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'Ghettoside' Explores Why Murders Are Invisible In Los Angeles


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island have sparked debate about whether the police presence in African-American communities is too heavy-handed and often abusive. Our guest today, journalist Jill Leovy, argues that black communities suffer deeply from too little law enforcement, or at least law enforcement of a certain kind. Her new book focuses on the epidemic of unsolved murders in African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the corrosive impact of unpunished crime in those communities.

Leovy's covered crime for the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade, and as you'll hear, she doesn't regard the problem simply as one of poor police work. Part of the problem, she believes, is that these murders are simply invisible to too many of us. In 2007, she started a blog called "The Homicide Report" to document all the murders in Los Angeles County. Leovy spent many years embedded with homicide detectives, and her book is an intimate look at murder investigations and the relationships between police and victims' relatives, witnesses and suspects. It's called "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America."

Jill Leovy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about this blog that you started back, I guess - what? - 2006, 2007, "The Homicide Report." One of the things that you noticed, then, was that a lot of murders simply were not covered by any media. And you know, a lot of moms whose lives have been shattered by the - you know, the murder of a relative, often a son, often say there was nothing in the paper. Why did so few of these homicides get covered?

JILL LEOVY: Well, you can't cover everything. The newspaper's job is to cover unusual events, and when it comes to homicide, that always ends up meaning that you're covering the very low edges of the bell curve. And you're never the bulge in the middle because that's implicitly the routine homicides, even though, of course, a homicide is never routine. Those homicides have gone on in the same form, in the same ways, for so long in America, particularly American cities, that they are the wallpaper of urban life. They are taken for granted, and it's very difficult to make them into a narrative and a story that works for a newspaper.

DAVIES: Tell us about starting this blog, "The Homicide Report." What was your purpose?

LEOVY: You know, usually when I get this question, I talk about the statistics, which I think are very important, but honestly, you know, I was frustrated. It's so hard to tell this story. I could not figure out how to tell it. The newspaper articles I produce always paled to the reality so much. It's so, so horrifying when you see this close-up. And I think, really, I didn't articulate that to myself at the time, but I wanted to communicate the horror of it.

And so "The Homicide Report" was a way to - is a gimmick, you know? It was a blog at a time when newspapers were just starting to experiment with blogs. And I don't like blogs very much as a newspaper person. I like - a newspaper front page has a lot of architecture built into it, and that architecture is full of meaning. It communicates what's important, what's not - big headlines, small headlines. You can scan a newspaper front page and get an idea of what you need to be thinking about very quickly.

A blog is just a stack, an undifferentiated stack of news. You can't tell the trivial from the weighty. And so it doesn't work for a lot of things, but it occurred to me that it would work for this, that the form would suit what I was trying to say exactly, which is to give everything equal weight. And so I decided to just list the homicides and to sort of give them as much equivalence as possible as sort of an anti-news story. This is not a new story about the sensational case, about the case getting attention. This is just all of them stacked up in a row so that the reader can peruse them and get an idea of who's dying.

DAVIES: So when you say conveying the horror of it, it's the relentless carnage - one murder after another, after another, after another - and that becomes apparent when one looks at your blog. Practically speaking, that must have been exhausting. I mean, every case has real people. Everyone has grieving relatives that want you to tell their whole story. How did you manage it?

LEOVY: Well, it is carnage. It's not the carnage that's horrible, though. It's the grief and the sadness of it that is - that will make your hair stand on end, and that is very, very difficult to deal with. The actual fact of bodies and blood is much easier to deal with than what you find when you go to somebody's house five years later and they're still shaking and weep instantly when you say the name of their loved one.

In fact, "The Homicide Report" was the easiest homicide reporting I did in all my years of homicide reporting, and there was a reason for that. And I knew it going in. I think in some ways, at that time, I needed it. It's because mostly, I was dealing with victims' families right after the homicide. That's a time when - in the normal course of reporting, that's when you usually meet victims' families - that first 48 hours, that first week, maybe, before the funeral, and, you know, that's the easiest time because people are in shock. They are in a state of suspended disbelief. They don't know what to think. They're kind of frozen and wide-eyed, and it takes time with something as traumatic as homicide for the reality to sink in. And so it's a lot harder to interview people three months later, six months later. Two years can be a really grueling point, I found - five years, very, very grueling. Homicide grief is very distinct, I think, from other kinds of bereavement, and the trajectory of it can be different.


LEOVY: There's no way to fit it in any kind of understanding of the natural order of things. It's always going to feel colossally wrong. It's going to feel like something's been taken from you arbitrarily by another human being. The way people respond to homicide deaths of loved ones - it's the worst pain that I've seen a human being experience that isn't physical. It's astounding what people go through, and it often gets worse as the years go by, instead of better. Doing "The Homicide Report," I had people who contacted me who had lost their loved ones 20, 30 years before, and would say, you know, I'm just going through my hardest phase now.

There was a woman I interviewed. Her son was a black man, I think in his 20s or 30s, maybe even a little bit older - an adult, black man that got no coverage. She would go to the cemetery at night, and she would lie, overnight, spread-eagled on the grave. It's - I've heard stories like that from other people, too. The other version of it that I've run into is going to the spot on the street where the son is killed and lying there.

You know, I had a mother - in one of the anecdotes that I didn't include in the book - who, at the funeral, after they cemented the vault in the wall where her son was, she flattened herself against the wet cement, and they - the relatives had to peel her off. She would've climbed in there, I think, if she could have.

DAVIES: The first section of your book is called The Plague. What's the plague you're referring to?

LEOVY: Well, most simply, it refers to the quotation I use for the book, which is from Albert Camus's novel, "The Plague." I love the metaphor of the plague because Camus is talking about bubonic plague in a quarantined Algerian city, a walled city, and that's exactly - especially in the years where the homicide rate was much higher, that's how South LA felt. There were neighborhoods that felt like a walled city. One of the officers I interviewed for the book says it's like I'm not even in America, anymore. This is a place with different rules and radically different daily events.

And then in very public health terms, it is a plague. The rate of homicide for black Americans has been five to eight times the white rate, going back decades. Year after year after year, we're talking about thousands and thousands of people. I think - I have in my footnotes, 1995, which was after the big crime wave of the early '90s - 1995 to 2005 - that decade of falling crime - total homicides in the U.S., I think, are 187,000. Well, about 90,000 of those victims were black, mostly black, adult men. And they're 13 percent of the population. And so that's astounding - those numbers.

DAVIES: You note that black men in particular are being, you know, murdered at an alarming rate. How many of these murderers get solved? Well, looking at numbers from LAPD from about '88 through the early 2000s, around 40 percent, if the victims are black men. And I have no reason to think that that's different with agencies, by the way. I've done sort of spot surveys of sheriffs and other agencies. It seems to be pretty consistent across the board. On paper, it's going to look a little more. When they report it to the federal government, they add in what's called cleared others.

DAVIES: That's cleared others - cleared meaning solved, yeah.

LEOVY: Yes, and so that gets you maybe up to the high 40s, low 50 percent. But you also have to consider that injury shootings, which are very similar to homicides, have much lower solve rates - in the LAPD, maybe 25 percent if you don't count cleared other. So if you put that all together, it ends up with better-than-average odds of getting away with it if you injure somebody by shooting them or kill them.

DAVIES: So there's all these families who want justice for their victims, and it doesn't happen, at least not from the police. What's the impact on the community of the failure to solve so many of these shootings?

LEOVY: A pervasive atmosphere of fear, rampant intimidation because, I think, the killers are emboldened. I did a story in the early 2000s where a colleague, Doug Smith, and I looked at all the unsolved homicides in LAPD South Bureau over about 15 years. And we came up with the finding that there were 40 or so unsolved homicides per square mile...


LEOVY: ...In the South Bureau area of the LAPD. So think about what that means in real terms. It's one thing if you hear, vaguely, of a homicide that doesn't involve anyone you know far away from you. It's another if it happens on your street. And it's another, still, if you know who did it, and they never get arrested. And by the way, they did it again, and they still didn't get arrested. And maybe there's three or four others around you. Imagine what that does to people and what that does to their own assessment of safety and how they're going to respond.

I spoke to a mother, once, in South Bureau - black woman - her son had just been murdered. I think this was maybe a couple of days after the murder. I had gone to her door. And it was one of these cases where the police just had no witnesses. The case wasn't going anywhere. The mother told me that since the murder, the killers, who she knew, who were, I think, the gang members who lived on her street, had been knocking on her door and taunting her and laughing at her - her grief. She had another surviving son, and he was, I think, 15, 16. And you could see that he was thinking really, really hard about this situation. And that's something you see all the time. I go to a lot of funerals, and I always study the pallbearers because they're generally young men the same age as the victim. And you can just see the smoldering anger and grief in their faces and how they're trying to hold it down and try not to cry. And then they march out and collect in knots in the parking lot after the funeral, and you could tell what they're talking about. They're talking about, what we do now?

DAVIES: You write that when there's a homicide, you describe situations where there's a murder scene, and a crowd naturally gathers. And things are said at the police lines that reflect a lot of the community's attitude towards the police and what they perceive as their attitude toward the crimes and the victims. Do you want to talk a bit about that?

LEOVY: Police hear that all the time. They hear that all the time. You don't care because he's black. You're not going to solve it because he's black. And it's very interesting, I - in terms of Ferguson and some of the other recent controversies - I was thinking that this is so complicated because there is, very definitely, a standard black grievance against police that you hear in South LA, that has to do with the generally understood problem - too much consent searches, we say, in LA, too much stop-and-frisk, too heavy of law enforcement, too much presumption of guilt when you take stops.

What I hear, when I'm in these neighborhoods, is a combination. It's a two-pronged grievance. There's another half of that. And the other half is, I get stopped too much for nothing, and the police don't go after the real killers. They don't go after the really serious criminals in this neighborhood. They're stopping me for what I've got in my pocket, but I know someone who got killed down the street. And they haven't solved the homicide, and yet, that second half seems to never break out and make it into the national dialogue about it. To me, it has always been that double-sided grievance of too much of the wrong kind of policing, not enough of the policing we actually want in these neighborhoods.

DAVIES: Jill Leovy's new book is "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America." We'll talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is journalist Jill Leovy. She worked for the Los Angeles Times for many years covering crime. She has a new book called "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America." I want you to take us inside the police department a bit, since you spent so much time there, and look at some of the factors that affect this inability to solve so many of these homicides. One is the attitude of detectives. Now, you spent a lot of years around these folks and I'm sure it's hard to generalize, but do you find that most of them actually care about the victims and their families and the need for justice?

LEOVY: Oh, definitely. It's - you can't - you're not human. If you can walk out of a 20-minute conversation with one of these bereaved mothers and not be affected by that, you are made of steel or something. I run into all the time detectives who haven't solved a case and you can tell they're kind of avoiding it. They're kind of avoiding that call - the mother's call just makes them feel bad, makes them feel guilty that they haven't solved it.

DAVIES: OK, but there are these stories about police detectives who - a lot of the victims in these crimes have criminal records themselves. And there are phrases like, you know, no victim here, no humans involved. You know, if one gang member shoots another that's, you know, that's so much the better. I mean, how common is that? Did you find any of that?

LEOVY: You know, I think it varies across the police force. One of the fascinating things to me is the way people change. A lot of officers that work in gang unit or were patrol officers end up sort of graduating into homicide units, and I've seen this over the years. They change once they start working homicide. One of the detectives in my book says, you know, I worked patrol for so many years and I never saw this. I never saw the pain to the extent that is present in homicide work. So there's this kind of personal transformation that people go through. I think you hear - you hear harder views from other functions in the police department. Homicide work is so different because it's intimate because it involves long-term relationships with families because it really gets the police officer into homes and into people's emotional lives, both witnesses and bereaved families. And not a lot of police work is like that. And there is a lot of work - and I would actually extend this to some fire department employees, some of the medical staffers who you see working - where it's very glancing, where you just have momentary contact with people and then you have to move on. You see these glimpses of misery. You can't do anything with it and you just have to go on to the next call. And I think that you see a lot of exasperation in people and to me that's a defense mechanism.

DAVIES: As you tell the story of the detectives struggling to solve these homicides, they struggle with a lot of limitations. Do you want to talk about just some of the practical difficulties they face in the department - caseloads, equipment, overtime, that kind of thing?

LEOVY: Well, when I started in Southeast Division 2004, each team of detectives had at least 10 cases per team, which is probably nearly twice as many as they should've had. There's only so many hours in the day. They didn't have a lot of basic things that they needed. They didn't have office equipment. They bought their own cellphones. They bought their own tape recorders because the DA was then requiring taping of interviews. They did not have an interrogation room. They were using just an interview room that they shared with patrol officers that had no recording equipment. They went to Office Depot and bought the blue binders that they needed for, what they call, the murder book - the casebook - that they compile. They had an extremely difficult time recruiting people to do the job. You would think that homicide detective work is a high-level job, but it wasn't. And there were many officers who preferred to do other functions that weren't as demanding, that didn't require them to get up at 1 in the morning. So it was hard to draw in the best talent and keep it. That was a kind of constant problem. And they had trouble galvanizing the rest of the station house around their needs - that the gang units, the patrol units, always had their own projects and didn't really see themselves as working for homicide, though, I think sometimes that really would've served the problem better.

DAVIES: Right, I mean, a lot of the people who know things out in the community about homicides might be talking to other units. But if they're not talking to the homicide squad then opportunities are lost.

LEOVY: That's right, or if they're not being solicited and - when they can be. There's a - I think with gang enforcement, particularly, there's a real tension between what are you supposed to be doing? Are you supposed to be searching people and trying to arrest them for possession? Are you trying to talk up street sources and get, as they call, intel, or intelligence, find out what's happening on the street? Those two things don't necessarily go together very easily and it's hard to resolve them, I think, if you're a working officer.

DAVIES: You also write that there was a moment when there was a - they crackdowned on overtime. And if you're a homicide detective you need overtime. Do you want to explain why?

LEOVY: Well, it's because of what you mentioned before. Witnesses are extremely reluctant. The way to work a case is to go back again and again and again and to catch them on off hours. It's - if you arrange the job as a nine-to-five job where people are expected to come into the station for an appointment you made, it's hopeless. That's never going to happen. And I think the really good detectives have a notion that you hit all the evidence as hard as you can immediately after the homicide. You don't lose an hour. You work those first few days continuously as hard as you can because that's when memories are fresh, that's when you're going to glean the most information, so you kind of can't limit the hours. That was 2008. This was right after the recession hit and it was, you know, public budgets were very, very strained. I understand what was going on. But the fact that homicide detectives were sort of lumped in with a lot of other municipal cuts, to me showed how it's not seen as this special function that it needs to be seen.

DAVIES: Jill Leovy's new book is "Ghettoside." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I am Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with veteran Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy, whose new book focuses on the epidemic of unsolved murder cases in African-American communities. Leovy embedded for several years with homicide detectives struggling to solve those crimes in South Los Angeles. Leovy's book is "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America."

You know, you write that most of these cases are made not by physical evidence, you know, fibers or that kind of thing, but by witnesses and a phrase that you hear a lot in some of these communities after a homicide is, everybody knows who did it. But it's the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate that is such a huge barrier. You want to just explore that for a moment and talk about what fears witnesses have and why?

LEOVY: Well, witnesses I think justly fear retaliation. There's a lot of kind you might call it soft retaliation - signals, hard stares. I had one witness on a case who a couple days after she - the perpetrators clearly saw her at the scene, woke up in the middle of the night, and they're banging hard on her windows, bunch of guys walking slowly around the house banging, banging on each window for a long time. And they didn't hurt her, but that's terrifying. And it's very clear what that's saying. What that's saying is, think about what we will do to you.

So there's a lot of things that are below the radar of police, a lot of signaling and intimidation that's going on all the time, and then there are occasional assaults and very, very occasional killings of witnesses. And as I say in my book, it doesn't take very much for people to make a rational assessment about their own safety in these situations. So people are very, very scared.

And I guess going back to what you said at the beginning about everybody knows, to me part of what has kept me on this so many years is it's so mysterious. It's such a strange, strange problem. I could not understand it. Why would one group of Americans have a homicide rate that's seven times that of, you know, counterparts in other groups? It doesn't even make any sense. But the semi-furtive nature of these killings is one of the clues about what this is. They can't be completely furtive. They can't do this in secret because the purpose is to establish powers, to send messages - is to say, we're in charge of this neighborhood, don't mess with us, we're in control. And if you don't get that message out, then it doesn't accomplish what the homicide is supposed to accomplish, which is establishing a power hierarchy in the neighborhood. And so you have to boast. You have to put up graffiti that says this gang did it, and that's something that's commonplace with these homicides.

DAVIES: You know, people know about the Federal Witness Protection Program where people are given new identities and moved somewhere else in a big, high-profile case. Is there anything that the police do or can do in these murder cases to protect witnesses and keep them safe?

LEOVY: In California, we've had witness relocation since the '60s, and the people who deal with this program are very careful to say that it's not witness protection; you should never call it witness protection. It is only about first month's rent and moving cost, typically a couple thousand dollars, to move families into a different rental unit. There's nothing available if you own your house. There's nothing to help you sort of stay there afterwards. It's widely viewed as inadequate by detectives. As I'm telling you this, I'm thinking of a certain prop that turned up in the 77th homicide unit one day. I think it was a paper bag with holes cut out for eyes, and somebody had written, witness protection program, on it.


LEOVY: And that sort of sums up the attitude. When you're dealing with a high-homicide environment, you're generally dealing with a criminal underground, you're dealing with people who are dependent on street black markets for their survival. Maybe they're prostitutes. Maybe they're drug dealers. Maybe they're just homeless people who've eked out an existence in this one little niche of the world, this alley. It's very hard to move those people and establish them elsewhere.

I talk about a detective in my book who has a witness who's homeless, and she just turns up on the street here. She's there. He finds her in an alley. She's, you know, been assaulted by the suspects in the case. He doesn't know what to do because she's just a very hard person to locate anywhere. The program kind of presumes a certain status - that you're a settled tenant of an apartment building, and that's not always the case.

DAVIES: And of course if you move somebody across the town for a couple of months while they're getting a case together, that doesn't mean that, you know, their parents, their sisters, their brothers, aren't right back in the neighborhood where they're vulnerable.

LEOVY: Many, many interviews I've heard, what about my grandparents? My grandparents came out here in 1960 from Louisiana. They own their house. They're elderly. What do I do about them? Comes up all the time.

DAVIES: You write that sometimes detectives who are frustrated at their inability to arrest people who they think have committed murders will arrest them for what you call proxy crimes. Explain that.

LEOVY: Yes. This is a nuance that doesn't get talked about enough because there's I think a general impression that the police are just arbitrarily hammering, for example, drug crimes, possession crimes, probation and parole violations - petty stuff that doesn't do a lot of harm, and yet there's a lot of penalties built behind them and so they must be racist. They must be just trying to give people a hard time. What you see on the ground is that there's a tremendous amount of violence. There's a tremendous amount of impunity, and it's, as I say, semi-furtive. It's well known to everybody in this small enclave who's doing stuff, who's boasting about it, who's dangerous. The police are part of that enclave. They're part of that community. They hear the street rumors, too. They hear so-and-so's a shooter and so-and-so's a rider, and they're frustrated because they cannot put a case on so-and-so for that assault or that homicide. So they think, well, we can get them on a drug offense. He's in a gang. He's selling drugs. If we can just get him on possession with intent to sell, at least that gets him off the street. And so you see certain amount of enforcement that's shaped by a reaction to the impunity for the serious crimes.

It's almost - when you make the prosecution of some crimes very difficult and very expensive, as we have with homicide, it almost pushes the bubble. It's - the cops naturally gravitate towards places where they have more discretion and where it's easier to do the work and stopping and searching and possession and probation, parole - that is low-hanging fruit. It's easy, cheap stuff to prosecute. And so they are seeing these victims. They are seeing people who are paralyzed or in comas for the rest of their life, and they can't make an arrest. But they know that clique from such-and-such gang has been doing this stuff, and everyone knows it. And the graffiti on the wall says it, and they can't make a case. So if we're going to focus a drug-enforcement project tonight somewhere, why not focus on them? It's a compensatory strategy that I think ends up being counterproductive but is also somewhat understandable.

DAVIES: Jill Leovy's book is "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is journalist Jill Leovy. She's written a book about her years covering homicide in Los Angeles and some of the problems that it presents. The book is "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America."

You profile a detective in Los Angeles named John Skaggs who really stands out in his ability to solve a very high percentage of the murders that he investigates in the same atmosphere that others will find so difficult, you know, a frustrating lack of witness cooperation, etc. Tell us just a little bit about Skaggs, what kind of guy he is and what attitude he brings to the cases he's assigned.

LEOVY: Well, he's a supremely self-confident individual. He is tall. He's athletic. He's a surfer - very typical product of Southern California. Contrary to some of the myths about the troubled homicide detective, very happy, well-adjusted person. And he has defined his career on lines a little different than what would - might be thought of as conventional success within the police department. Instead of rising through the ranks, he's hooked on homicide - ghettoside homicide, as I talk in the book - South Bureau homicide, the cases that don't make the news that are elided (ph) over as gang-related. And he becomes a real specialist in this - in these kinds of investigations. And I say in my book he's a - he considers himself very, very successful, and it's in his mind only because nobody else would consider him that successful. He's a D2 on a - you know, the homicide table in Southeast which is not, you know, considered a launch pad for greater things in the LAPD. So he's distinguished by his relentlessness, his perfectionism, but I think also this deep conviction he has that this is what matters in law enforcement, that this is what the police ought to be doing, that it counts.

DAVIES: And we should mention he's a white guy - you know, middle-aged white guys investigating these crimes of mostly black victims. You describe a moment - it's maybe at the beginning of the book - where he walks into the home of a woman, Barbara Pritchett, whose son, Dovon Harris, had been murdered. I assume you witnessed this encounter?


DAVIES: Do you want to just describe it briefly?

LEOVY: He's brought her the shoes of Dovon that have been sitting in an evidence locker, and he gives her the shoes. And Barbara does what I've seen other mothers do, which is she puts the opening of the shoe against her face to get the scent of her son. The scent of these victims - scent lingers on their clothes and on their shoes. And when she smells him, she collapses and slides down the wall on the floor. And Skaggs stands there, and she sobs. And that's all that happens. They just stay in that position, and it's the kind of thing that happens to you a lot if you're a homicide detective. Skaggs has seen scenes like that before. It's part of the job.

DAVIES: You describe in considerable detail a particular case, a tragic case - I mean, they're all tragic cases - but this is a young man named Bryant Tennelle who happens to be the son of a very dedicated police officer. And a kid who was, you know, not involved in gang activity - right? - hadn't - didn't have a criminal record.

LEOVY: Nothing.

DAVIES: He's shot and killed, and Detective John Skaggs works on the case. And you have a detailed account of how Detective Skaggs interviews this suspect, Devin Davis - the guy who actually was there, did the shooting and has no interest in telling him what happened. And I wonder if you could just talk a bit about his techniques. One of the things he did was just go off on these long tangents, talking in generalities, not getting to the point. Why?

LEOVY: (Laughter) He - and it's so boring. I say one of his colleagues, Gordon, calls this technique boring them to death. He's using that time to assess and watch and think about what Devin is doing and what he's projecting and thereby, determining how he's going to proceed in interview. It was quite amazing to talk to John Skaggs about this part of his job. You know, he's thinking about how the suspect smells. He's talked to me about that. Like, he picks up on how - what their body odor is, what their eyes are doing, what their hands are doing and all of that is going - he's improvising - all of that is going to help him determine how to proceed in the interrogation.

To me, it was fascinating to watch that part of his work because this is - as a personality type, this is someone who, everything they do is the antithesis of procrastination, always goes straight forward at things in the most direct possible path, not particularly verbal, doesn't wander around, but in interrogations, that's exactly what he does. He wanders and wanders and is incredibly boring and discursive. And it turns out that beneath all that discursiveness, there's a strategy evolving that eventually he executes in the course of this interrogation.

It's almost like you can't tell what's happening, but something shifts. And he's worked up to it. He's worked up to it. He's kind of positioned himself around the stories that Devin is telling him and again, not harshly. In fact, he is often very gentle. But he works his way up to a point, and suddenly he claps his hands. And he calls Devin's attention in the same way a kindergarten teacher would.

DAVIES: One of the things as you describe his work is, you know, a striking lack of any brutality or intimidation in him or the work of any detectives. And, you know, I think a lot of people think that, you know, detectives in tough neighborhoods rough people up and bully them. Was that not happening or not happening in front of you? What's your sense?

LEOVY: Well, you know, it's so interesting to see the debates about police that are unfolding now because you can go back and see newspaper clippings from the '70s, from the '60s - even from the '50s and '40s, to some extent - with exactly the same things are being said about police. The debate has not evolved at all, even though we've had decade upon decade of both procedural reform and reform to police policy. The LAPD, of course, has been through, not one five-year term of a consent decree, but two where they've changed everything about the way police misconduct is investigated and tracked and so forth. So, you know, Skaggs works in an environment where there's a lot of constraints that wouldn't have been there a few decades before.

But having said that, the best detectives that I've seen are not harsh, and the reason is that it's more effective to do what they do. And it's interesting in this environment. People want to tell them. You almost have the impression that people are kind of yearning to speak. They're just looking to be approached in the right way. So that's one of the reasons why it works. But I think it's also because, frankly, he's a very, very sophisticated interrogator who has interrogated hundreds and hundreds of people, and he knows what works. And it's the greenhorns who are harsh in interrogations.

DAVIES: Detective Skaggs is obviously an enormous talent and a really committed guy - a remarkable detective. I guess one way to make a bigger dent in this problem would be if we had a lot of people like that, but, you know, not everyone's going to be exceptional. You know, your book's not a policy manifesto, but if you were giving a police chief advice or a mayor, what would you tell them?

LEOVY: Yeah, I mean, I'm a journalist. I wanted to describe it. I guess the point of the book and the point of Skaggs - and I think it's fairly obvious - is this idea of vigor marshaled against what matters, and what matters is violence. Violence is different. Violence is appropriately our highest crime. It is so much more damaging than people even realize. You just cannot believe the pain out there, it blows your mind. It's blown my mind. It just - decade upon decade of pain.

And you have to put it front and center. You have to arrange your whole criminal justice system in a hierarchy that works out from that base of intervening in violence and all of these other quality-of-life and possession crimes. You can build them on the sides, but it's the heart of the thing has got to be violent. You've got to marshal your best efforts against it. And you've got to realize that solving things swiftly and prosecuting them effectively is more important than what we conventionally think of as prevention. In LAPD, it often felt like it was a peripheral function. And I think in the public's mind, it's a peripheral function. It goes back to this idea of, oh, well, that's just reactive. What does it do to solve a homicide? Well, what it does is it builds law. And you can't watch everybody all the time. You have to have functioning law in a society, and it's built upon this.

DAVIES: Jill Leovy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEOVY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Jill Leovy is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who spent years covering homicide investigations. Her new book is "Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a collection of short stories about almost famous women who led unruly lives. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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