We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption
Author: Justin Fenton
Publisher: Random House, 2021. 352 pages
Reviewer: Michael Pinard ǀ November 2021
To understate the tragically obvious, the last seven years have been horrific for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and worse for the individuals and communities in Baltimore whom the BPD has victimized and traumatized. In 2014, the Baltimore Sun unearthed and revealed that in the preceding three years, the City of Baltimore paid out $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements of over 100 lawsuits brought by city residents for police brutality and false arrests. In 2015, Freddie Gray died in police custody at a Baltimore hospital with a severed spine. Following Gray’s death, Black Baltimoreans, perennially subjected to racist policing and a ravenous criminal legal system, advocated and agitated for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice to investigate the BPD. Largely in response to these exhortations, DOJ attorneys and investigators came to Baltimore and conducted a “pattern and practice investigation” of the BPD. The DOJ’s investigative findings, released in August 2016, came as no surprise to many in Baltimore, but were nonetheless revolting. The DOJ concluded that the BPD—through custom and culture—violated the constitutional rights of Baltimore’s Black residents. Plainly stated, the BPD abused countless Black Baltimoreans through racist, hyper-aggressive, and unconstitutional policing. The DOJ found that the BPD routinely tossed aside the first, fourth, and fourteenth amendment rights of the city’s Black residents. The DOJ made clear that the BPD did not see the humanity or dignity in the individuals they suspected were engaged in criminal activity, or they knew were not involved in any criminal activity, or who were victims of sexual assault. The DOJ’s findings eventually led to a consent decree between the DOJ, the City of Baltimore and the BPD. Signed by a federal judge in 2017, the decree remains in effect today, with the ultimate goal of transforming policing in Baltimore.
While instinct and prayer would surmise and hope that these policing conditions could not get any worse in Baltimore, sadly they did. In fact, at the very same time that the DOJ was investigating the BPD, a so-described “rogue” band of officers on the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were running roughshod on the streets, committing the most brazen and outlandish crimes in the BPD’s tortured history. The GTTF was composed of experienced officers handpicked by BPD brass to take guns off the city’s streets. Instead, these officers committed crimes of all dimensions, on and off the clock. Among other crimes, they stole money from individuals they arrested; stole money from individuals they did not arrest; stole drugs and money from drug dealers; stole medication from a CVS store located at the epicenter of the uprising following Gray’s death; sold the drugs they stole; extorted individuals they confronted; broke into and raided homes without warrants; committed home invasions and robbed residents; ransacked homes; lied on search warrant applications; planted drugs on innocent Baltimoreans, which led to plea deals, convictions, and prison sentences; planted BB guns on individuals to cover up their illegal use of force; eavesdropped on phone calls made from jail to cover their tracks; lied on police reports; and collected overtime for hours that they did not work! One officer collected overtime while he was refurbishing his home, while two others collected these tax dollars while they vacationed. In one instance, a few of the officers arrested an individual on a gun charge and then stole $10,000 from his home. The arrestee needed the money to pay a drug debt. Tragically, he was shot and killed a few months later. In yet another situation, some of these officers engaged in a car chase — they were in unmarked cars — with a Baltimore resident named Umar Burley. During the chase, Burley crashed into a car with two elderly passengers, killing the driver, 86-year-old Elbert Davis, Sr. They supposedly found 32 grams of heroin in Burley’s car—at least that is what they wrote in the arrest report. Burley was charged with — and ultimately pled guilty to — the drugs and Mr. Davis’s death. It turns out the officers planted the drugs in Burley’s car to cover-up the destruction and death. To put it mildly, these officers were out of control. They are now off the force and in prison. They are now former officers.
Justin Fenton, a crime and courts reporter with the Baltimore Sun, meticulously lays out these harrowing details and much more in his gripping, must-read book, We Own this City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption. Fenton brings to this book years of experience reporting on police accountability in Baltimore. He has provided in-depth reporting on the BPD, including its interactions and relationships with hard-pressed communities in Baltimore.
Fenton sets the tone in the book’s opening pages. Immediately following the table of contents, he lays out the “List of Characters” who star in what reads like an over-the-top, impossible-to-happen-in-real-life work of fiction. If only that were the case.
In light of the extraordinary number of crimes that these former officers executed over several years, Fenton deftly presents the underlying conditions that allowed them to get away with so much for so long. Importantly, he provides at the outset a broad overview of important aspects of Baltimore’s history, including deindustrialization and the related disappearance of factories from the city, white flight from the city to surrounding suburbs, and population loss. He effectively lays out the factors —political and public safety-focused — that led to various policing strategies in Baltimore, including the scorched-earth zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that fueled the mass criminalization of Black adults and children in Baltimore. He explains that, in light of persistent gun violence, several policing initiatives in Baltimore have focused on guns. One initiative was the GTTF, which was created in 2007 to “trace guns back to distributers and straw purchases.”
One important lesson from the book is that the BPD and the city’s leadership valued and glamorized macho policing. The powers-that-were placed a premium on the warrior approach to policing, which views Black communities as spaces to be policed hyper-aggressively and controlled. Fenton points out that over the years, the BPD has deemed plainclothes officers as integral to crime fighting, quoting a police chief who described such officers as the “’[v]ikings who go out in the field and return with a bounty.’”
Throughout the book, Fenton points to several instances of the GTTF being praised, valorized, and even idolized for their work. This is particularly true of its ringleader, Wayne Jenkins, whose “gung-ho attitude,” Fenton explains, gained him entry into the BPD’s “most elite units.” He received two awards (including a Bronze Star) in two years, as well as plaudits from police commissioners and the mayor. One police commander, taken with Jenkins’ brand of policing, requested that he teach his tactics to other officers. Jenkins quickly climbed the ladder. He assumed leadership of the GTTF and had direct access to the BPD’s upper echelon. His reach enabled him to secure more resources, including additional officers assigned to the GTTF. However, Jenkins used his power for evil, as he recruited officers with whom he had prior relationships and knew of their appetites to steal, rob, sell drugs, plant evidence, and lie. Fenton aptly describes the GTTF as a “supergroup of corrupt officers.”
Along with the accolades came a lack of accountability, another important theme of the book. Fenton harkens back to the mid-1990s and recalls that during the BPD’s shameful zero tolerance policing years, city prosecutors declined to prosecute 30% of the cases that came across their desks, a blaring signal that much of the BPD’s work was outside constitutional boundaries. Similarly, Fenton reveals that from 2012 to 2016, while the GTTF and Jenkins were the flavors of the day for the BPD and the political leadership, city prosecutors dropped 40% of the gun cases that Jenkins brought to them. Disturbingly, while commanders formed the GTTF to take guns off the streets, “officials would later acknowledge that no one was circling back to check or improve the outcomes.”
So, one chief reason why these former officers ran wild is because for too long – even before joining the GTTF – they were allowed to. There were no checks and balances, within or outside the BPD. Fenton repeatedly lays out instances of these former officers hitting the streets while they were under internal investigation or had pending disciplinary matters. In one episode, Jenkins savagely beat an arrestee who was being held by another officer. The victim, who suffered fractured orbital bones and required surgery, sued and was awarded $75,000 in damages. Nothing, however, about this violent incident made its way to Jenkins’s personnel file. In another instance, a former GTTF officer served a two-year suspension for failing a lie detector test and covering up the theft of $11,000. Unfathomably, not only was he allowed to return to duty, but when he did, he went right back to the GTTF.
These former officers also had nothing to fear outside of the BPD. Fenton explains that they often worked with or otherwise relied on officers from Baltimore County (an adjacent suburb) in connection with drug dealers that they (the former officers) knew lived in the county. Eventually, the county officers were warned to avoid a couple of the former officers, with one county detective stating that “county police, wary of getting dragged into questionable cases, began screening the city warrants before getting involved.” Rather than report their observations and fears, however, they were silent.
This silence extended to state and federal prosecutors. In one case, a judge ruled that the number of internal affairs complaints filed against former GTTF officer Daniel Hersl was so high that defense counsel could mention them at the trial of the three individuals he arrested. However, “rather than air Hersl’s history, city prosecutors dropped the case.” Likewise, Fenton continues, federal prosecutors in Baltimore’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, concerned about the credibility of some of the former officers, “knew enough to steer clear of GTTF cases and . . . quietly dismissed a half dozen that were pending on the federal side.” The takeaway here (at least to this reader) is that external law enforcement entities —police officers and prosecutors — knew things smelled bad, but merely held their noses. As a result, the stench worsened.
Fenton vividly details the stark contrast between the power bestowed on these former officers and the lack of power, agency, voice, and dignity afforded to the individuals and communities they victimized, not only through their crimes, but also through their abusive, racialized, and unconstitutional policing. Sadly, the victims knew as much. Those who are criminally charged – particularly if Black and poor – know intimately that the odds of prevailing at trials built on police testimony are infinitesimal, no matter the officer(s) involved. Accordingly, there was no chance, many GTTF victims rightfully surmised, that they could win at trial, despite the crimes these officers committed, the lies they told, the abuses they inflicted, and the trauma they caused.
Here again, the cultures of the BPD and the criminal legal system protected these former officers. Fenton points out that for years, Baltimore’s residents routinely brought misconduct complaints against BPD officers, to no avail. Indeed, it took Gray’s tragic killing and the uprising that followed for the DOJ to investigate the BPD and find the violations that Baltimore’s residents had whispered about, cried about, screamed about, and were resigned about for decades. And even here, Fenton lets the reader in on something else: the initial police report submitted in Court stated that Gray was arrested “without incident.” Thus, “with the deck so staked against them,” Fenton observes, “most victims didn’t even bother to speak up.” Moreover, several of these former officers recruited to the GTTF had long earned notorious reputations in the communities they policed aggressively, racially, and unconstitutionally. Fenton writes that prior to joining the GTTF, they searched residents “without justification, lied about entering homes without warrants, stole money, and recirculated drugs in the community.”
Daniel Hersl was one of these former officers. In We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America, D. Watkins, an author, professor, and lifelong resident of East Baltimore (and whom Fenton thanks in his acknowledgments) exclaimed that Hersl was all-too-well known in East Baltimore as a bully with a badge, who “had been stealing money and beating people ever since he was a plainclothes cop.” Fenton details that by 2014, the city paid out $200,000 to settle multiple lawsuits involving Hersl. In 2015, “excessive complaints” against Hersl led BPD commanders to take “the extraordinary step” of “banning him from patrolling the east side” of the city. What happened after the leadership banned Hersl from the east side? Implausibly, they assigned him to the GTTF, which gave him “citywide jurisdiction.” Nonsensically, he was able to take his horror show on the road.
It is no surprise, then, that the GTTF’s victims “often didn’t bother to complain; those who did were mostly ignored.” Indeed, Fenton relates that the FBI agent leading the investigation of these former officers had difficulty convincing some victims to speak. Some victims, themselves involved in illegal drug activity, were distrustful of law enforcement, while others interpreted any cooperation with law enforcement as “snitching.”
Most disturbing, however, was the inaction of prosecutors and defense attorneys. In perhaps the most haunting passage of the book, Fenton describes the immediate aftermath of the arrests of seven of the GTTF former officers. He quotes one prosecutor, who later reflected (and claimed) that defense attorneys, “in almost every case” conveyed that, accordingly to their client, the officer was “dirty.” However, the prosecutor continued, “[u]nless you have something concrete to show me, I have nothing to go off except your guy doesn’t want to be prosecuted.” Fenton then reveals that,
Defense attorneys were struck for the same reason: Clients had often asserted that police took money, but many attorneys had shrugged off the claims. It wasn’t necessarily that the attorneys doubted them, though some admit they did. Ultimately, the allegations couldn’t be proven and might actually cloud a more viable offense. It was a speed bump to brush past in most client interviews.
In the end, the former officers stole not only tangible property from their victims, but also their voice. The victims were silenced by those institutional actors who neither heard nor believed their complaints and experiences. The former officers took away their dignity and no one else gave it back.
Fenton also details the GTTF’s downfall. Here, he conveys that as investigators dug deeper in their criminal investigation, they uncovered more and more crime. Seemingly, there was no bottom. Eventually, the former officers were arrested, charged, prosecuted, and imprisoned. In the aftermath, other officers affiliated with the GTTF were prosecuted as well. At present, the wreckage continues to be cleared. At last count, 15 officers have been charged related to the GTTF’s criminal enterprise. As of July 2021, Baltimore City has settled 30 civil cases related to the GTTF, for over $14 million.
The author here imparts valuable lessons, the most important of which is that police abuse, brutality, cruelty, and criminality do not – and cannot – persist in a vacuum. It takes systems to victimize perpetually. The systems that were supposedly in place to root out, contain, and stop the GTTF’s criminal and unconstitutional policing at the outset did nothing but look the other way or otherwise cheer on the aggressive, barrel-chested policing tactics that were the GTTF’s hallmarks. As one last example, Fenton relates an instance when a judge ruled that Wayne Jenkins and his squad did not have a legally sufficient reason to stop a person they arrested for supposedly tossing a gun. After suppressing the gun and dismissing the case, the judge actually praised Jenkins and his squad for their work. So much for the fourth amendment’s exclusionary rule serving as a deterrent to unconstitutional policing.
There are a couple of other parts of the GTTF saga that are not found in the pages of this book. While Fenton details the lack of accountability that allowed these former officers to get away with so much for so long, there is another reason that merits examination. The GTTF’s victims — of their crimes and, more generally, their unlawful policing — were mostly (though not exclusively) Black and poor. The underlying conditions that allow hyper-aggressive policing and criminal cops to thrive are the same: the lack of value and dignity afforded to Black adults, Black children, and Black communities. To the systems and institutions that marginalize, control, and oppress, these victims were invisible. Even worse, they were disposable. They were not seen. If they were seen, they were not to be heard. If they were heard, they were not to be believed. How long would these former officers have lasted if they lied on search warrant applications aimed at white homeowners, raided the homes of white residents, robbed white residents, and framed white residents? How (and how fast) would the corresponding systems and institutions – prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and the BPD itself – have responded?
Trauma, also unaddressed in the book, is central to the devastation that the GTTF caused individuals, families, and communities throughout Baltimore and beyond. Recognizing and addressing the physical and psychological damage to targeted victims, their families (many of the incidents Fenton describes involved wives, girlfriends, and children), and their communities are core to any efforts toward accountability, redress, and justice. Perhaps the pain the GTTF inflicted will feel manageable some day, long in the future, but it will take justice, accountability, and transformation — as defined by directly impacted individuals and communities—to get to that point. Regardless, the pain will never go away.
It should be acknowledged that the author could not possibly cover each and every aspect of the torturous GTTF saga, including the long-term impacts that have yet to be experienced. But most importantly, through detailing the GTTF’s criminality, unconstitutional policing, and disregard of humanity and dignity, Fenton helps to shed light on the type of policing — as well as the related systems and institutions — that Baltimore’s residents so desperately need and deserve.
United States Department of Justice, Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department, Aug. 10, 2016
United States v. Police Department of Baltimore City, et. al., Civil No. JBK-17-99, Consent Decree (filed Jan. 12, 2017)
Watkins, We Speak for Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress (2020)
Mark Puente, Undue Force, Baltimore Sun, Sept. 28, 2014
Michael Pinard, Gun Trace Task Force Preyed on African Americans Because They’re ‘Disposable’ to Baltimore Police, Baltimore Sun, Feb. 24, 2019
Emily Sullivan, City Spending Board Approves 30th Gun Trace Task Force Settlement, WYPR News, Jul. 21, 2021
Michael Pinard is the Francis & Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Twitter: @ProfMPinard