Monday, February 04, 2008

If You Only Read One Article All This Week...

Read Jill Levoy about her LA County Homicide blog. It tells the story of how political correctness and a fear of honestly dealing with race both at the Los Angeles Times - within the city and the county as a whole - has allowed so many neighborhoods to become unscrutinized killing grounds.

And still the Los Angeles Times newsroom - even today - is always far more interested in pandering to demagogues on any issue involving race and taking the cheap shot rather than asking any of the hard questions that need to be asked if we are to ever have any solutions to our collective problems whenever race is involved.

Below is just the opening of her piece:

This newspaper typically covers about 10% of the homicides in Los Angeles County each year. They are often the most sensational or shocking: a baby hit by a stray bullet, or a celebrity murder.

But for the last year, the paper's website,, has recorded every homicide. It was my idea. I reported on crime for the paper, and I wanted readers to see all the killings -- roughly 1,000 violent deaths each year, mostly of young Latinos and, most disproportionately, of young black men. The Web offered what the paper did not: unlimited space.

So the Homicide Report, as it was called, began with the simplest of journalistic missions: exposing a painful, largely unseen problem.The first list of homicide victims, published just over a year ago, contained the names of 17 people. Eight were Latino. Six were black. Two were of Cambodian descent -- killed in a double homicide. None were white. Most were in their 20s.

Readers responded strongly. "Oh my God," began one of the first posts by a reader. "The sheer volume is shocking," wrote another. "Almost like they're disposable people," wrote a third.

Two or three homicides occurred in the county per day, on average. As the report developed, I filled notebooks with police jargon, scrawling the same details over and over. "Male black adult" or "Male Hispanic" -- accompanied by addresses in Compton, Florence, Hawthorne, Boyle Heights or Watts.

The coroner provided a basic list of victims. But much of the information about the killings had to be wrung from police agencies spread across 400 square miles, or from crime scenes or victims' families. I worked mostly out of my car, fanning to the south and east of my office.

Many agencies were not used to releasing details. One police press official was surprised to learn that victims' names were public information: No reporter had ever asked him for that, he said.

When I first presented a list of victims to the state Department of Motor Vehicles for photos, the clerks were baffled. Twenty young people every week? "What is this?" one asked. "Did a plane crash?"

One could know the numbers in the abstract yet still be unprepared for the sheer volume, similarity and obscurity of the victims. Los Angeles County's homicide rate was on the decline, and 2007 was destined to be one of the least violent years in a generation. Yet the concentration of killings remained the same -- a pocket epidemic of violent death among black and Latino men in neglected corners of society.

There was Manuel Perez, 17, whose homicide I chanced to hear mentioned in a detectives' staff meeting. As soon as I put his name on the site, a comment was posted: "I miss you so much, Manuel."

There was Fernando Tello, 15, Latino, stabbed, who took a week to die at a hospital. Isaac Tobias, 23, black, had no DMV record. Valdine Brown, 28, also black, seemed to have disappeared altogether: The coroner had a record of his death in a hospital, but the detectives had never heard of him. Eventually it was revealed that Brown's killing was filed under one of his many aliases.

At a crime scene in the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division, lifelong friends of a victim said they knew him only by a nickname. At another scene, a family had no recent photographs of their 19-year-old son. For some of those victims, a police mug shot was the only record of their presence in the world. A detective in Watts once asked me to run a photo of an elaborate norteƱo-style belt buckle, the only clue to the identity of a victim whose body had been burned.

Detectives routinely admitted that the names and ages they had recorded for victims were, at best, conjecture: Many victims, including illegal immigrants or career criminals, had lived entirely underground.


The Homicide Report made no distinction between a celebrity and a transient. Each got the same typeface, the same kind of write-up. If you were the victim of a homicide, you made the blog.

The report included the race of each victim. Newspapers traditionally do not identify homicide victims by race. But failing to include race also served to disguise the disproportionate effect homicide has on blacks and Latinos.

I had met many people -- most of them black -- who had been bereaved not once, but twice -- and, in a couple cases, three times -- by the slaying of an immediate family member. Giving readers anything short of a full and accurate picture of this surfeit of bereavement seemed indecent. Some readers, though, were critical. The practice "just feeds into stereotyping of minorities," one wrote.

The blog's readership slowly grew. The death of "Sinister" drew more than 100 emotional posts at the end of the year as readers segued from grief and anger into an impassioned debate about race and murder.

Police agencies gradually grew more cooperative. A sheriff's deputy who throughout the year had been exceptionally helpful sent an e-mail in December praising the effort. He closed: "My younger brother was murdered . . ."

And more at the linked article above....

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