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Americans are supposed to turn to police after a murder. In black communities, they often can't.

A veteran crime reporter explains how police under- and overpolice black Americans.

A police car with its lights on. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Nine years ago, Barbara Pritchett-Hughes lost her 16-year-old son, Dovon Harris, to gun violence in the streets of Los Angeles. And a little more than a month ago, she lost her surviving son, 30-year-old DeAndre Hughes, to the same kind of horrific gun violence.

The loss of her first son opens Ghettoside, the incredible 2015 book by journalist Jill Leovy, who won the PEN Center USA’s award for research nonfiction this week. It is a book that leans heavily on the neglect black communities face when it comes to these murders — the kind of neglect that creates the circumstances in which a mother has to bury two of her sons.

The loss of multiple family members, Leovy told me over the phone on Wednesday, isn’t a rare occurrence in violence-torn minority communities.

“It makes you view the numbers in a different way. The concentration is quite startling,” Leovy said. “I’ve talked to lots of people who have lost two sons, some people who have lost three sons. I did a story way back in the mid-aughts about a random block in Compton, where for other reasons I went up and down the streets to interview people, and it turned out every house had lost somebody.”

But it’s impossible to overstate the impact these kinds of losses have on mothers like Pritchett-Hughes. “If your child is murdered, you are in some sense maimed,” Leovy said. “You go on in life, but you are a different shape than you used to be.”

This is the tragedy at the heart of Leovy’s book: While America’s violent crime rate has plummeted by roughly half since the 1990s, shootings and homicides in many black communities remain astonishingly common. Although black people make up roughly 13 percent of the US population, they made up more than half of homicide victims in 2014 across the country, according to FBI statistics.

While this epidemic may seem like it should be the top priority of the criminal justice system, Leovy demonstrates in Ghettoside that it is not. She points to, for example, homicide clearance rates, which measure how many murders are solved by police.

In New York City, for instance, 86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared to 45 percent of those involving a black victim, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. And David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Mother Jones that in minority communities, clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”

“Explicitly confronting the reality of how murder happens in America,” Leovy writes in Ghettoside, “is the first step toward deciding that it is not acceptable, and that for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country.”

For Leovy, this is the grand flaw in the criminal justice system today: While the system is well-known, particularly in black communities, for its excessive harshness against black people for drug crimes and other low-level offenses, the system is often absent when people, particularly black Americans, most require it.

The law needs to prove its legitimacy to have any effect

A police car. Valerie Macon/Getty Images

The thesis at the heart of Leovy’s book is that, when it comes to cases like Pritchett-Hughes’s, the law has lost its legitimacy. It simply won’t take the murder of her sons very seriously, demonstrating to her and her neighbors that the system just doesn’t care much about their lives.

But it will harass and punish them for what amounts to petty crimes — drug offenses, traffic violations, loitering, and so on — through police tactics like “stop and frisk” and “pretextual stops,” in which police stop someone under the pretext of a low-level crime, like speeding or failing to signal on a turn, to look for drugs or illegal guns. Studies show these tactics are disproportionately deployed against black communities — even though stops involving black people are typically less likely to turn up contraband than stops involving white people.

“Imagine that you’re a student at a school. There are bullies at the school, and the bullies beat you up every day on the playground. But the only time the playground supervisor comes around, he or she says, ‘Don’t chew gum on the playground,’ and walks away, and ignores the bruises and the fighting,” Leovy said. “You would be cynical. You would cease to believe in the system.”

In fact, you’d probably cease to believe that it’s just the bullies picking on you, but rather that the system is a bully in and of itself. Pulling back to the criminal justice system, this is how Leovy described the situation in her book: “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

The result, Leovy argues, is more violence. The fundamental basis of the law has long been to help people settle disputes without violence and through some sort of legal system instead. White communities have lived with this comfort, based on the higher number of crimes solved in those communities, for generations. Black communities — where people are often trapped due to severe residential segregation — have not, and that helps explain why they suffer from high homicide and general violent crime rates.

As Leovy writes, “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”

It’s not just homicide. The clearance rate for other violent crimes, such as robbery and assault, are generally even lower: FBI data shows that in the murder clearance rate in 2014 was about 64.5 percent in 2014, but 47.4 percent for violent crime overall — and just 29.6 percent for robbery. And these rates are much lower in minority communities.

Ghettoside has been accused of being too reductive by hanging so much on the narrow issue of homicide clearances, which is a fair criticism,” Leovy told me. “I’m not arguing that you can hang everything on homicide clearances, or that [more clearances] alone would resolve the disparities in death rates in homicide on racial lines. But I do think it’s a big deal. And homicide is an indicator; it’s actually used by a lot of criminologists as an indicator of crime, where the numbers are thought to be relatively accurate.”

Homicide also shows the vicious cycle involved. Police need witnesses and cooperation from the community to solve crimes, including murders, and therefore build legitimacy that can help prevent future crimes. But if communities feel distrustful as a result of being both overpoliced for low-level crimes and underpoliced for serious crimes, they are going to be less likely to cooperate with cops.

So most murders will go unsolved, and those unsolved murders lead to more distrust. That leads to more murders, which will subsequently go mostly unsolved. And so on.

This is why so much of the work on policing reform, such as President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, focuses largely on rebuilding trust between the police and minority communities. With surveys showing that black people are half as likely as their white counterparts to trust police in their communities, it’s clear that the perceived legitimacy of the law has been broken in some neighborhoods — and it presents a public safety threat.

America asks police to do too much

I asked Leovy what is behind these problems — why police seem to take violent crime less seriously in black neighborhoods. She said the blame is not on individual cops, but rather American society as a whole — which has stranded black people in poor, violent neighborhoods, through residential segregation, while paying little attention to their problems.

Specifically, Leovy argued that we have expected far too much out of police officers beyond their standard duties of protecting us from violence. We have seen this time and time again in response to societal crises: A drug epidemic? Police need to crack down on drug possession and dealing. A shortage in mental illness treatment? Cops become the first responders to mental health crises. Problems in school? Police are deployed in classrooms to help dole out discipline. And so on.

Leovy told me a story, which she witnessed firsthand during a ride-along with a Los Angeles police sergeant, that really demonstrated these problems:

The situation was a domestic violence incident where he was abusive, and then he had smashed the plate glass windows of the ground-floor apartment and disappeared into the darkness.

So the police come. They take the reports. They deal with the victim. She’s not wealthy, obviously, and the front window of her apartment has been broken. And it’s in the middle of the night in south [Los Angeles], and she’s got a bunch of kids. And they finished the report, and realized they can’t leave her there, because she has no protection, it’s not safe to be in an open apartment. And they can’t figure out what to do — there’s no place to take her, there’s nothing to be done with the window.

We ended up sitting there with the sergeant for a couple hours, radioing all over the city. And finally, they found an officer way across the city in another precinct who had been a carpenter in his previous life. He drove to the only 24-hour Home Depot in the county and got a piece of plywood. And three hours later, he nailed up the piece of plywood on the window by himself, so that the cops could leave and go on other calls.

The sergeant turns to me and said to me, “This is policing in America. It’s always 20 other problems that have gone neglected, led to this, and there’s no place to turn, and there’s no one to fix it.”

It is difficult to measure exactly what the impact of all these extra expectations is, given that there are more than 15,000 police departments in America that operate in wildly different ways. But the broad effect is a lot of police officers are being taken off their core duties — of preventing and solving violent crimes — and into various other jobs.

This is clear in how the federal government funds and supports local and state police departments. For decades, the federal government has invested in grants that encourage fighting drug trafficking and community policing, but not much has gone to improving the day-to-day work of a police officer.

As Leovy put it, “The SWAT team has a fancy new vehicle with a turret on it, but the detectives are still without cellphones and conducting these interviews much in the way they did 30 years ago.”

For example, police interrogations are obviously a very important part of solving a crime — they can produce leads and confessions. But as Robert Kolker explained for the Marshall Project, police around the country have by and large relied on the same style of interrogation — the “Reid technique” — since at least the 1960s. This is the technique you have probably seen on TV, where police take someone into a small room and act tough and confident, trying to intimidate a suspect or witness into telling all. Yet it has no scientific evidence behind it, and most police departments have used it for decades instead of seriously investing in or studying alternatives.

This helps explain how Pritchett-Hughes and other mothers can lose two or three of their sons to gun violence and almost never get justice for their murders: For a long time, the criminal justice system that is supposed to respond to these tragedies has been largely missing, far too busy taking care of other issues that all levels of society and government have apparently deemed more important.

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