62 pages 2 hours read

Jill Leovy


Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Ghettoside, written by Jill Leovy and published in 2015, follows the investigation of and trial for the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a Los Angeles homicide detective, through the late 2000s. In doing so, the author examines the critical epidemic of black-on-black violence in communities such as South Central Los Angeles in order to explicate the root causes, systemic issues, and contemporary problems that continue to contribute to higher rates of homicide in the black community in the United States. The book’s central thesis is that “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic,” and through the history of the United States, the legal system has failed, often purposefully, to respond to violent crime in the black community (8). As a result, black lives are perceived even by those within the black community to be worthless, and black people become fair targets for homicide. Leovy uses the investigation of Tennelle’s murder to demonstrate that a strong, swift response to violent crime in any community is the best way to reduce it.

On a Friday night in May, Bryant Tennelle, the son of Wallace “Wally” Tennelle, is walking home from buying a root beer with a friend, Walter Lee Bridges, when he is struck by gunfire; though still alive, he later passes away at the hospital. The case immediately draws attention due to Bryant’s relationship with one of LAPD’s own; Wally Tennelle works homicide in the elite Robbery and Homicide Division (RHD). Though the RHD argues for the case, Wally is aware that such special treatment might actually harm it, so he is secretly relieved when the case is assigned to the South Bureau, which covers the high-crime areas south of Interstate 10.

The case is initially given to Armando Bernal, a veteran homicide detective. However, after the case stalls, legendary detective John Skaggs is brought on, initially to work with Bernal and breathe some new life into the case, though he eventually fully takes over the case. Thanks to a fortunate break by an officer who recovered the revolver used in the shooting, in addition to Skaggs’s persistent, relentless approach to cases, Skaggs and his partners are able to uncover what happened and arrest the people who perpetrated the crime: Devin Davis and Derrick Starks. Although the trial is not quite a given, because of the overwhelming evidence presented by Skaggs, they easily convict the two suspects, bringing closure to yet another case.

The case of Bryant Tennelle is interwoven with a larger picture of homicide in the eponymous “ghettoside” south of I-10 in Los Angeles. A primary piece of this picture is law enforcement itself. Wally Tennelle developed his own talents as a detective during the so-called “Big Years,” a major crime wave in the 1980s, when detectives were being assigned double the number of cases considered to be reasonable by experts, often learning on the job. John Skaggs later did the same during another period of high homicide rates in the 1990s. Much of Ghettoside takes place in the aughts, during a period of comparatively reduced, but still high, crime rates, and details Skaggs’s efforts to train and retain new young detectives. Running in the background of all of this is a perennial sense of apathy outside of the South Bureau—a lack of funds to perform the job, and apathy by both the police and the general public toward high crime rates in the area. The book frequently cuts from Tennelle’s case to other, smaller cases, such as the case of Dovon Harris, or the Laconia murders, both of which eventually led to convictions, though they may have been ignored in different hands.

The other piece of the puzzle is the community itself. Leovy develops her argument by examining the roots of black-on-black violence, showing that much of the public’s perception toward the epidemic is misguided at best, and malicious at worst. Leovy ties historical qualities of law enforcement—e.g., the way communal justice and shadow legal systems inevitably develop in places of relative lawlessness—with the systemic and historical racism of the United States to demonstrate that places like South Central (or Detroit, for example), are not in fact inherently violent, but rather have developed to be so because of the low value society places on black lives, which in turn has created a sense of lawlessness. Leovy moves between the larger picture and more personal moments in order to support these claims, showing that contrary to popular belief, residents of these communities desire better, more effective, more empathetic law enforcement, not less.