CNN went further than any national media outlet ever went when it recently implored viewers and its website readers to help Los Angeles police hunt down the Grim Sleeper. That's the macabre play on the Grim Reaper; the old English term and symbol for death. The Grim Sleeper has been on the prowl for nearly two decades in South Los Angeles neighborhoods. His targets have been mostly poor women, some have been prostitutes, others drug addicted or with petty criminal records. All have been black.
This brought the standard charge that police foot drag in catching the killer when the victims are poor black women. Critics say that if the Grim Sleeper's victims were middle class white women, police and city officials would pull out all stops to catch the killer. This is not the first time serial killings of poor black women have brought loud shouts of a racial double standard in how police deal with them. The double standard charge has been made against police in serial killings in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, and lately in the Washington D.C. area. A decade ago community groups in East St. Louis were outraged when they learned that city officials turned down offers from the FBI to help in nabbing a serial killer suspected of killing 13 women during a two year span. Red faced city officials back pedaled fast and accepted FBI help.
It's not just the race of the victims that have stirred rage. It's also the race of the killers. In Los Angeles and the other big cities, the serial killers have been black. This blows the myth that serial killers are mostly young white males. About one out of five of serial killers are black males. But black on black homicides always fuels suspicion that police take these crimes less seriously.
Police and prosecutors bristle at the charge that they are less diligent when it comes to nailing serial killers who kill blacks than whites. In Los Angeles, officials pleaded that they were under staffed, lacked the resources, and technology to make a swift arrest when the killings began there years ago. There's truth to that. In the past decade, there's been a tremendous advance in the use of computer matches, and forensic and DNA testing. This has helped police quickly zero in on likely suspects. In Los Angeles, police officials have gone further and set-up special task forces to track down the killer. Yet, it's also true that the serial killer's victims in inner city neighborhoods are not the type of women who reflexively ignite police and public outrage. There are reasons, troubling reasons, for this.
The long running Grim Sleeper killing saga underscores the great threat of murder and criminal violence to many black women. Homicide ranks as a major cause of death for young black females. A black woman is more likely to be raped and assaulted than a white woman. While the media at times magnifies and sensationalizes crimes by black men against white women, it ignores or downplays crimes against black women.
Then there's the drug menace. Nearly half of the women behind bars in America are there for drug-related offenses, the majority are black. Some of the suspected serial murder victims in Los Angeles had a rap sheet for drug use. They easily fit the popular public and media profile of the drugged-out, derelict black woman.
There's also the notion that these women are dangerous women. The police slayings of black women in some cities, the upswing in violent crimes by women, and Hollywood films that show black women as swaggering, trash talking, gun-toting, and vengeful stoke public jitters about these women. One in four women is now imprisoned for violent crimes, and half of them are black.
According to annual reports from the Sentencing Project on crime and imprisonment in America, for the first time in American history black women in some states are imprisoned at nearly the same rate as white men. They are being jailed at even younger ages than ever. American Bar Association studies have found that teen girls account for more than one-quarter of the juvenile arrests, are committing more violent crimes, and are slapped back into detention centers after release faster than boys. Black girls were arrested and jailed in far greater numbers than white girls.
CNN's admirable crusade to catch the Grim Sleeper has certainly made the public much more aware of the peril that many black women face on the streets; and part of that peril is the possibility of being the victim of a serial killer. That's also made police even more determined to nail their killer.
Unfortunately, it took an ugly and embarrassing media spotlight on the gruesome serial killings in Los Angeles to heighten police and public awareness that serial killers come in all colors, and more often than not their victims are poor, black women.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com