Emotions ran high when readers, joined by three Kansas City police officers, met recently at the new East Patrol Division Station to discuss Jill Leovy’s “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.”
Leovy follows an LAPD detective’s investigation in Los Angeles’ South Central neighborhood, where far too many young black men are victims of unsolved homicides. Leovy’s book is part police procedural, part character study and part heartbreaking indictment of a societal epidemic that shows little signs of abating.
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Participants in the FYI Book Club discussion were quick to zero in on Leovy’s painful statistics and offer personal experiences that mirrored those of the victims and their families in the book. Others focused on the relentless dedication of Detective John Skaggs in catching the killer. Still others lamented the plight of residents in poor urban neighborhoods and pledged efforts to make conditions better, encouraging honest conversation among all races.
One participant was horrified to learn how few resources were allocated to detectives working to solve the murders while so much more was given to patrol units that are perceived as “harassing” residents in the name of crime prevention.
Howard Wilkens found the nature of gang activity most surprising. “People didn’t join gangs to commit crime,” he said, “but for self-protection and what some young men saw as a lack of law enforcement.”
Ginny Battaglia noted the limited choices for some residents who want to help detectives. “Even when community members want to testify and know it’s the right thing to do, they can’t risk their own lives or those of their families,” she said.
Jim Dawson also appreciated Leovy’s storytelling. “Because she was a journalist, she was able to create a personalized story where readers got to know police and their families, victims and their families,” he said. “She made it come alive.”
Her accounts of Skaggs and fellow detective Wally Tennelle impressed all readers. “He cared to such a degree that he didn’t want to move up. A career wasn’t important to him; doing a good job was more important,” Pat Rogers said. “And I didn’t know that police officers could lie in the interview room!”
KCPD Officer Rita Olson-Stawicki laughed. “I used to lie all the time because I was a cop,” she said. “I was doing undercover work in the community. You can always hint that you have more information than you really have and hope the suspect confirms it.”
Deputy Chief Randy Hundley said KCPD detectives are equally dedicated. “There are many ways to trigger the suspect into helping you legally solve the crime,” he said. “When it comes to homicide, you do whatever it takes.”
Readers noted the dedication of Tennelle, the father of the murdered boy in “Ghettoside.” “He cared and was so impressive,” Peggy Martinez said. “He had a passion for his community. And he did his job at great personal cost.”
KCPD Sgt. Tony Sanders said, “Leovy puts laser focus on an onion. There are many layers, many problems, many solutions. It’s not just poverty or education, or access to guns. All of that is part of the onion. Leovy gave us a voyeuristic view of crime in a major city, but we could take this book into any major city in America, even Kansas City.”
The discussion closed with one reader pointing out the importance of memories.
“We need to keep the faces and names of the victims in front of the community,” Catina Taylor said. “We need to keep reminding the community this is no way to live and not what any of us want. We need people who have that passion.”
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library's Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on May 21 for the introduction to the next selection, “The Good Lieutenant” by Kansas City’s Whitney Terrell.