The first chapter of Justin Fenton’s 2021 book “We Own This City” ends with a police officer in handcuffs and another officer dead.
That statement is not meant to be a spoiler, because the real story is about the events that led to that moment.
“For me, this wasn’t simply a story about bad cops,” Fenton said. “It wasn’t simply a story about how they got taken down.”
“We Own This City” focuses on the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a plainclothes unit tasked with ridding the streets of guns and drugs, thereby reducing Baltimore’s alarming murder rate.
A former Severna Park resident, Fenton was a Baltimore Sun reporter when the events in the book took place. He is now an investigative reporter for The Baltimore Banner.
Known for creating the iconic Baltimore-based television show “The Wire,” David Simon and George Pelecanos have developed a six-part HBO series based on Fenton’s book. Reinaldo Marcus Green directed the series. The first episode aired April 25.
“These police officers we’re talking about in the GTTF were doing home invasions, and most outrageously, they were seizing drugs and then selling them back out on the street,” Pelecanos said, appearing on the show’s official podcast, hosted by D. Watkins. “That’s a huge leap from when we did ‘The Wire.’ The level of corruption. In fact, the level of corruption on the GTTF was unprecedented in policing.”
Fenton’s book was a culmination of his work at the Sun, as the book’s events trace 15 years of the Baltimore Police Department’s history, including unrest following the death of Freddie Gray.
Investigating these complex issues was no easy task.
“The public information laws sometimes feel like they’re written in crayon,” Fenton said when asked about the process of gathering public records to investigate the GTTF for Baltimore Sun articles and later for his book. “With the city, I would not say everything was a walk in the park, but once I got stuff, they turned over emails and body camera footage and things that helped me piece together the day-to-day activities of this unit. Disciplinary records, until like last year, were under lock and key in the state of Maryland. But I did have stuff leaked to me through sources and whistleblowers, so I was able to piece some things together.”
What he learned was staggering. Several officers, including GTTF Sergeant Wayne Jenkins and police detective Daniel Hersl, were complicit in illegal and unethical acts. In the HBO series, Hersl is played by Baltimore native Josh Charles. Jenkins is portrayed by actor Jon Bernthal, known for “The Punisher,” “The Walking Dead,” and “King Richard,” among other roles.
Bernthal was tasked with portraying a man who committed many injustices but who was also a committed father and husband. To prepare, Bernthal did extensive research and participated in ride-alongs in every Baltimore district, from patrol to a plainclothes gun squad.
“There are no words for the victims whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated by this corruption and people who suffered far greater indignities than even that,” Bernthal said on the HBO podcast. “But there’s also something to say to the good men and women of the Baltimore Police Department who suffered by being in proximity to this guy.
“So I really wanted to hear from them. I wanted to hear from his best friends. I wanted to hear from the people that he grew up with. David Simon said from the beginning, ‘This doesn’t work if we just create a monster. It just doesn’t work.’”
To accurately portray the events and real-life personas, Fenton was invited to the writers’ room. He served as a “sounding board,” offering details from his reporting and answering questions.
“For fans of ‘The Wire,’ it’s sort of a companion,” Fenton said. “It has a familiar feel, but it’s based on real events and it feels fresh. The director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, brought a great eye to it. I love the performances. I’m probably biased, but I think some of the actors did stellar work. It’s been amazing to see and I’m glad we’re able to tell this story on a bigger scale.”
Even though the book is on shelves and the show has been filmed, police officers still face a monumental task: reduce violence without reverting to the heavy-handed approach that sometimes produced results.
“I think there’s a lot of talk about police brutality and rightfully so,” Fenton said. “This show explores the next level of misconduct and corruption that really did exist here, and I think there’s been some similar scandals in other cities. Philadelphia had a whole squad like this charged not long before the Gun Force Task Force case was charged and a couple officers in Detroit were charged. There was this era of community policing that was introduced in the last couple decades. We’ve had these scandals since the ‘80s and ‘90s and it’s a reminder that what we focus on, use of force, issues of trust and integrity, are very important as well.”
Fenton plans to keep investigating any tip he receives about corruption.
“I want to keep telling these stories to the extent that this stuff is still going on,” Fenton said. “Trying to hold people accountable and let them know that we’re here, paying attention.”
“We Own This City” airs on Mondays on HBO Max. Fenton’s book is available in paperback, e-book and audiobook formats.
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