Pulitzer-Prize nominated reporter Justin Fenton seriously delivers with his organized crime thriller We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption (Penguin Random House Canada, 2021), to be published this month. Fenton’s book tells the story of Baltimore Police Department and the 2015 scandal that led to eight of their officers being charged with racketeering. All eight officers were a part of the “Gun Trace Task Force,” a plainclothes unit that was tasked with reducing the number of guns and drugs on the streets of Baltimore. Instead, they stole from citizens, arrested innocent people and then lied in court about these arrests, participated heavily in the drug trade, racially profiled and generally abused any and all citizens they came into contact with.
Fenton uses the story of one such citizen who was brutalized by the Baltimore Police, Freddie Gray, to frame and contextualize the eventual prosecution of the Gun Trace Task Force. Fenton tells us that “[t]he officers had carried out their alleged crimes undeterred by fact that the police department was at the time under a broad civil rights investigation following the death of a young Black man from injuries sustained while in police custody”. That young man was Freddie Gray, who sustained serious injuries while being transported in a police van. Grey was eventually taken to hospital where he lapsed into a coma. He died a week after his arrest. Fenton explains that some thought Grey had sustained his injuries in what’s known as a “rough ride”, a form of police brutality in which officers place a suspect in a vehicle handcuffed and without a seatbelt while they proceed to drive erratically. The death of Gray resulted in Baltimore Police Department being placed under federal oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It’s important to note that the Gun Trace Task Force committed their crimes under this federal oversight, totally undeterred until another group of federal officers caught wind of some corruption surrounding the Gun Trace Task Force and were eventually led to the task force itself. Fenton relays that this has led many to believe that top brass knew about the corruption within the Gun Trace Task Force and tuned a blind eye. This context that Fenton gives about Gray and the subsequent federal oversight of the department was crucial for me as a reader. It not only allowed me to gain understanding about this department and their offences committed against the citizens they swore to protect, but it also allowed me to understand how easily members of the Gun Trace Task Force could have been caught. If the Department of Justice was watching the department after Gray’s murder, how then were they not discovered?
Fenton answers this question by centering this unbelievable tale of corruption around former Baltimore Police Officer Wayne Jenkins. Fenton provides careful detail about Jenkins’ upbringing, his time in the Marine Corps, and his early connections with people who would eventually become top brass at the Baltimore Police Department. His connections with these top brass members are a part of what allowed him to commit these crimes for so long, Fenton argues, along with his seemingly incredible arrest record and leadership qualities. Fenton says that “[i]n 2005 alone, Jenkins is listed in court records as having been personally involved in more than four hundred arrests, sometimes half a dozen in a single day”. Jenkins was also allowed to hand-pick the officers that made up the Gun Trace Task Force, and he chose officers he trusted to assist him in his crimes.
The biographical information on Jenkins helps the reader to understand how Jenkins’ persona within the Baltimore Police Department as a crime fighter and leader of junior officers was created. It also guides the reader to an understanding about how police departments are set up to allow corruption to occur. Focusing in on one officer and his web of corruption and using that story to illuminate larger systemic issues that police departments face is part of what makes this book so effective. The reader is exposed to the incredibly dysfunctional structures of police departments and the ways these structures encourage and cover up corruption. A comment that was made by the judge that presided over Jenkins’ trail speaks to this issue: “[i]f a sergeant is corrupt, is comprised, there is almost no way to design a system to prevent it”. This idea is one Fenton interrogates and utilizes as he tells Jenkins’ story.
Although Fenton uses Jenkins as the center of this terrible story, he makes a significant effort to include the stories of other individuals who worked for the Baltimore Police Department, or who were assaulted and abused by Jenkins and his task force. Ever the journalist, it is clear that Fenton conducted many, many interviews and tracked down any and all people who had been affected by these crimes. He includes emails that were sent from Jenkins to upper brass in the department, as well as transcripts from recordings that were secretly completed by federal officers when they got wind of the task force’s potential crimes.
To read what these officers were saying and doing while being unknowingly recorded was extremely shocking to me. However, it was not their corruption that surprised me; police corruption and brutality are everyday occurrences. What disturbed me was the extent and breadth of their crimes: they caused deaths, put innocent people in prison, stole drugs from dealers and handed them to other dealers for resale on the street, falsified search warrants and reports, stalked drug dealers and then robbed them of their earnings, and consistently lied under oath. What was also totally perplexing to me was that they were seemingly never seriously suspected. Fenton digs up emails from top brass to Jenkins that time and time again praise him and his task force for their work. Jenkins was even promoted to Sergeant while he was committing these crimes. The contrast here between a cop that falsifies search warrants in order to rob private dwellings while simultaneously being awarded promotions, new vehicles, better scheduling and more overtime was a contrast that took me the entire length of the book to conceptualize. Corruption this significant had to be allowed to happen, and Fenton’s book brought that fact to light.
Fenton elaborates upon the depths of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department by suggesting that this corruption began long before Jenkins. Fenton quotes one retired attorney as having said that “these cops put on trial are just the present tip of the iceberg that’s existed in Baltimore Police for decades. These cops didn’t learn how to trick it by themselves. They were taught.” The systemic nature of this police corruption and brutality are at the forefront of Fenton’s text. He tells the story of their corruption not for entertainment value, but rather to expose their crimes in order to connect them to larger issues of police brutality and corruption. Fenton’s book contributes substantially to the growing body of literature that exposes police departments and their very real corruptions. Because of its detail, its careful storytelling and its expert reporting, I cannot recommend this book enough.
A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Penguin Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.