By Kali Holloway
By the mid-1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department knew there was a prolific serial killer operating in the South Central section of the city. His victims, like most of the residents of the area, were overwhelmingly African American and poor. All were women; many worked as prostitutes, often to fund drug addictions. In 1988, when the death toll was nearly 20 bodies deep, a single survivor lived to tell police key information indispensable to any murder investigation: the type of car the killer drove, the block he lived on, identifying features for an eyewitness sketch. A .25 caliber bullet was recovered from the victim’s chest, linking her attack to the murders of at least eight other women from the same area. But police, in a pattern that becomes maddeningly and infuriatingly familiar over the course of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, chose to do nothing with that information. They failed to undertake even the most basic requirement for ensuring public safety: alerting residents of South Central Los Angeles that a serial murderer was killing, and very likely living, amongst them.
Broomfield’s documentary is filled with revelations such as these, insights that demonstrate how Los Angeles police’s indifference to—and barely concealed contempt for—its poorest, most marginalized citizens allowed Grim Sleeper killer suspect Lonnie Davis Jr. to murder dozens of African-American women over 25 years. Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer involved with the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, a grassroots South Central organization that sprang up in the ‘80s in the absence of political will to find the killer, compared the LAPD’s withholding of key evidence from the public to “allow[ing] black women to walk around…where someone is hunting them, not knowing they’re being hunted.” Pam Brooks, a former prostitute who, by default, becomes a key investigator in Broomfield’s fact-finding mission, speaks even more bluntly about how the case demonstrates the devaluation of poor black women’s lives. “The police don’t care because these are black women…I’m a black woman. Who gives a fuck about me?”
Tales of the Grim Sleeper is ostensibly a story about alleged serial killer Franklin, but at its heart, Broomfield’s latest effort is a damning indictment of a criminal justice system that rarely recognizes black lives matter. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was finally arrested on July 7, 2010, more than a quarter of a century after the killings began. He is charged with 10 counts of murder and one attempted murder, though the actual number of victims is suspected to run as high as 100. Franklin’s trial, at long last, is set to begin this summer.