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.