Murder, They Wrote

By Priyanka KumarApril 20, 2015

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

THE KILLING of Walter Scott, 50, by a South Carolina police officer is the kind of wrenching story that’s been making newspaper headlines with aching regularity. When a traffic stop metamorphoses into a war zone for a black man, we have to ask ourselves what kind of a country we live in. In a talk I attended today to reflect on the Scott murder and other such shootings, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) suggested that we “pause for a second” and “put the anger and outrage aside” in order to pull back and consider why we deploy police in the first place to deal with drug issues, mental health issues (which led to the recent shooting of Anthony Hill, 26, by a white cop in Georgia), and other social problems. Coates argued that as citizens, we have a responsibility to have a “deep understanding” of the policies of our country.

A deeper understanding is exactly what author Jill Leovy is after in her book Ghettoside. While the brutality with which some white cops shoot at unarmed black men is rightly being scrutinized, black-on-black murders are still not deemed media-worthy. The underlying assumption behind both kinds of murders is that black life is cheap. Leovy does a service by bringing this horrifying assumption to light and giving it some historical context. She began to cover homicides for the Los Angeles Times in 2001 and eventually got herself embedded with the 77th Division. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner salutes Leovy for her persistence — “her book is persistent as hell” — in getting this story down. The Los Angeles Times likens her gaze to that of an “anthropologist.”

Imagine you’re strolling in a Los Angeles neighborhood on a Friday evening: you’re minding your business, but you happen to be wearing a baseball cap whose color or lettering implies membership with a rival gang; you are, moreover, black, and that fact (along with the cap) is reason enough for another black man to shoot you in the head; your life ends as a pool of blood stains the asphalt. There is more than a 50 percent chance that the murder will go unsolved, and it is almost certain that the media won’t give it even perfunctory coverage. This may sound bizarre, something out of a TV show set in an impoverished country, but it is not an uncommon occurrence on the streets of South Los Angeles. How we, as a nation, have come to accept this state of affairs and look the other way is a complex issue that goes back 400 years to the arrival of slaves in America.

There is no easy answer for why black-on-black murders have received such scant attention in the criminal justice system and in the media. Leovy acknowledges the disturbing nature of the subject and the need to discipline oneself against pain in order to tackle it in any useful way. This may be a useful prescription for the reader as well. For how else can you get your head around figures such as 297 homicides in Los Angeles in 2011, with pitifully low clearance rates (the percentage of murders that get solved) for black-on-black murders?

From 1994 to 2006, a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles, according to the police department’s own data. […] In L.A. County, a much larger area, similar patterns prevailed. The result was that unsolved homicides in South L.A. numbered in the thousands — an average of more than 40 per square mile piled up during the decade and a half between the late 1980s and early 2000s.

Leovy turns at least some of these statistics into stories and introduces us to a few men and women who refuse to look the other way. “Reporters, meanwhile, virtually never covered Southeast homicides. So there was little political pressure to address them.”

What makes Leovy’s book sing — admittedly, a sad ballad — is the senseless murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of an elite RHD (Robbery-Homicide Division) detective. Wallace Tennelle, an African American, had made a brave decision to live in South Los Angeles, when most of his detective colleagues commuted from faraway communities such as Orange County. Wally not only wanted his three children to spend their entire childhood in one house, he also envisioned a world in which cops are willing to live in the neighborhoods they police. He and his wife, Yadira, sent all their kids to private school. Their youngest, Bryant, was much better at practical, craft work — he liked baking cookies — than his classes, but they spent generously on tutors to help him.

One summer night, Bryant, 18, was walking on the street with newly minted friends in the neighborhood when an SUV drove up and released another black kid who shot Bryant in the head. Bryant had begun hanging out with some kids who had loose affiliations with gang members, but he wasn’t in a gang by any stretch of the imagination. He was wearing a blue cap, but that wasn’t unusual for young men in the neighborhood; they might wear that color, suggestive of a gang affiliation, to feel safe or appear cool or be noticed by girls.

After all the love and resources the Tennelles had poured into their youngest son, and into his education, he was murdered a month before he was to pick up his much-worked-for high school diploma. The Tennelle family, including Bryant’s brother Wally Jr. and his sister DeeDee, was devastated. Wally tried his best to focus on his RHD work and move on. Yadira carefully tended her son’s grave every Friday evening after work. But grief can find a permanent home in the hearts and minds of even the most disciplined people.

When one of their own is hurt, cops pay attention. Bryant’s case was initially assigned to Armando Bernal, an experienced detective in the 77th Street Division, but the case continued to languish despite Bernal’s efforts and grew cool after a few months. For the RHD crew, who’d wanted the case from the get-go, this was an open sore. The case then got reassigned to John Skaggs, an embodiment of California cool and a fiery homicide detective, who scoffed at the usual 30 to 40 percent clearance rate; he aimed to have a clearance rate of 80 percent or higher.

Other than Wally Tennelle, if there are heroic figures in this book, they are Skaggs and the detectives he trained, Sam Marullo and Nathan Kouri among them, who, with an almost superhuman persistence, work to solve the mostly black-on-black homicides in the South Bureau. To produce the kind of results he wanted, Skaggs disciplined himself to wake up at 3:30 a.m. every day and made sure that no hour in the day was wasted. He despised detectives who ate lunch while lounging in restaurants. It was enough for him to eat his sandwich standing against the hood of his car while he was out in the field. He knew the perception in the black community was that the cops didn’t care about black murders. Black people told him so to his face. Skaggs simply toiled away and eventually won the trust and affection of mothers like Barbara Pritchett, who, like so many, had tragically lost her teenage son.

Leovy gives us blow-by-blow accounts of the frustrations South Bureau homicide detectives face. At crime scenes, patrol cops rarely cooperate with the detectives, and they can be rude to the relatives of crime victims. Key evidence and precious witnesses sometimes get lost. One reason it’s difficult for the detectives to get witnesses to testify is that witnesses can be later retaliated against, and some end up as murder victims themselves. Often, the situation becomes an entangled mess, and the relatives of crime victims become wary of the police and take it upon themselves to retaliate for the murder of loved ones. Thus the cycle of violence continues.

Outsiders tend to ascribe black-on-black murders to gang warfare, but the reality is not so simple. Bryant Tennelle, for example, simply happened to be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time; he became the victim of a confused retaliation, in which 20-something Derrick Starks ordered 15-year-old Devin Davis, a bipolar kid, to get out of an SUV and fire a handgun. In some neighborhoods, men with gang affiliations recruit boys as young as 13. By the time these recruits are 20-somethings, they are sick of gang life, but there is no obvious way to get out. Some move away, only to risk getting killed when they return to visit their families.

Historically, America has looked the other way. Slave owners did not want to be held accountable for the ways in which they treated their slaves. This fostered a culture in which blacks have long been regarded as being “killable.”

From before Emancipation, Southern law was infirm. Slave owners wanted the power to discipline slaves without legal constraints. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, ex-Confederates murdered their way to control again, terrorizing emancipated black people and their white supporters into submission. This set the stage for the racist atrocities of Southern law that are somewhat better known to Americans — the stacked courts, fee systems, and chain gangs — abuses so systematic that, across the South, black people dismissed the whole framework as “the white man’s court.”

Herein lies the heart of the problem. “When people are stripped of legal protection and placed in desperate straits, they are more, not less, likely to turn on each other.” In impoverished black neighborhoods, riddled with unemployment, young men hang out with each other all day and devise schemes to make petty cash, including dealing drugs; when conflicts happen, as they inevitably do, the men (or the boys) work them out on their own. In lieu of “the white man’s court,” they have created their own legal system, a shadow system that addresses their lives and their needs. Gang members can think of the LAPD as an “occupying army” and themselves as heroic figures or “soldiers” who “take care of business”; they sometimes wonder why they’re reviled in the outside world.

A culture of historic neglect, exacerbated by chronic social problems, with unemployment that traps black men within a few concrete blocks of each other, day in and day out — it is unsurprising that violence rips and blood flows. This “evil” force is sometimes referred to as “the Monster” in the community or by cops, and only those with a strong moral conviction can even attempt to tackle it. One such man, Sal La Barbera, the supervisor of the 77th homicide division, saw it as his mission to assemble “a group who might finally bring law to South Los Angeles.” La Barbera provided optimal conditions (until the economy caught up with him in 2008) for talented detectives like John Skaggs and eventually succeeded in recruiting up-and-coming talent like Sam Marullo, a.k.a. “Li’l Skaggs.”

With all the recent controversies in the news, this book is a much-needed account that is at least partly from the cops’ point of view. These, of course, aren’t just any cops. They’re some of the best detectives in the force. Some are so good at what they do that you want to gasp. Here’s Skaggs assessing the work Bernal’s team has done so far on the Tennelle case:

Instead of taking to the field, knocking relentlessly, talking to anyone they could find, it seemed the detectives were waiting for calls to come in. Here again were violations of the craftsman’s code he and Barling had established: You don’t sit and wait. And you remain open, never allowing yourself to be seduced by assumptions or intriguing theories.

It is incredible to watch Skaggs work his skills as a field detective in the Bryant Tennelle case, which is growing cooler by the minute. Skaggs wears down “the man in the wheelchair” in order to figure out where the gun came from, and he brings into play his astonishing skills as an interrogator to drum up statements from not only a key witness (the driver of the SUV, Jessica Midkiff), but also the teenager Devin Davis, who fired the gun. The case is red-hot again and ready to go to trial.

While it is somewhat satisfying for the Tennelle family, and for the reader, to watch Bryant’s killers finally be prosecuted, the senselessness of the crime and the backdrop of the sociohistorical injustices that paved the way for it are hard to shake off. Wally, the detective who’s always at the top of his game, breaks into sobs on the witness stand during the trial hearing for his son’s murder, and it’s not possible for the reader to keep a dry eye either.

Statistics have a tendency to be forgettable, but human lives are much less so. Bryant’s killers are in prison now, but that can hardly be the end of the story. It is incumbent upon our society to know more about the circumstances that produce such young, even naive murderers like Devin (he simply wanted to be liked by the wrong crowd) by the scores. Leovy rightly quotes Albert Camus in the book’s opening pages:

When you see the suffering and pain that it brings, you’d have to be blind, mad, or a coward to resign yourself to the plague.


Priyanka Kumar is an author and a filmmaker. She is currently working on a feature project, “Gun Shop,” about our relationship with guns in America.

LARB Contributor

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the widely acclaimed book Conversations with Birds (2022). Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksOrion, and The Rumpus.


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