‘Enforcing The Law Is Inherently Political’: ‘Ghettoside’ Author Jill Leovy On Police Reform In America

With the new national conversation about the nature and future of policing, and mainstream debates about defunding and abolition and what those mean in practice, it’s hard not to think of Ghettoside, Jill Leovy’s award-winning 2015 bestseller. In Ghettoside, Leovy, an LA Times reporter for more than 20 years, examined the state of policing in America, as viewed through the lens of one murder in south LA.

The book had a seemingly paradoxical thesis: that low income black neighborhoods are simultaneously underpoliced and overpoliced — that is, frequently denied justice for major crimes even while being frisked and harrassed for minor ones. As the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery (who spearhead a massive data collection project building on the idea) noted, “this suggestion is only ‘counterintuitive’ if you haven’t spent time listening to black people — who have always said this. …Black Americans have said, since the inception of American policing as we know it, that the police harass and harm them while also not protecting them.”

As many have noted, the protests following George Floyd’s death seemed to represent a breaking point, when disgust with police conduct is so widespread that some form of change is inevitable. With public fervor at a point when governments have to respond, how should they respond? Since Leovy’s book is packed with valuable insights on how the system is broken, I thought it might be worth picking her brain on ways to fix it. We did our interview over email (“If I don’t write it, it sounds like blather,” Leovy told me.).

I was mainly interested in what I imagined was the central thesis of the book: that black people in the inner cities were simultaneously over-policed and harassed but also ignored in the sense of not being able to get justice for major crimes. This seems important to revisit right now in light of these discussions about defunding police, as long as we’re pondering what the future of law enforcement could and should look like. I was hoping maybe you could expand on it/unpack it. Have you had any additional thoughts and insights on it since then?1

To reprise the Ghettoside thesis, I think there is a lot of evidence that American policing has a very strong nuisance-enforcement tradition that has come at the expense of effective investigations. There are a lot of reasons for this. But two stand out: effective investigations are expensive, and traditionally, there hasn’t been much of a political constituency for them.

On the left, many people do not like the idea of any part of policing being pushed as a solution to crime. They view crime as rooted in social ills and, accordingly, view expanded social services as the appropriate remedy. (People to the left of the political spectrum also tend to be reluctant to advocate for law enforcement functions that put more people in prison.) On the right, there has been enthusiasm for the idea of “preventive” policing and a ready embrace of the notion that patrol activities are effective in driving down levels of crime.

Neither of these views has taken much notice of detective work, which is distinct from the patrol function, and to the extent it is considered, it was traditionally viewed by both sides as “reactive” rather than “proactive” — that is, as a distasteful but necessary sort of clean-up work that must occur after crimes are committed but which cannot be endowed with any important role in combating violence, much less preventing it. The Ghettoside thesis is that effective investigations and the incapacitation of those who employ informal violence instrumentally are key elements of state-building, and thus important to driving down the frequency of inter-personal violence, although obviously not the only factor that matters.

The smartest critics of the Ghettoside thesis have pointed out, correctly, that the difference between solve rates of black-victim crimes and solve rates of white-victim crimes is not that great, and so cannot explain disproportionate death rates from homicide between those groups. I agree with this. Those who think I’m arguing that differential solve rates explain the case misinterpret what I argued in Ghettoside. Differential solve rates are not so much the problem; low solve rates across the board are the problem.

This situation is the result of a complex historical American legacy. African Americans get the worst of the consequences because of their distinct history, and because of residential segregation and poverty. Affluent and mobile Americans are better able to cope with the ineffectiveness of the justice system with respect to violence by using other means to avoid violent people, and to escape the economic and social conditions that tend to enmesh people in violence. And once one has escaped to a pricey far-flung suburb with a homicide rate of 1 per 100,000 population per year, even the failure to solve that one case (a 0% clearance rate) may not be noticeable if the victim isn’t a family member. Life is very different in places with death rates from homicide of 60 per 100,000 per year. In that case, there might easily be 30 unsolved homicides in your immediate neighborhood in the last 12 months. Imagine that.

[As AOC put it recently when asked what an America with defunded police looks like, “It looks like a suburb.”]

As you say, “The Ghettoside thesis is that effective investigations and the incapacitation of those who employ informal violence instrumentally are key elements of state-building, and thus important to driving down the frequency of interpersonal violence.” Can we also apply this to the police themselves? Isn’t a big part of what police critics are asking for simple accountability for instances when police use violence? It seems now that they’re insulated from just about any accountability. How could we remove that and how much good do you think it would do? It seems like there have been attempts to do this already but they haven’t worked and that that has increased the calls for police defunding and abolition.

The answer is yes, and indeed, this is what a good internal-affairs department (‘professional standards’ in Los Angeles) is for. I think the assertion that police are insulated from “just about any accountability” is arguable in L.A.’s case, given the many factors involved. Recall that, we, the taxpayers, recently spent something like $300 million on consent-decree reforms of LAPD, an overhaul of the entire department that took a dozen years.

The whole point of this effort was to respond to exactly the concern you articulate. Consent decrees came about as part of Justice Department civil rights-related litigation and were supported by President Obama, so they can fairly be characterized as liberal reform instruments. The provisions of the LAPD consent decree included a vastly expanded internal-affairs apparatus, complete with stings against officers. Also, with a police shooting nowadays, whether ruled in-policy or not, will nearly always result in a civil lawsuit. The financial payouts in such cases are paid by taxpayers, and these probably function as another form of accountability.

Certainly, “risk management,” that is, how much the city must pay in awards to civil plaintiffs, is a significant part of what police executives worry themselves about these days. I think research on consent decrees’ effectiveness has been mixed. At least one study found they reduce lawsuit payouts, but I can’t come down on one side or another because I haven’t spent a lot of time studying it. My point is just that quite a few police-accountability measures have already been put into place in Los Angeles, at some considerable cost, and evaluating their effectiveness is complicated and there’s probably room for reasonable people to disagree. It’s worth noting that the long historical trend has been toward fewer killings by police in L.A. From 1974 to 1978, when Los Angeles had 2.8 million residents, police fatally shot about 30 people a year. In 2019, when Los Angeles had nearly 4 million residents, police fatally shot 12 people. That’s a 70% decline in fatal police shootings per capita. It might help to understand exactly how and why this came about. But it would take a lot of research. Everything does.

Do you think there’s an effective way to shift policework away from nuisance enforcement and into effective investigations? Has the focus been so historically skewed (and discredited in the eyes of the populace) that it’s better to disband and start from scratch? What doesn’t the average person understand?

I guess one question that presents itself is this: Are people objecting to the particular form or administrative design of the police, or are they objecting to their function?

The former is obviously easier to reform than the latter, although it might cost money. There are probably lots of ways to design a police bureaucracy to meet governance objectives, such as accountability for misconduct, etc., and certainly, I have observed with my own eyes that the current system is far from perfect.

But sometimes, I wonder if certain police critics are objecting to something deeper — to the fundamental role the police fill in society. Reforming this would require change of much greater magnitude since the function of police cannot be separated from the political system in which police are lodged. Police are us. Police are politics; enforcing the law is inherently political. And — here’s the rub — not enforcing the law is, also, inherently political.

I could write an entire book about each of the statements I’ve just made. Don’t get me started! But I think I’ll just settle for this: People don’t get along. They will eternally have problems with each other that are difficult to resolve. Crime is conflict, a particular form of it, granted, but still, fundamentally, conflict. Enforcing law is choosing sides, choosing the winners and losers in conflicts. But here’s where it gets interesting: Not enforcing law is also choosing sides.

Today, police are most active in conflict-rich environments and sometimes it seems to me that it is this conflict that people really deplore — that it is this conflict that people wish to abolish along with the police. Conflict, however, is not so easily de-funded or reformed. If police forces are abolished, it’s likely another conflict-resolution instrument with a similar function would replace them. Indeed, this is how police were invented in the first place.