September 25, 2015

To Live and Die in L.A.

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I was a graduate student, I worked as a research assistant on several projects for criminologists. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging project I participated in was a study of homicides in Los Angeles.

This was a comprehensive, multi-faceted study. I was given a great deal of responsibility for collecting data from police homicide files. The senior researchers had gained a court order that enabled us to have access to hundreds of files from 1993 and 1994, peak years in homicides for the city and county. I led the team that went to police and sheriff’s headquarters, reading files along with a team of students that I supervised who would read the files and then use a coding sheet to note key details about the incident. Over the course of the study I personally read hundreds of police murder files.

There is one case file that stood out the most. It contained a picture of the victim at the crime scene. He was about my age. He was in the driver’s seat of a car, slumped over the steering wheel. A single red circle was visible on his forehead. His eyes were open and expressionless.

This was different than any image of a murder victim I had seen on TV or in movies. The simplicity of the wound, his face frozen in time contrasted with the drama and mayhem so frequently featured in popular culture.  I have never forgotten his face, drained of life in that car that he expected to drive home that day. My heart feels heavy whenever I think of that picture.

Crime dramas and news accounts almost always erase the humanity of the victims and their families when they live in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. That young man’s face will never allow me to do so.

Law enforcement files often provide details far beyond what we hear in the news. They describe the location of the homicide, time of day, and ambient temperature. Well-written reports enable the reader to imagine themselves at the scene. The reports describe details about the incident, often explaining what the victim was doing just before the killing. In many cases the homicides happened during mundane, daily activities like walking down the street. Readers of the report learn of what the victim looked like, their age, and the clothing they wore. If the victim was conscious when police arrived, their final words might be included.

Too many of the incidents in our study were nearly identical. A young man of color walks down the street—not always at night—when strangers approach. “Where you from?” they ask. “Nowhere,” he might answer, shorthand for asking for gang affiliation and denying any.

When we hear of “gang-related” killings, what news accounts leave out is that many times the victims were not in gangs, but instead were targeted because they were male and in a neighborhood with many gangs with whom the assailants had disputes.

There’s a tendency for many people from other parts of town to assume most young men in these neighborhoods are criminals and to ignore reality that they are more likely to be homicide victims—even if they have stayed out of trouble.  If we decide their murders are someone else’s problem, it makes them easier to ignore.

As reporter Jill Leovy writes in her book Ghettocide: A True Story of Murder in America, this lack Ghettosideof attention has translated into limited resources for homicide detectives who work these cases. Instead, resources have gone towards patrols that are supposed to be preventative, but often seem like harassment for citizens of the patrol areas if people are stopped for “looking suspicious” on a regular basis.

Policies have focused on more punitive sentences for people when they have been caught, but most homicide cases in the most crime-ridden communities are never solved. Detectives are often overloaded and cannot devote the attention necessary to catch and convict the perpetrators, contributing to “street justice” and retribution, as well as witnesses’ fear of retribution for cooperating with police.

Leovy is not a sociologist, but her book contains important sociological insights. She notes that historically and cross-culturally, communities of marginalized people often do not benefit from the same level of police protection and interest in solving violent crimes as they do in wealthier parts of town, leaving family members frustrated and feeling like their relatives’ lives matter little to authorities—which is part of the message of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. If the authorities don’t punish the perpetrators, friends and families might feel their only hope is retaliation in the form of “street justice,” perpetuating the cycle of violence.

This frustration builds on mistrust if police target community members for minor offenses but seem less interested when community members are victims. This, in turn, translates into public perception that people in these communities are dangerous, while ignoring the dangers they face—or assuming that they must all deserve their victimization. This sentiment, Leovy points out, predominated in the Jim Crow south, where homicides of African Americans were seldom investigated.

According to the FBI’s 2013 Supplemental Homicide Report, the most recent year for which data are available, about half of all homicide victims in the United States were African Americans, and yet African Americans comprise just 13 percent of the population. The vast majority of all homicides are intraracial, meaning assailants tend to be the same race as their victims.

Males are more likely to be victims of homicide regardless of race, but African American men are especially likely to be victims. According to FBI data, while white men are more than twice as likely to be homicide victims as white women, African-American men are nearly six times more likely to be victims as African-American women. We often ignore this reality.

Sociologist Elijah Anderson’s ethnography, Code of the Street: Violence, Decency, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, offers crucial insights into this cycle of violence. It is a must-read if you want to understand urban violence in America. Within this social context, with schools wanting and job opportunities limited, respect is rarely available through traditional means, such as professional achievement. Violence and appearing tough are often pathways to respect in the absence of other means. Anderson finds that in order to survive in a violent environment, even “decent” families must teach their children to fight back when taunted, to avoid victimization for appearing weak.

Thus, the cycle of violence begins as an adaptation to limited opportunity and protection from victimization, and becomes embedded in a community’s culture—despite the presence of many decent people.

These decent people often go unnoticed, and even if they are victims of murder, they unlikely to make the news or draw outrage from the larger society. Part of the point of the study I worked on as a graduate student was to find the causes and correlates of these homicides in order to create programs and policies that address the actual reasons that young males of color are at such high risk of victimization in America’s cities.

Until we fully understand the cycle of violence—and fully understand how widespread victimization affects entire communities—we will likely be limited in our efforts to stop it. This is not just a criminal justice problem, but a public health issue impacting the victims of violence, their families, friends and neighbors.


I wish I had an opportunity to do something like she did. I do think that it is much more real in person dealing with homicides. Unlike, in movies or TV it is more utopian. Dealing with real life homicides can be very tragic. It interested on how she went about it and how she had students recognize certain areas of the problem of the homicide that occurred.

I found this article rather horrifying. I know that racial and social injustice are very prevalent in today’s society, but this article caused me to notice it more. I am very interested in crime and the criminal justice system as a whole and I found that after reading this article, I was able to see more. Sternheimer’s accusations about crime shows are entirely true. Their is a huge emphasis on families of wealthy victims rather than those who come from a less fortunate background. Also, she really causes thought into gang related violence and how it is portrayed. Many, including myself, do and did believe that gang violence is always between members of opposing gangs. It is shocking to read that many of the victims of these violent crimes are just living in the area and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Sternheimer compares police violence and how many lower class African American teenagers are being seen as bad kids, I cannot help but think of a horrible accident that happened back home. A young hispanic boy was shot dead by a police officer because he was carrying a fake gun. The violence is concerning and makes one think that if the same situation happened with a white teenager, he would not have been killed. Modern society has caused this shift back to the dark times in the United States. One cannot help but think about how slavery and racism still exists in the United States today and how racial and social injustice are so prevalent. Society has not move forward much and Sternheimer makes that very clear in her in depth article about crime and injustice in the United States.

Modern society has caused this shift back to the dark times in the United States. One cannot help but think about how slavery and racism still exists in the United States today and how racial and social injustice are so prevalent. Society has not move forward much and Sternheimer makes that very clear in her in depth article about crime and injustice in the United States.

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