I was looking forward to interviewing Jill Leovy, author of our (Book) Soup of the Month Ghettoside, especially as it would be a phone interview. I’d get to put a voice to the name, actually speak with Jill about her research and writing, let the conversation lead where it will, not confined to simple questions and answers in an email exchange. We even wanted to release the recording as our very first podcast! (Soon to come, we hope.) But alas, my recording app failed me, and not a bit of our forty minute conversation was immortalized.
But what Jill says sticks with you, no matter if a recording device is on or not. A veteran crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Jill took a sabbatical to write Ghettoside, spurred by the desire to put something out there that presented the confounding data on black-on-black crime in a different way. (She also started The Homicide Report blog in 2007 to illuminate this data, too.) Most research on crime stems from a sociological or psychological perspective, but Jill found it hard to wrap her head around these numbers and attribute them to such simplified storylines like “black culture”; always a cause and effect relationship. She turned to a historical and international relations perspective to dig deeper, and struck a nerve with the history of violence in the U.S. South. From there she pieced together a theory of her own.
Jill’s thesis is eloquently and simply stated in the book: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes epidemic.” She goes on to say this stands in contrast to the common argument that Black Americans suffer from “preventative” policing strategies. When I asked her how these two flip sides of a coin relate, she described the allure of states investing in preventative measures (which crosses political party lines), the layers and layers of laws put in place to arrest people on lesser crimes like possession, but the lack of resources put into actually investigating and arresting violent criminals.
So how can we combat these systematic problems? The push should come from academia, Jill says. There isn’t enough information or data on the affects of homicide, violent injury, or threat of either - things like witness relocation or the long-term grief families of victims experience. More research on these issues will stimulate more conversation and policy work.
Finally, after lending me her ear for more than half an hour, I asked Jill what she’d want readers to take away from the book. Her answer: it’s a complicated issue. You may have preconceived notions on why high homicide rates disproportionately affect blacks in urban areas and the police investigating these crimes, but throw those out the window. Jill described tailing an environmental science PHD who is now a LAPD officer - not the type we might usually think of on the police force. And, she said, there are plenty of differing opinions on the matter from both outside the community and from within.
However, there is a unifying factor in this epidemic of violence in places like Southeast Los Angeles: grief. When we spoke, Jill took pause to inform me that DeAndre Dercell Hughes, the 30-year-old son of Barbara Pritchett-Hughes, had been killed last weekend. Barbara is a prominent figure in Ghettoside: her pain grips at your skin when you read about her experience dealing with the homicide of her youngest son Dovon Harris just 9 years prior. DeAndre worked at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and police believe he was not the intended target in the shooting. Jill had just spoken with Barbara earlier that day and would be attending the funeral.
With any good immersion journalism, writers become close to their subjects, but the weariness in Jill’s voice revealed to me the immediate and long-lasting impact homicide has in these communities and beyond. And that, more than anything in our interview, convinced me this is an issue which is important yet virtually ignored, even though it should disconcert each and every one of us, as people of this city, this county, and this country.