This is an edited version of a story by Library writer and editor Steve Wieberg that appeared in The Kansas City Star.
Kansas City is all too familiar with "the plague"—the preponderance of murders of black men and boys by other black men and boys—that Jill Leovy details in her book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.
The pace of homicides in the city thus far in 2016 is running slightly ahead of the rate a year ago, when Kansas City's final count spiked to a seven-year high of 110. In nearly two-thirds of those cases, last year's and this year's, the victims were male and black, police records show. More than 60% of the suspects identified and tied to homicides in that time have been black males.
And yet, black males make up just 13% of the city's overall population.
"It's sort of what we find around the country," says Leovy, a longtime reporter and editor for The Los Angeles Times. "You're part of the fabric of this problem."
Ghettoside presents Los Angeles as a microcosm, portraying the personal suffering and societal cost of a numbing roll of black-on-black murders in the city's South Central neighborhoods. The problem is compounded by the multitude of homicides that go unsolved—Leovy and a Times colleague calculated a staggering average of more than 40 per square mile between the late 1980s and early 2000s—suggesting to prospective killers and the wider community that blacks are expendable.
Leovy makes it very personal, weaving in the back stories of both victims and their families and the cops called in to investigate. And she offers an antidote to the scourge: careful, conscientious investigative work by police, embodied by a veteran Los Angeles homicide detective named John Skaggs.
A tall, blond surfer type, the son of a Long Beach homicide detective and nephew of an L.A. Police Department deputy chief, Skaggs isn't necessarily smarter than everybody else. He simply works very, very hard, knocking on doors, returning time and again to reluctant witnesses, intent on tying up every conceivable loose end. Lost lives matters to him.
He is handed the case at the center of Ghettoside, the fatal shooting in May 2007 of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle. Tennelle was by all accounts a sweet kid with a promising future, the son of a respected LAPD detective who had refused to move his family from troubled South Los Angeles because he felt people deserved cops committed to living there. The motive for the murder is uncertain to this day.
Skaggs leads a no-stone-unturned investigation that results in the arrest of two young men, ages 25 and 16 and both black. Both eventually were convicted of first-degree murder and now are serving sentences of life in prison without parole.
The case is instructive, or should be, Leovy says. It's "impossible to imagine that the thousands of young men who died … during Skaggs' career would have done so had their killers anticipated a ‘John Skaggs Special' in every case," she writes.
By 2010, when Bryant Tennelle's killers went to trial, the homicide rate for black males age 20-24 had fallen dramatically in Los Angeles County, though it still was 20-30 times the national rate and blacks still were disproportionately victimized. Now, Leovy says, they're rising again—not just in L.A. but also in a number of other cities across the nation.
Among them is Kansas City. Its overall homicide count declined to a more than four-decade low in 2014, when the total was 81, and turned back upward in 2015. Black males bore the brunt of the increase, accounting for 70 of last year's 110 victims. Their murder rate—111 per 100,000 people, using the latest U.S. census estimates—was a daunting 11 times higher than the rate for everybody else in the city (just under 10 per 100,000).
As of the first week of April, 15 of the city's 23 homicide victims in 2016 were black males.
Kansas City police haven't broken down the number of such cases in which suspects also have been identified as male and black. But the department's chief spokesman, Capt. Tye Grant, says, "It's safe to say most of them fall into that category. A high percentage of them."
In Ghettoside—its title drawn from a gang member's nickname for his neighborhood in Watts—those kinds of statistics are telling but secondary. There is a very human toll that Leovy chronicles from accompanying police to crime scenes, talking to people on the street, and sitting in on court proceedings. She interviewed anguished family members. She attended funerals. For awhile, she attempted to cover every murder in Los Angeles County in a Times blog, The Homicide Report. She wanted to communicate the horror, she says.
"I'm very, very sad about certain things that I saw," Leovy says. "There are a lot of things that aren't in Ghettoside that are so much worse than what I put in and remain in my mind. I had a father tell me that it was his fault his son had died because he a poor man. He was down low or something, is how he put it, and hadn't been able to move out of the neighborhood. If he been more of a man, he told me, a better man, he thought maybe his son wouldn't have been shot. Stuff like that.
"It can be very depressing."
Kaite Mediatore Stover, the Library's director of reader's services, will lead a discussion of Ghettoside by Jill Leovy at 6:30 p.m. on May 5 at the Kansas City Police Department's East Patrol Division Station, 2640 Prospect. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.