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‘Absolutely staggering’: the true story behind TV’s buzziest new show

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He was praised as a positive role model. He enjoyed the admiration and respect of his superiors and was given special privileges. His elite unit came to be seen by senior commanders as “a bulwark against chaos”.

Police Sgt Wayne Jenkins is now serving a prison sentence until January 2039.

Jenkins’ name appears in the opening shot of We Own This City, an HBO drama that chronicles the rise and fall of the Baltimore police department’s gun trace taskforce (GTTF), described in an independent report as “the most shocking corruption scandal in Baltimore’s history”.

The series was shot in Baltimore and brings together several alumni of the The Wire, both on screen and behind the camera, including David Simon and George Pelecanos. But unlike that venerated saga, We Own This City is based on the true story told in the journalist Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book of the same name.

It tells how a shift in policing strategy in 2007 led to the creation of the GTTF amid concern that police had spent too long pursuing drugs rather than guns. Fenton writes that the police commissioner Frederick Bealefield insisted that police were not going after everyone in Baltimore any more, just “bad guys with guns”.

Fenton explains in a phone interview from Baltimore: “It started as a way to try to do more sophisticated gun trafficking cases. The Baltimore police department, recognising that the problem was perhaps guns more than drugs, wanted to have a smarter approach. It wasn’t a very large initiative, just a handful of officers, a single unit, and they went about their work with little fanfare.

“Over the years, as I describe in the book, it lost that focus and was just another unit of plainclothes officers running around the city. They didn’t trot these guys out for press conferences. It wasn’t that we heard about them all the time. They were working in the shadows, and deployed by the police department as another tool to roam the streets looking for guns.”

This low profile helped insulate the GTTF from public scrutiny – and allowed it go rogue. For years its plainclothes officers went on a a crime spree that included robbing people they stopped on the streets, planting drugs and guns on innocent people, invading people’s homes and stealing from them as well as fraudulently charging the city for working overtime.

Fenton, who worked as a consultant on the six-episode TV drama, says: “It really is just absolutely staggering. It spans dozens if not hundreds of incidents under our noses and there’s reasons for that which I try to explain in the book.

“There’s been so much rightful attention on police brutality and so we know when an officer shoots somebody there’s an injury, there’s a death. But this type of casual everyday lying, stealing, misrepresenting information, in some cases framing people – it’s hard to prove and for that reason it often went unaddressed.”

The misconduct continued despite the outcry over Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who died of neck injuries suffered in police custody in April 2015. Fenton commented: “Every official’s talking about reform, reform, reform and you think that all eyes are on the police department and everybody’s behaving their best and yet this is going on. It’s remarkable.”

But the GTTF’s reign of impunity was cut short when a suburban drug investigation happened to reveal one officer’s contacts with a drug organisation. This prompted an FBI wiretap – somewhat evocative of The Wire. In March 2017, eight members of the GTTF were indicted and arrested on federal charges of robbery, extortion, overtime fraud and selling drugs seized during police operations.

Fenton comments: “We have years and years of lawsuits, of complaints, of opportunities to catch them and it was this suburban drug investigation that led to them getting caught. I think investigators fell ass-backwards into this case. You get a guy on a wiretap talking to drug dealers about drugs and then you just keep pulling that string.”

Six of the eight arrested pleaded guilty to the charges. Four of them agreed to cooperate with the justice department and testified against the remaining two officers, both of whom were convicted by a jury in February 2018. The convicted officers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 25 years.

Former members of the GTTF. From top left, Daniel Hersl, Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor, and from bottom left, Maurice Ward, Momodu Gando, Wayne Jenkins and Thomas Allers. Photograph: AP

Fenton, who reported on the trial, recalls: “Through the people cooperating and telling the truth, we gained a new level of understanding of how these things work that I don’t think we’ve had previously. They told us not just what they did but how and that was very eye-opening testimony. It’s like someone describing how they first stole money.

“In the case of [the detective] Maurice Ward, he said it was an accident: he didn’t turn in drugs and he realised that nobody asked him about it and then he sees other people around him skimming money and it’s like, ‘Wow, we can do this and nothing’s going to happen.’ And it just escalates from there.”

Sgt Wayne Jenkins was the ringleader and is the central protagonist of the book and TV series. He was born in 1980 which, Fenton notes, means that Baltimore has been shrinking and struggling for most of his life. Jenkins followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Marines but happened to leave with an honourable discharge just a month before the September 11 terrorist attacks. He became a police cadet in 2003, married and bought a house.

Fenton has spoken to many people in Jenkins’ orbit and made multiple attempts to contact Jenkins in prison but without success. He says: “He was regarded well within the police department as someone who was good at his job, who had this eye for driving down the street and seeing somebody make a movement and it turns out that person has a gun. And he’s the worst officer doing the worst things.”

In April 2010, for example, Jenkins was involved in a reckless car chase that led to the death of an innocent motorist. He and members of the GTTF framed the two men that Jenkins had been pursuing by planting drug evidence. The two men were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.

Jenkins duly tested his colleagues’ willingness to put personal loyalty to him above their oaths to uphold the law. Det James Kostoplis testified that, soon after joining the GTTF, he was asked by Jenkins to go for a ride. They drove a short distance to a side street where Jenkins told Kostoplis to leave his phone and equipment in the van and get out.

Jenkins then asked Kostoplis what he thought about investigating a high-level drug dealer, determining where he kept his money and stealing it. Kostoplis replied: “No. That’s a terrible fucking idea. You know, you can’t have a badge on your chest and do things like that.’

The HBO drama is based on Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book of the same name. Photograph: HBO

Kostoplis was transferred out of the GTTF soon after.

Bringing Jenkins and his ilk to justice does not mean Baltimore’s problems are resolved. As of late March, 76 people had been murdered so far this year, up from 65 over the same period in 2021. Another 156 people had been injured in shootings, up from 115 in the corresponding period. The city had also recorded 714 robberies, an increase of almost 25%.

The GTTF further damaged the already troubled relationship between police and residents of Baltimore, especially communities of colour. The police department is now under federal oversight but the decades-old spectre of corruption lingers.

Fenton, 38, who worked for the Baltimore Sun newspaper for 17 years and is now at the Baltimore Banner, a new non-profit newsroom, says: “I do definitely wonder if it happens again, if it’s happening right now, will I know? Will members of the community reach out to us? Will it be reported?

“Officers tell me that it’s a new day over there and everybody’s wearing body cameras all the time, which wasn’t the case until pretty late in the investigation of the gun trace taskforce. So you have to think that’s making a difference.

“But these challenges continue and I wonder how we will know if the department has fixed itself. How do we measure that, how do we quantify that, especially given the deep-seated bad feelings about this department?”

In an act of radical transparency, the Baltimore police department hired an outside investigator to conduct a review. Michael Bromwich, a former US justice department inspector general, and his team conducted a two-year investigation that included more than 160 interviews and examined hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

His report, published in January this year, ran to 515 pages and sought to explain how a scandal of such proportions could begin and continue for years without being detected. It found an extended institutional failure of the police department’s internal affairs along with broad supervisory breakdowns.

The GTTF further damaged the already troubled relationship between police and residents of Baltimore. Photograph: HBO

Bromwich, a senior counsel at the law firm Steptoe, says by phone: “People were promoted without any sense of whether they would be capable of managing people. There was no specific training for supervisors. Supervisors had no incentive to report misconduct by their underlings because, given the culture of the police department, that would put them in a bad odour in the rest of the department.”

Crime in Baltimore has been at extraordinarily high levels for decades, he adds, leading to an emphasis on crime fighting and its quantification: numbers of arrests and seizures and other measures. “That produces a culture taken to its extreme, which it was in Baltimore by many, that the ends justify the means,” Bromwich continues.

“What are little things like constitutional requirement such as probable cause or reasonable suspicion when Jenkins was quoted as saying that some of the advice he got early in his career was, ‘Never let probable cause stand in the way of a good arrest?’ That says it all, which was the law was a pesky thing that you could ignore if you couldn’t avoid it.

“This emphasis on numbers and quantity over quality really had a corrosive effect on the police department and influenced the conduct of officers. Once they realized that the rules that supposedly exist didn’t really exist, it’s a slippery slope into saying, ‘Well, I’m dealing with bad guys and they’ve made a lot of money through dealing drugs or whatever.

“‘I’m not victimising real people if I steal some of their ill-gotten gains, so if I go into their homes and I find $100,000, I’ll take $20,000 of it and nobody will be the wiser because these are people who are compromised and they’re not going to complain and, if they do complain, nobody’s going to believe them because they’ve got criminal records.’

“You take that and you multiply it by a large number of officers who get captured by that culture and what you get is the gun trace task force.”

We Own This City airs on Mondays on HBO in the US, on Binge and Foxtel Now in Australia, and in the UK at a later date