Lonnie David Franklin is a monster.
Franklin, the “Grim Sleeper,” is a convicted serial killer who, between 1985 and 2007, murdered 10 to 200 women in Southern California. (I will return to that extraordinarily wide range of estimates later.) The fact that he is an African-American is centrally relevant to my purpose here. He is an appalling object lesson in the lethal power of official racism, past and present. At the same time, though, his case should also serve as a serious caution in current debates about reforming American policing in an age of urban unrest.
On a personal note, one of my odder claims to fame is that in the early 1990s, I pioneered the academic study  of serial murders committed by African-Americans. At that time, characters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer had become worldwide folk villains, but the burgeoning literature on serial killers made next to no reference to black offenders. Some commentators even suggested that such killers did not exist, making this a distinctively white pathology. Knowing what I did about the number of real black offenders, I disagreed strongly. I argued that African-Americans made up perhaps 15 percent of all U.S. serial killers, and subsequent research has supported that figure.
In stressing the abundance of black multiple killers, my goal was not of course to highlight the savagery and cruelty of any particular race, but rather to point to the neglect of minority victims. This actually gets to the issue of how serial murder happens, and why we need to consider much more than the evil or derangement of any given individual. Everything ultimately depends on the availability of victims and the priority that society places on them.
A vicious thug who likes to kill police officers, corporate CEOs, or Catholic priests is unlikely to claim more than one victim before the authorities start paying attention and reacting very forcefully. Hence, the man does not become a serial killer in the first place. If, though, a comparably disturbed offender chooses instead to target “low-value” or disposable individuals, such as street prostitutes, he can kill a great many victims without the police taking much notice.
That is all the more true if we also factor in a social ambience where life is assumed to be short and tenuous, for example in an era of gang wars and rampant drug abuse. If police find a corpse in such circumstances, it simply does not become a high investigative priority. Often, in fact, the dead are not even recognized as murder victims, but are simply dismissed as likely drug overdoses. Even when women survive such attacks and escape from their assailants, police generally pay little attention to any complaints they might make.
This is where race comes in so centrally. One of the golden rules of homicide is that generally, like kills like. People tend to kill within their own social setting, and commonly within their own class and race (and often, their own neighborhood). Throughout American history, some black men have committed savage, random violence against people of their own race, and to that degree, they are exactly the same as their white counterparts. Consistently, though, the fact that their victims are also black, and usually poor, means that police have paid little attention to those crimes, allowing individual offenders to count their kills in the dozens or hundreds. Even if they are arrested and convicted, media bias has meant that such offenders receive little public attention, leading police and government to underplay or ignore the problem of serial violence in minority communities. Racial bias thus contributed to the mass victimization of poor communities, and above all of poor women.
Exhibit A in this story would be Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, the era of crack wars and rampant gang struggles, when murder rates were skyrocketing. Police focused heavily on those crimes and pathologies, and largely neglected the mass slaughter then underway of poor minority women, whose deaths were basically noted in passing. California media in the 1980s identified a prolific serial killer called the “Southside Slayer,” who in retrospect might have been a composite of six or seven independent and unrelated offenders. At more or less the same time, Los Angeles was the hunting ground for several terrifying serial killers, men such as Louis Craine, Michael Hughes, Chester Turner, and Lonnie Franklin himself—all African-American. DNA evidence suggests that other yet unidentified killers were also active in the same years, and often the very same streets.
And that was just Los Angeles. The total number of victims involved here is unknown, and probably unknowable. Lonnie Franklin, as I mentioned, was officially implicated in around ten deaths, but a substantial collection of portrait photographs was found in his possession. If in fact they are trophies of his other, unrecorded victims, then we might be counting his victims in the hundreds—virtually all black and Latina women.
Similar stories could be told of other crisis-ridden inner-city areas across the nation. Other notorious names included Lorenzo Gilyard in Kansas City and Anthony Sowell in Cleveland. Such offenders are not rare, and what they have in common is their choice of marginalized victims: poor, minority, female, and commonly drug users or prostitutes.
The solution would be to reshape police priorities so that forces place a much higher premium on minority victims and are more sensitive to the possible presence of compulsive sexual criminals. There should be no “low value” victims. Put another way, the message would be that black lives matter, and especially black women’s lives. Through the years, community-activist groups have made strides in this cause, so that murder series are now more likely to be acknowledged, but much remains to be done.
And this is where we face a paradox. As black communities have protested against violence and discrimination by police, the resulting conflicts have strongly discouraged police from intervening in minority areas, reducing proactive interventions. Although this is debated, much evidence now suggests that the immediate result has been an upsurge of crime and violence in those areas, through the “Ferguson Effect.” Police tend to ask why they should go into an area unnecessarily if what they do is going to end up on YouTube and the evening news. In fact, such an idea is by no means new. After the urban rioting of the mid-1960s, police massively reduced their footprint in most inner-city areas, and the consequence was the jaw-dropping escalation of violence and homicide between 1967 and 1971.
Today, we are only beginning to see the first inklings of the Ferguson Effect and the consequences of the reduced police presence. The less police intervene in troubled minority areas, the easier it will be for poor victims to die and disappear, and for men like Lonnie Franklin to hunt without check. In the worst-case scenario, these could be very good times for serial predators, not to mention rapists and domestic abusers.
Less policing means more crime, and more victims. If you reduce levels of policing sufficiently, you will create a perfect ecology for victimization.
Obviously, this is not a simple dichotomy: the choice is not between policing that is interventionist and brutal, on the one hand, versus total neglect on the other. What we need, ideally, is effective, color-blind policing firmly rooted in particular communities, where all groups can rely on the good intentions and law-abiding character of their police forces. Trust is everything.
But that situation will not come overnight. In the interim, withdrawing or reducing the police presence runs the risk of endangering a great many ordinary people, whose lives absolutely must matter. We are talking about equal justice, and equal protection.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.