The title is what homicide cops call the Watts or South Central sections of the city. For ambitious officers, it is a career sink, a swamp of futility from which to escape as fast as possible. The homicide squad is even worse for ambitious cops; most murders are never solved, witnesses won't cooperate, and there aren't even proper desks and computers for the overburdened officers. Journalist Jill Leovy embedded with these officers for a decade and reports what she saw. Her book has the makings of a conventional TV cop show, following heroic detectives who overcome obstacles to get their man (or sometimes tragically not.)
And yet, Leovy is a diligent and thoughtful reporter of ghastly realities. She recounts the bottomless grief of mothers of the murdered; the precarious existence of scared young men on hard streets where being in a gang might seem a life preserver, till it isn't; and the gross stupidity and indifference of downtown law enforcement leaders, politicians, and the media that simply ignore ninety percent of killings of Black men. Her detective exemplars call most of the rest of their department "40 percenters" -- time servers willing to accept that only that fraction of murders lead to an arrest. They react in disgust when an outbreak of gang violence causes the brass briefly to flood their neighborhood with uniformed patrol cars, and to conduct hundreds of stop and searches and parole and probation checks -- but to make no arrests nor stop the murders. The emergency even forced detectives into their unaccustomed "ill-fitting blue uniforms."
I couldn't help but recall this description when standing amid a room full of blue-clad officers in the SFPD meeting on Wednesday where our cops tried to impose their story on their killing of Luis Gongora.
Leovy offers an historical explanation for how South L.A. became a killing ground where so many young Black men shoot each other. When Black people flocked to southern California in the Great Migration, the white convention of treating their communities as outside the rule of law came along with them.
Having explicated this, Leovy sums it up as the thoughts of one of her cops: "the system looks busy, but it didn't do its job."
Ghettoside is a deep dive into the Los Angeles Leovy describes in this historical frame. For its immediacy and compassion for victims and shooters alike, it's worth reading. But I did wonder -- might maintaining a violent cage within which blacks will kill each other be the real job? The question seems obvious but unasked here.