, he settled the case and agreed to reform the practice.)
Kelly’s insistence that stops and frisks, as his officers aggressively deployed them, were necessary to keep down crime is belied by the evidence. In 2013, as the tactic became increasingly controversial and a negative court decision appeared likely, the NYPD under Kelly reduced stops by one third—and crime continued to fall. In 2014, the first year of William Bratton’s second stint as commissioner, the number of stops dropped to less than 46,000, as murders reached a historic low, and robberies dropped 14 percent. In 2015, stops dropped still further to approximately 25,000, yet serious crime fell by another 2 percent.
After Judge Scheindlin issued her decision in 2013, Kelly warned that “violent crime will go up” if stops and frisks were reduced. Bratton concurred, claiming that if “you do away with it, you might as well move out of [New York] City. The crime will come back faster than the blink of an eye.” Yet as stops and frisks have plummeted, crime has not increased, proving both Kelly and Bratton wrong, at least thus far. Violent crime has fallen across the country since 2000, including in many jurisdictions that did not employ an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. There is, in short, little evidence that the tactics were essential to reducing crime, yet it is undeniable that they produced deep feelings of alienation and distrust in the targeted communities.
Bratton is the hero in Joe Domanick’s Blue, a chronology of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) over the past quarter-century. Bratton was the LAPD chief from 2002 to 2009, and Domanick credits him with turning the department around. Blue begins in the dog days of the 1990s, when Daryl Gates was chief. Gates sent messages to supporters saying that “casual drug users should be shot,” and personally took part in the inaugural use of an armored vehicle as a battering ram against a suspected crack house—only to find no crack on the premises. When riots broke out in 1992 after a jury acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, Gates rushed off not to the scene of the riots, but to the city’s wealthy Brentwood district to greet supporters at a private fund-raiser. Los Angeles then had about eight hundred gang-related murders every year, and a backlog of eight thousand unsolved murder cases. It led the nation’s six largest cities in shootings involving officers, and police corruption and brutality were rampant.
Today, by contrast, crime rates have fallen to historic lows, although after a decade of steady decline, violent crime in LA in 2015 increased by a disturbing 20 percent. (Some of that may be the result of reforms in the way police record crimes after reports that they were undercounting them to make their performance look better.) The LAPD has come a long way from the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the utter failure to contain the riots that broke out the following year.
By Domanick’s account, it took William Bratton to bring about change. A poll taken shortly before Bratton left his post in 2009 found that 80 percent of LA residents approved of the LAPD’s performance, including 76 percent of Latinos and 68 percent of African-Americans. To its credit, however, Blue, like Bratton, and unlike Vigilance and Kelly, looks beyond the chief’s office, and highlights the importance of initiatives that involve other government agencies and residents in innovative solutions to crime.
Bratton’s brilliance, according to Domanick, lay in his willingness to devolve authority and to collaborate with partners beyond the chief’s office. When Bratton took the job, the LAPD was under the supervision of a federal judge, pursuant to a consent decree entered with the Justice Department, which found that the LAPD had engaged in a pattern of civil rights violations. Bratton made it clear that he wanted to work closely with the LAPD unit in charge of complying with the decree, giving higher status and wider powers to its head, Gerald Chaleff, known as “a card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Bratton insisted that “it is not enough to continue to drive crime down, we must at the same time, through compassionate and constitutional policing practices, improve the relationship between the police and the public we serve.” He made it clear to officers that he was interested in, and would track, their efficiency in reducing crime, that he would not be guided by stop or arrest quotas, and that he would encourage them to think creatively and work with community leaders to improve safety.
Following that lead, one of Bratton’s deputies, Charlie Beck, now his successor as chief, enlisted community members in the city’s crime-plagued Pico-Union district to reclaim MacArthur Park, a once-beautiful enclave that had become a bleak site of gang violence and drugs. Working with a variety of city offices outside the police department, as well as businesses and residents, Beck oversaw the restoration of the park as a safe place for families, and helped to reduce crime dramatically in the area.
Bratton also reached out to one of the department’s most vocal critics, Connie Rice, an African-American civil rights lawyer with the Advancement Project, a social justice organization founded by Rice and other former NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys. He asked Rice to chair a panel to examine the department’s response to the 1999 Rampart CRASH scandal, in which some seventy police officers from a single LAPD unit had been planting drugs and guns to frame citizens, engaging in unprovoked beatings and shootings, and stealing and selling drugs. Rice’s report, issued in 2006, praised Bratton for bringing a new, more community-focused approach to policing, but warned that the culture of “warrior policing” that the Rampart scandal reflected was not limited to that division, and required further reform.
The next year, Rice and the Advancement Project released a second report, also commissioned by the city, on gang violence. It recommended a holistic approach, arguing that the city’s failure to provide necessary services to impoverished communities had ceded authority to the gangs. It urged the establishment of an academy for “gang interventionists,” former gang members who had the knowledge and credibility to interrupt the cycles of vengeance that so often ravaged such communities. The academy was founded in 2009, and has trained 2,400 gang interventionists and police officers in methods for reducing gang violence. As Rice put it, with unusual realism, in an interview with the Chicago Reader:
If your goal is not gang eradication, which none of us knows how to do, but instead is violence reduction, and you enlist [former gang members to help you], then you begin to change the physics of the neighborhood. We’re doing it with the cooperation of the gangs because they’re so powerful that they control some of the neighborhoods…. If you don’t give [gang members] a way to exert power legitimately, they’ll do it another way.
Even as crime and policing improved over the last decade in Los Angeles, one problem remained constant: young black men continued to be killed at a rate far exceeding any other group in America. Nationwide, black men are 6 percent of the population, but 40 percent of those murdered each year. Killings of black men by police have attracted national attention in the past two years, from the NYPD officer’s lethal chokehold that killed Eric Garner on Staten Island (after he was stopped for selling illegal cigarettes), to a Chicago police officer’s unprovoked shooting of Laquan McDonald as he walked away from police. According to a Washington Post–Guardian survey, thirty-six unarmed black men were killed by police in 2015. Yet of the 2,451 African-Americans murdered in 2014, 2,205 of them were killed by another African-American. By far the leading cause of death for black males aged between fifteen and thirty-four years old is homicide, and the vast majority of those deaths are not at the hands of the police.
This is not a problem that liberals like to discuss, for fear that doing so will reinforce racist stereotypes. But in Ghettoside, possibly the most important book on criminal justice in the past decade, Jill Leovy takes on the problem directly. In a harrowing and deeply affecting account of life and death in South Central Los Angeles, where Leovy has long covered homicide for the Los Angeles Times, she examines this taboo subject with profound empathy. She manages to give a fresh and convincing account both of the poverty-stricken communities plagued by the highest homicide rates and of the substantial challenges the police face in addressing problems of violence there.
In Leovy’s view, “forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remain[s] America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem.” In Ghettoside, she makes that problem visible, focusing on one particular murder and its investigation, while deftly placing it in a broader setting. Through the story of the murder of a black police officer’s son, she provides new insights into the barriers between the police and the community. Bryant Tennelle, shot and killed at age eighteen as he walked down a street near his home in the Seventy-seventh Street precinct, was the son of Wally Tennelle, an LAPD homicide detective. Unlike virtually all his colleagues, Tennelle had chosen to raise his family in the inner city rather than escape to the suburbs. Through Bryant’s death, and the investigation that follows to identify and bring the killers to justice, Leovy offers a glimpse into two worlds most of her readers will never know firsthand—a high-crime urban neighborhood, and its police department.
That world is heartbreakingly violent. She captures its scope at one point by cataloging the murders that occurred in the days immediately followed Bryant’s:
Three days after Bryant Tennelle died, twenty-six-year-old Carl Pickering Jr. was getting into a parked Chevrolet in front of Vercher’s liquor store…[when] an assailant walked up and shot a bullet into his chest. Realizing he was dead, a girl stumbled screaming into the street in front of Vercher’s. Passing cars edged around her and kept going.
Eighteen-year-old Wilbert Mahone died next. He was standing outside in Compton at a relative’s house later that same evening when a pair of drive-by shooters came roaring down the street…. He died holding the hand of his sixteen-year-old brother….
Four days later, police found Christopher Davenport, thirty-six, lying dead on the sidewalk in San Pedro after neighbors reported hearing gunshots. The next day, LAPD narcotics officers in plain clothes killed Ronald Ball, sixty, in the Newton Division. The officers and their colleagues had detained a group of men they saw dealing drugs. Ball ran from them and hid under a car. When the officer tried to pull him out, he saw that Ball had a gun and he shot him.
Wayne McKinney, twenty-four, died a week later, on May 25, shot by a man or youth on the sidewalk while sitting in a car with a friend.
The sheer volume of such killings can be numbing. But Leovy counters that response by concentrating on the investigation and prosecution of a single case. In one sense, Bryant Tennelle’s murder is no mystery. In the words of one witness, “everybody know” who committed the crime. But no one wants to talk. This is the problem facing John Skaggs, the white detective assigned to the case, who is the hero of Ghettoside. Skaggs is legendary in the department for his tenacity and skill in solving homicides. But even as Leovy lauds Skaggs’s unflinching commitment and abilities, she maintains that he is the exception. On the whole, she argues, the police—and the wider community—do not take black-on-black homicide seriously enough.
In Leovy’s analysis, “the system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.” And “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” She attributes the high rates of violence in black inner-city communities to the vacuum of legitimate law enforcement. Citing historical evidence dating back to medieval Europe, she maintains that wherever the law loses its authority, a “shadow law” will arise, as groups of men take law into their own hands, and vengeance begets vengeance. Leovy concedes that “this is not an easy argument to make”:
Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities…. So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts [such as drug possesion] but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Leovy traces the failure of American police to respond adequately to black-on-black homicide to patterns that emerged in the days of slavery and were maintained under Jim Crow. She backs up her indictment with evidence of an overwhelmed and underfunded police department, an indifferent media, and in some instances, racist attitudes among police officers. She claims that the police used to label such crimes “NHI—No Human Involved.” And she notes that only about 36 percent of killers of black men in LA County in the early 1990s were convicted.
But according to an LA Times study, the problem of unsolved murders afflicted victims of all races. While murders of whites were more likely to lead to conviction than murders of blacks, the disparity was only 1.4 to 1. And Leovy’s account of the investigation of Bryant Tennelle’s murder suggests, in some tension with her argument, that the biggest impediment to solving black-on-black homicide cases is not insufficient resources or commitment on the part of the police, but “the reluctance of witnesses to testify.” That reluctance is rational: “They were terrified they would be killed.” Gangs enforce their own rules, and many witnesses deem it safer not to talk.
In Leovy’s telling, Skaggs’s skill lies in part in his no-holds-barred efforts to track down every lead, but much more significantly in his ability to cajole witnesses to testify, and then to keep them to their word as the case goes to trial:
Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and answered to another authority—shadow law…. Ghettoside detective work was “ninety percent talking to people. Maybe a hundred percent,” Skaggs said.
In the case of Bryant Tennelle, Skaggs eventually convinced three witnesses to talk, and one of the killers to confess. But to secure a conviction, he practically had to adopt his principal witness, a twenty-two-year-old former prostitute and drug addict trying to turn her life around.
Gang intimidation is the immediate cause of many witnesses’ reluctance to talk. But that, too, is ultimately linked to white indifference to the plight of inner-city communities. The white majority can tolerate a status quo in which gangs exercise such control through violence only because it is not their blood that is being shed. The great majority of gang murders are committed in gang-dominated neighborhoods, and the great majority of those killed are black. As long as murders are intraracial, the white majority can, and does, look the other way. Skaggs is Leovy’s hero precisely because he refuses to look the other way. He turns down several promotions because he wants to stay in LA’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, bringing justice to those who have come not to expect it. But even a department full of detectives like John Skaggs would not solve the problem.
The real strength of Leovy’s book is that she looks beyond heroes. Ghettoside is an eloquent and urgent plea to the wider community on behalf of homicide victims, a plea that asks us not only to confront facts that we tend to ignore, but to think more broadly about their causes. By bringing us into the neighborhoods ruled by gangs, introducing us to the victims’ grieving mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and girlfriends, and showing us the extraordinary challenges faced by those who live in such communities, Leovy makes us care about them. That empathy is the first step toward real reform. She opens her book with a quote from Albert Camus’s The Plague: “When you see the suffering and pain that it brings, you’d have to be blind, mad, or a coward to resign yourself to the plague.”
The next step is to understand that the problem is part of a wider condition of social inequity, one in which the police themselves are trapped as much as implicated. Leovy’s analysis simultaneously underscores the daunting obstacles that even the best detectives confront and links black-on-black homicide to a long history of violence erupting in places where formal law has lost its legitimate authority. But while Leovy’s diagnosis focuses on the police, the problem she depicts cannot be solved by police reform alone. It is not only legitimate law enforcement that is missing in the inner city. So, too, are jobs, educational opportunity, mentors, and, in many instances, adequate supervision of young people. In 2006, South LA, where the county’s homicide problem was worst, had 0.5 jobs per person, as compared to 1.1 jobs per person in the rest of LA County, and a 30 percent poverty rate, double that of the rest of the county. If these economic realities are at the root of the problem, it is critical to look beyond the police for solutions, and equally important not to blame the entire problem on police.
As Charlie Beck, the current LAPD chief, put it, “There’s an old homicide saying that the answer’s always outside of the tape” marking off the crime scene. “Inside the tape, there’s nothing there, everything is outside the tape.” When it comes to black-on-black homicide, the answer that lies outside the tape requires those of us not directly affected to become involved, as John Skaggs does. But it also compels us to recognize that while policing must be fair and respectful and adequately funded, the solutions require a range of interventions to alleviate the pressures that give rise to gang violence in the first place. They include economic investments in the community to provide comprehensive support for those seeking to escape the snares of gang life, and a willingness to work hand-in-hand with “gang interventionists” and community leaders to break the cycle of violence. The answer to America’s greatest civil rights problem cannot be left to heroic police commissioners or detectives. Chiefs like William Bratton, detectives like John Skaggs, and activists like Connie Rice can make important inroads. But the solution requires our collective acknowledgment of the broad and deep roots of inequality, and our willingness to expend the resources necessary to reform them.