Book Review: Levoy’s Ghettoside

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
Jill Levoy

A captivating, depressing, challenging, frustrating, must read book about the state of modern policing in poor communities of color.  If you’ve read this one, I’d really like to talk about it.

Levoy spent a year covering every murder in Los Angeles for the LA Times. She then took one of those murders, of Bryant Tennelle, the teenage son of an LAPD cop, and turned it into the center piece of this book on the way black communities are policed and, justice sought, in Los Angeles. While toching on social science, many other murders, and the way race, class and geography function in Los Angeles, it focuses primarily on the search for Tennelle’s killers by a group of homicide detectives lead by the obsessive, deeply devoted, (and occasionally ethically dubious) John Skaggs.

The book is, above all, a portrait of Skaggs. He is meant to be seen as the hero, and there’s much to be admired about his commitment to the community he policies. He’s relentless in following up leads, is respectful of the families of the both the victim and the accused, and appears to believe, sincerely, that young black men murdered in the streets deserve as much attention as anyone else.

But while Skaggs takes his job protecting the community seriously, and operates apparently without racial animus, he’s also willing to go places that should make us all uncomfortable. One scene has stuck with me – the interrogation and eventual confession by one of Tennelle’s murderers wherein Detective Skaggs, a middle aged detective with years of experience in interrogations, boxes a teenage kid without a high school degree into confessing to the murder. It’s a masterful display of interrogation techniques and manipulation by Skaggs and chilling example of why you should never, ever, speak to a cop without a lawyer present. Ever.

In telling the story of Tennelle’s murder (and many more) the thesis which seems to emerge is that Black communities suffer not, as many on the left suggest, from over policing, but rather from an under policing of serious crimes. The murder of young black men are not taken seriously enough Levoy (and Skaggs) seem to be arguing. And if they were, then many fewer young black men would be killed.

I am not an expert on policing and crime and frankly, and I remain completely unsure about this theory. I will say as someone who believe less policing is usually better policing, I’m reflectively uncomfortable with the analysis. I’m also uncomfortable with Levoy’s canonization of Skagg’s and with some of the conclusions in the final section of the book on the possible reasons for the decline in murder rates in South Central (gentrification and video games among other reasons).  But these very real concerns aside, I found the book deeply compelling and thought provoking and wish everyone I knew had read it.

I want to work through these issues with smart friends, so if you’ve got someone to say, please do so below.




Remaindered: Books that don’t belong

Another in an occasional series about books that disorient, perplex, or cause us to question our decision-making abilities. Today, we look at poorly produced literature for police on what to do when battling satanists.

At least it tells you when Imbolc is

Ritualistic Crime Scene Investigation, by Dawn Perlmutter. The Institute for the Research of Symbolic & Ritual Violence, LLC (Pennsylvania, 2007).

The professional literature intended for law enforcement audiences is a subject of enduring fascination for me. Police departments around the country contain small libraries of books on how to pass sergeants’ exams, community outreach strategies, Spanish for police officers, and field guides to gang graffiti. Like college chemistry textbooks and fetish porn, though, these books are intended for small, specialist audiences, and therefore carry hefty price tags, largely keeping them away from the general public.

The volume under consideration is intended as a guide for police officers confronting crimes committed by members of little-understood religious and cultural groups, ranging from followers of Santeria to teenage satanists. This kind of thing is actually very helpful in theory: a police officer responding to a call who finds a yard full of people in white standing around a goat whose throat is about to be cut might not understand that they are carrying out  ceremonies explicitly included under the First Amendment’s protection of religious practice. As more people emigrate to the U.S. from countries where belief in magic and witchcraft are robust, this will become a larger issue: I have Google alerts that tell me animal mutilations and spell-castings are a daily affair in much of the country.

That said, I hate to think of any police officers investigating crimes with this handbook as a guide. Little more than a pamphlet, it has context-free sections on various religious groups that are notable for being devoid of things police officers might want to know: who practices Palo Mayombe? How many of them are there? Where do they live?

This reads like a high school report grudgingly padded out with arbitrarily-selected information designed to meet a page count. Full 15 of its 54 pages are lists of symbols supposedly common in ritualistic crime, but it’s hard to imagine how often most cops will encounter “the inverted cross of Satanic justice,” let alone the “Cimaruta.”

It’s rounded out by some truly grisly crime scene photos, along with a tip sheet on how to conduct an occult-related investigation. The latter is promising in theory, until you read such tips as “Document all evidence as soon as it is received,” and “Execute search warrants as soon as needed, but not short of probable cause.” This is a little like saying your top secret strategy for winning the Super Bowl is to have some players carry the ball and others catch passes until one of them gets to the end zone.

A corrections officer of my acquaintance who’s shown me his personally-compiled book of gang tattoos has pointed me in the direction of what he says is a much better occult crime investigation guide, but it’s $75 (there’s that textbook pricing strategy for you). I’m thinking about it, but in the meantime, if I ever start a teenage death metal band, this guide at least provides a wealth of potential logos.

(V. Charm)

Review: Simon’s Homocide

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
David Simon

You’ve read this right? You have to. The best book on cops ever and its written by the creator of the world’s greatest TV show, the Wire.

Baltimore in the early nineties was a violent place, policed by a largely white and often racist police force that in many cases cared deeply about lowering crime rates, but didn’t care much about things like civil rights. You know that scene in the Wire where Landsman* tells a suspect that a copy machine is a lie detector? True story. The cop in the television show Homicide who was haunted by the murder of the little girl he couldn’t solve? Also from this book. Written in a straight forward journalistic style if you care about policing, civil rights, or just good writing, this is one you really should read.