Jill Leovy picks at the ruins of a piece of carrot cake and describes the scene she just witnessed in Los Feliz, a riot of skinny, long-haired boys in skinny jeans and skinny, pointy shoes, strutting down Vermont Avenue like a flock of peacocks. “It struck me how safe they must feel,” says Leovy, who has settled in for coffee and a chat at Silver Lake’s Cafe Tropical.
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The Los Angeles Times reporter isn’t used to seeing young males parading around like Bonnie Prince Charlies. The men on her beat, disproportionately young, black and Latino, are conditioned to puffing themselves up like cobras — big muscles and big clothes — lest they be taken for an easy target.
It’s a February afternoon when we meet, barely a hot minute since she has signed off as keeper of one of the brightest flames to burn in local journalism for some time. The Homicide Report is an L.A. Times blog Leovy started in January 2007. For a year, she tried to write about every homicide committed in Los Angeles County.
The immensity of that task is hard to fathom, but consider that prior to her blog, the Times had heretofore only mustered the resources and conviction to report on about 10 percent of the nearly 1,000 homicides committed annually in the county. In a heroic attempt to stain us all with the blood of these victims, Leovy relentlessly traversed the county’s 4,000 square miles, 89 municipalities and mind-boggling array of police departments and bureaucracies. She failed.
In a blog posted last New Year’s Eve, Leovy apologized for the homicides she missed. “The relentless demands of this beat have at times exceeded the abilities of this reporter. ... Apologies to loved ones of those victims whose names were omitted.”
It’s a measure of her obsession that Leovy can’t shake the ones that got away. Meanwhile, she gave the 845 souls she wrote about something few victims get in Los Angeles: a life after death, narrative to go with the numbers. Perhaps most important, by the sheer force of the blog’s mass and momentum, Leovy defied us to not tolerate the tragedy.
She says the idea for the blog came after “seven years of building up to it,” which is how long she’s been on the murder beat for the Times. “When I look back on it, I feel like I’ve been obsessed with homicide for a long time, but I didn’t really know about it.”
Leovy, however, isn’t playing out a reporter’s noir fantasy. It’s not morbid fascination that fuels her passion for the subject. It’s simply conviction. “What else is there?” she asks. “It’s so obviously more important than anything else. There is nothing that’s more important. That, to me, is so self-evident. It’s the only thing to do.”
While the blog was more effective than she thought it would be — “a lesson in going back to the basics” — she says she is pretty sure we’re still getting it wrong when it comes to the public discourse on homicide. “The causes of homicide are deeper than anyone can imagine,” she says. “There’s more going on there. To use the word gang as a sweeping noun that can be in and of itself a motivator is sloppy. We don’t know what we’re talking about.”
The way homicide has traditionally been covered “has led nowhere. It’s empty,” she says. “We’re asking all the wrong questions.”
Trim, blandly attractive, with unremarkable clothes and hair that lacks anything you’d call a style, Leovy seems to have evolved to blend in. She appears both exhausted by the weight of assembling her grim archive — the years of staring so long and hard into the maw of the city’s murder machine — and exhilarated by the prospects of returning to deeper analysis of the subject. She is working on a book she hopes will change the nature of discussion on the subject of homicide.
“It’s no mystery to me why we have a homicide problem, and I’m pretty confident I can document some of the reasons why,” she says. “You can create a homicidal community overnight. Look at Baghdad. Where you find high homicide [rates] anywhere in the world, it looks the same.
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“The key is to shift focus to victims and victimization. ... We don’t look at victims, because that side of the equation is really painful to think about,” she continues. “The most basic question about homicide is, Why are some people more consistently not safe? It’s a safety crisis.”
Leovy says the Homicide Report is the best job she’s ever had, and despite what you might guess, the experience has made her hopeful. “I could quit today and think what I’d like to see happen is going to happen. It’s going to get better. It’s already getting better. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon