Before Ferguson, it seemed a puzzle. Since the early 1990s, crime in the United States had fallen sharply. Yet public opinions of the police had not improved.
Minorities in particular continued to take a critical view of police trustworthiness and fairness, despite the fact that minority communities benefited most from the crime decline. What, asked the small number of police officers and academics who puzzled over such things, was going on?
Post-Ferguson, minority skepticism seems a lot less puzzling.
Increased press coverage of the police use of force—and its sometimes tragic consequences—has raised national awareness of the resentments and fears held by African Americans and other minorities towards law enforcement. At the same time, Black Lives Matter, which began as a Twitter hashtag, has become a political force, challenging presidential candidates with uncomfortable questions. And police leaders (and their political bosses) have been placed in the hot seat, forced to respond to demands for greater diversity, better training and body cameras.
Such scrutiny is overdue. Yet some of the solutions offered reflect simplistic views of the problem.
Take diversity. That police departments should look like the communities they patrol is a virtual truism. Yet greater diversity by itself may not translate into a reduction in police shootings of civilians. A recent study of the New York Police Department (NYPD) shootings between 2004 and 2006 by University of Pennsylvania statistician and former acting National Institute of Justice director Greg Ridgeway found that black officers are more than three times more likely to shoot than white officers — scarcely the finding one would expect.
Understanding the dynamics that play out on the streets and in courts is difficult. Fortunately, more sophisticated accounts of what has gone wrong in the criminal justice system—and in law enforcement, in particular, are beginning to emerge. Two recent books—Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, and Joe Domanick's Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing—are notable examples.
Leovy's book is striking for the depth of its reporting and the unorthodoxy of its ideas.
A Tale of Urban Homicide
Leovy, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, knows the world of urban homicide well. She began covering crime in South Los Angeles in 2002, later founding the paper's acclaimed Homicide Report, which documents every murder in Los Angeles. Ghettoside is about one murder in particular: the 2007 slaying of Bryan Tennelle.
Tennelle was an 18-year-old African American gunned down in South Los Angeles after being accidentally shot in a retaliatory shooting for a beef he'd had no part of. He was also the son of a detective in the LAPD's elite Robbery-Homicide Division.
Solving the case became the task of one of 77th Division's most accomplished detectives, a deceptively bland, blond, surfing enthusiast named John Skaggs.
Leovy's account of Skaggs's work amounts to a master class in homicide investigation — and a master class in reporting. This book is to the true crime genre what Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is to political journalism — a work of history that is deeply researched, obsessive, and rich with insights. But Ghettoside isn't simply a masterful true crime story. It's also a book with a theory: the most serious problem facing the American criminal justice system is not racist cops (nor — common cop view — pathological communities), but rather the absence of justice.
America, according to Leovy, is a country that has long considered black lives to be cheap. She notes that the clearance rate for black homicides in Jim Crow Mississippi and the clearance rate for black homicides in Los Angeles in the 1990s were virtually identical — about 30 percent. The result in both instances, she argues, was a loss of faith in the criminal justice system.
Few experts(have)examined what was evident every day in John Skaggs's working life: that the state's inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence, and that this was a terrible problem — perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American life.
Leovy's emphasis on justice denied is a welcome and important corrective to the dominant narrative of racist cops and police brutality. However, by focusing on one case and on one detective, Leovy ignores something remarkable: the transformation of the LAPD.
That's the subject of Domanick's book.
Dominick, a veteran journalist and the West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report , has long been critical of the LAPD. His 1994 book, To Protect and To Serve: the LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams, was a history of the department written from the perspective of a hanging judge. In Domanick's telling, the history of the LAPD was one of virtually uninterrupted civil rights and civil liberties abuses.
Blue takes up where To Protect and Serve ended, with the 1992 riots. However, it tells a very different story. This book is largely about the redemption of the LAPD.
The first half of the book recounts the troubled tenures of Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernard Parks, as well as the Rampart police scandal. However, the heart of the book is its account of former (and now present) New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's seven-year tenure as head of the LAPD.
“Blue’ weaves a compelling, fact-filled tale of a turbulent city in transition and a police department that often seems impervious to civilian control…the narrative is bustling with telling anecdotes between political and law enforcement figures.” — Los Angeles Times
Bratton arrived in Los Angeles in 2002. To some, he seemed an unlikely candidate to improve police-minority relations. After all, Bratton had worked for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, championed “Broken Windows” policing, which some critics felt encouraged excessive arrests, and taken a tough line with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Yet in Los Angeles, Bratton made reform and racial reconciliation top priorities. He wooed Urban League president and police commission member John Mack assiduously. He appointed civil rights attorney Connie Rice to investigate the Rampart scandal. He hired the civilian monitor whom the federal courts had appointed to monitor the department, put him in charge of compliance, and installed him in an office right next to the chief's.
Bratton also found officers he could promote—like Charlie Beck. Beck was LAPD royalty (his father had been a deputy chief under the legendary Chief William Parker) Beck himself had come up through the ranks, working tough assignments like gangs in Watts. But after the Rodney King riots, Beck and a cadre of fellow officers were ready to change. Bratton recognized their talents and moved them up the promotion ladder as quickly as he could.
The Concept of Legitimacy
In South Los Angeles, Beck and his peers made a concerted effort to reach out to gang outreach workers, whom police officers had traditionally viewed as little more than older gangsters. Domanick rightly pays close attention to these efforts. He situates them in the context of one of the most interesting ideas in the world of policing today, the concept of “legitimacy” or “procedural fairness.”
Simply put, this school of thought suggests that how people are treated — and whether they perceive that they are treated fairly — can have a dramatic impact on their perceptions of fairness and on their willingness to comply. The strategies pursued by Bratton and, later Beck, who took over as LAPD chief after Bratton's departure, reflect an instinctive grasp of this principle, which is at the forefront of progressive police reform today.
Bratton made significant and noteworthy progress in changing minority perceptions of the police during his time in LA. The transformation of the LAPD that Bratton began and that Beck has carried on was a major achievement.
Domanick clearly had excellent access to both men. His account of their work is generally reliable, his tone largely admiring. That's appropriate. When Bratton resigned as LAPD chief in 2009, public opinion polls showed that 83 percent of Angelenos rated the performance of the LAPD as good or excellent, including solid majorities in every ethnic group.
“Domanick's dramatic account of the Los Angeles Police Department's recent fall and rise…is steeped in his city's rich history, its fraught racial and ethnic conflicts and the complex demographics that befuddle so many outsiders…Domanick gets everything right.” — New York Times
It's an accomplishment that deserves close attention, and Domanick has provided by far the most complete account of it. Yet in the epilogue to his book, Domanick seems to question the very changes he has chronicled.
“I started this book with great admiration for Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck,” he writes. Yet, he adds, halfway through writing it, “I began to understand far more clearly the terrible ramifications of stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policing.”
The reader's parting impression is one of uncertainty about the significance and staying power of the changes Domanick has just described. That's unsatisfying but also realistic.
One of the largest questions in American policing is whether Bill Bratton, who so deftly changed perceptions of the police in Los Angeles, will succeed in doing so again in New York.
These two very different books about policing Los Angeles should serve as a baseline for what reform can accomplish — and what it must overcome.
John Buntin covers public safety for Governing Magazine. He's has written about the LAPD's role in South Los Angeles for City Journal and the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of LA Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. He welcomes your comments.