We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City
by Justin Fenton.
When Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across the United States and then the world last year, their target was not Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd. Floyd’s murder resonated so widely because Chauvin’s brutality signified something deeper and more pervasive. The video footage of Floyd’s death offered evidence of both an ideology (white supremacy) and the system that sustains it (racism) at their most fundamental level: state murder. In the following months it sparked debate not just about policing in America, but school curriculums in Britain, the repertoire of the Paris Opéra, St Nicholas’s assistant Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, and racial disparities in Covid deathrates across the West.
When Chauvin went on trial nine months later, the prosecution was at pains to narrow things back down, and reduce the scope of criminality to one man. ‘You were told
To be very clear, this case is called the State of Minnesota versus Derek Chauvin. It is not called the State of Minnesota versus the police
This was as savvy – in lowering the stakes for the jury it made it easier to secure a guilty verdict – as it was dishonest. A week before Schleicher’s summing up, and just fifteen minutes’ drive from the court, Daunte Wright was shot dead by a police officer after a traffic stop. Less than half an hour before the verdict was delivered, a policeman in Columbus, Ohio, shot dead a 16-year-old girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, who appeared to be threatening someone with a knife. Chauvin wasn’t a one-off, he was just the one who was found guilty.
Discussions about race are often guided by views on individual and collective responsibility: some believe the problem is one of bad people and bad attitudes; others focus on policies, practices and power. In We Own This City Justin Fenton tells a story of bad people and bad attitudes, but – whether he intends to or not – his book reveals the way systemic discrimination operates, whom it affects and how it is sustained. His narrative is brisk and engaging. Unlike Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, which describes the investigation into a single Los Angeles murder, or Tim Pritchard’s Street Boys, about a London gang, We Own This City doesn’t stray far from the story. It is a reporter’s book – detailed in its accounts, sources and references but short on analysis and commentary. He gives us the dots but doesn’t connect them.
The book grew out of his work as a crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, where he covered the voracious corruption of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, an elite unit set up by the city’s police department, and its subsequent prosecution by federal agents. Sergeant Wayne Jenkins and his officers didn’t just take drugs and money from the criminals they caught: they planted drugs and guns on people who weren’t criminals (or who weren’t doing anything criminal); they broke into the homes of people they had apprehended and burgled them; and chased people who had done nothing, and then arrested them for running away – in one case this caused a fatal car crash. They routinely installed GPS trackers on the cars of people they planned to rob, conspired to falsify accounts and documents to cover their tracks, and repeatedly perjured themselves on the witness stand.
On 22 March 2016, to take one example, Jenkins and his team saw a black man with a backpack getting into a van. The van was being driven by a drug dealer called Oreese Stevenson; inside, they found $21,500 and half a kilo of cocaine. Jenkins took Stevenson’s keys and went to his house, where he found guns, more cocaine and bags of money. He didn’t have a search warrant. He called a friend, Donny Stepp, and told him to come over. Stepp was a bail bondsman and drug dealer who had spent time in prison. When Jenkins stole drugs, he would pass them to Stepp who would sell them on, take a cut and give the rest of the money to Jenkins. ‘He opens the passenger door to my truck,’ Stepp recalled, ‘throws two kilograms of cocaine in it and says, “Donny, I’m going on vacation, can you get me $5000 this week?”’
Jenkins then got a search warrant for the house he had already raided and told his officers to film themselves opening the front door as if for the first time. In the basement they found $200,000 in a safe and took half of it. Then they opened the safe again, this time recording themselves on a phone, and feigned shock. ‘Don’t touch it,’ Jenkins can be heard saying. ‘We’re not even gonna fucking touch it. Keep recording, no one is touching this money. Keep your fucking camera on, so we don’t get any bullshit.’ They called a federal drug task force and headed to the home of one of the officers where they shared out the spoils – $40,000 for Jenkins and $20,000 each for the other three.
Jenkins eavesdropped on Stevenson’s calls from prison, wanting to know whether he would pursue the stolen money and drugs. Stevenson told his wife, Keona Holloway, that he wanted a good lawyer: the police officers had even taken his Breitling Navitimer watch which was worth $4000. Jenkins concluded that without Holloway’s help Stevenson wouldn’t be able to afford a decent lawyer, so he tried to break up their marriage by writing her a note that purported to be from a woman pregnant with Stevenson’s child. It didn’t work. The case against Stevenson, who had previously spent eleven years in prison for his part in putting heroin worth $27 million on the streets, was thrown out after the judge deemed the original arrest to be unlawful. Outside the courtroom, Stevenson’s lawyer approached Jenkins: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but everybody tells me the same thing. You rob and you steal and you’re taking everybody’s money.’
The GTTF’s flamboyant malpractice spanned a decade, from 2007 to 2017, and Fenton’s account is set against changing local and racial politics. A demand to bring down the murder rate pushed the city’s leaders to encourage tougher policing practices, with an emphasis on increasing the number of arrests. The GTTF stopped and searched more people, providing stats which gave the impression that it was a success. This emboldened Jenkins and his squad, and their seeming impunity made them increasingly reckless. In this context, the widespread demand for more police accountability and sensitivity following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 counted for very little.
The federal investigation into the GTTF becomes a parallel story in Fenton’s book. It began when county officers found an unauthorised GPS tracker attached to the car of a drug dealer called Aaron Anderson. When they went to Anderson’s home, the door had been kicked in and the place ransacked. When they discovered that the tracker had not been issued by the police but was the personal property of a GTTF cop, John Clewell, they contacted the FBI. It turned out that another officer in the unit lived next door to Anderson. What if the police had broken into Anderson’s flat? ‘I wasn’t even believing it as I was saying it,’ one of the drug detectives said. Leads and evidence accumulated until there was enough to request a warrant for wiretaps that provided more leads and evidence. Of the nine men in the squad, eight were eventually convicted of corruption charges in 2017 and sent to federal prison.
Over the past twenty years Baltimore has been to crime what 19th-century London was to poverty. This is due in large part to David Simon, once a Baltimore Sun reporter himself, whose books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighbourhood (written with Ed Burns) were both turned into TV programmes, and fed into his most successful TV series, The Wire. The city has one of the highest murder rates in the US, and the economic and social roots of its problems run deep. In 1970 around a third of its workforce had jobs in manufacturing; by 2010 the figure was 7 per cent. Many secure jobs have been replaced by badly paid, precarious work in the service sector, and unemployment is high. In 1950 Baltimore was the sixth largest city in America; since then, its population has dropped by almost 40 per cent and it’s now the US’s thirtieth largest city. One in five adults and one in three children there live in poverty. In 2007 I reported on the shooting of 14-year-old Bernard Simon in the city’s Cherry Hill neighbourhood. It reminded me of a South African township, completely segregated and poor, with just a few ways in and out. ‘If you’re in Cherry Hill, then chances are it’s your destination,’ Cathy McClain, executive director of the Cherry Hill Trust, a local group dedicated to revitalising the area, told me. ‘I don’t know what you can do to fix this,’ she said, referring to youth violence. ‘We just haven’t been successful in persuading these kids to want to live beyond their teenage years. They don’t seem to want to be grandparents. They’d rather live on on somebody’s T-shirt. If they’re 21, then they’re old.’
It’s not difficult to see how poverty became racialised. Maryland was a slave state, though not a confederate one. White people fled the city before capital left, taking flight in the 1950s from desegregation, and in the 1960s from riots. In 1950 Baltimore was 76 per cent white; today it is 27 per cent white, and the white people who left took their resources with them. In American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (1993), Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton described five ‘distinct dimensions’ by which segregation might be measured: unevenness, which is the degree to which African Americans are over-represented in specific areas; exposure, the level of contact, or lack of contact, between blacks and whites in a neighbourhood; clustering, the extent to which black areas adjoin or are ‘scattered about in a checkerboard fashion’; concentration, whether a minority group occupies a very small area of a city; and centralisation, how close blacks live to the city centre. Massey and Denton labelled the metropolitan areas that scored highly on at least four measures as ‘hypersegregated’. Baltimore scored highly on all five, particularly centralisation and isolation. ‘Within a large, diverse and highly mobile post-industrial society,’ the authors concluded, ‘blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth.’
There are fewer hypersegregated cities in the US today than thirty years ago, but Baltimore remains one, and it is getting worse. Massey and Denton found its racial segregation particularly resistant to class advancement – even when black people earned more money it made relatively little difference to the degree of segregation they experienced. The idea that blacks could improve their circumstances by working hard at school, going to college and getting a good job was ‘movie stuff’, according to Antonio Shropshire, a drug dealer who routinely bribed police officers and partied with GTTF officers before being arrested on federal charges. ‘Very few make it out of the hood that way. Most of them do what they see – either become a killer or drug dealer. Their uncle, cousin, or friend of the family sells drugs, and the son sees that money and says: “I’m tired of living poor.”’ A third of young black men are unemployed compared to a tenth of young white men; black people earn on average just over half as much as white people. In fourteen Baltimore neighbourhoods, life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. Poverty is shaped by race; so is crime.
The demand of Black Lives Matter and others to ‘defund the police’ follows the logic that addressing the causes of crime – by funding housing, drug rehabilitation, education and mental health services – and ending the process of stopping, searching, shooting, arresting and jailing will end the cycle of criminalisation. To police a place like Baltimore in the absence of a welfare state and during a ‘war on drugs’ is an exercise in futility, brutality and impunity. In 2014, 24-year-old Steven Loney was convicted for assault with a firearm, among other offences. At his sentencing, he told the judge:
You all keep sending me to jail. Send me to jail. Jail is making me worse. You all can’t tell that? I ain’t been on the streets. I been locked up my whole life
He was given nine years.
With its manufacturing base destroyed and its tax resources severely depleted, Baltimore has taken on the hallmarks of a failed one-party state. The city has had a Democrat mayor since 1967: the current mayor, Brandon Scott, received 70 per cent of the vote. His predecessor, Catherine Pugh, is currently in jail for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. In 2019, a year before her sentencing, the police commissioner she appointed was sent down for ten months for failing to file tax returns.
For decades the city was essentially run by militias, of which the police were one. During the period when the GTTF was active, inmates from a criminal gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, were in charge of the local jail. Tavon White, the most senior BGF member in the Baltimore City Detention Facility, fathered five children by four prison guards and bought a BMW and a Mercedes-Benz while inside (Loney was his second in command). The police treat areas of high poverty and high crime like occupied territories, criminalising communities and using force as the first resort. There is little democratic oversight and few legal consequences when they overstep the mark.
Most members of the GTTF were black, which simply illustrates the systemic nature of the problem. Once the system is in place, the colour of the people enforcing it is at best of secondary importance, and often irrelevant. We Own This City shows that police officers were given incentives to meet arbitrary targets and Jenkins produced the results they wanted: according to court records, in 2005 he was involved in more than four hundred arrests, sometimes securing half a dozen a day. They often didn’t lead anywhere – between 2012 and 2016 40 per cent of his gun cases were dropped by prosecutors – but internal praise for Jenkins and his team was effusive. ‘Wayne, what you are bringing to the table cannot be measured,’ Captain Kevin Jones, commander of the Operations Intelligence Section, wrote to him in 2016. ‘Each gun, each person extracted reduces violence on a larger scale than we could imagine.’ The same year the deputy commissioner gushed: ‘Your leadership is what builds greatness. Keep pushing and stay safe.’ So the state doubles down on its authoritarian impulses; arrests increase and so does crime; nobody’s safe and nobody’s sorry.
After Harvey Weinstein was exposed, the screenwriter Scott Rosenberg said: ‘Everybody fucking knew. Maybe we didn’t know the degree
At times the collusion was conscious. In a city as tough as Baltimore, the rationale went, a police officer had to break some small rules in order to enforce the big ones. One member of the GTTF, Jemell Rayam, was promoted while under investigation for shooting someone. He shot two more people (on different occasions), killing one of them, before receiving a Citation of Valour and a Silver Star for his work in the first shooting. A police spokesman said that officers were tasked with going after bad guys with guns and that ‘bad guys fight back.’ Rayam was sentenced to twelve years for his role in the GTTF’s corruption.
This way of thinking was evident during the numerous trials at which the GTTF gave evidence: it was assumed that the accounts of black people, many of whom had criminal records, could safely be dismissed. When one defence lawyer described the way Jenkins and his team had fabricated information against his client, the GTTF conspired to lie on the stand. The judge chose to believe them: ‘It appears that not just Detective Jenkins, but virtually all the other officers
Freddie Gray died in Baltimore in 2015, at the height of the GTTF’s corruption. He was 25 and had been raised by a mother who didn’t complete middle school. The family lived in places that sometimes had no electricity but plenty of lead paint: he and his sisters had double the legal level of lead in their blood, which at this concentration can impair impulse control and mental functioning. Gray dropped out of school at fourteen and was first arrested on a drugs charge as an adult a week after his eighteenth birthday. He was arrested ten more times in his first year of probation and he ended up spending two years in prison.
On 15 April, Gray was walking through Gilmor Homes estate in West Baltimore with friends when they saw two policemen on bikes. Gray wasn’t dealing drugs, or breaking the law, but at the sight of the policemen he started to run. He was caught and found to be carrying a folding knife that contravened an outdated local by-law on switchblades. He was bundled into a police van; Kevin Moore, a local resident, saw him being ‘folded up like a crab, like a piece of origami’, and started filming. The video, Fenton writes, ‘showed Gray groaning in agony; as the officers carried him to a van his legs appeared to be dragging behind him.’ The last video to show him alive was taken by Brandon Ross, one of Gray’s friends. He is lying face down and motionless in the van with his legs hanging out of the back. By the time he arrived at the Western District station about 45 minutes later he wasn’t breathing. He was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Centre, where a coma was induced. He never woke up.
Gray’s death occurred just months after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, and the news of his death led to riots. In response, the governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. The autopsy revealed that Gray’s spine had been almost severed at the neck – a high-impact injury consistent with being thrown around in a moving vehicle. Baltimore officers were known to subject detainees to ‘rough rides’: they would drive erratically with a handcuffed prisoner unrestrained in the back of a van. The six officers involved were tried separately. One case ended in a hung jury; three were acquitted; charges against the others were dropped. A justice department report revealed that the police force in Baltimore made 44 per cent of its stops in two black neighbourhoods representing 11 per cent of the population.
On the day the report was released Jenkins and his team went out ‘hunting’, pulling over black men on minor seatbelt violations and searching them without probable cause. Fenton reports that ‘one black man in his mid-fifties was stopped thirty times in less than four years – with none of the stops resulting in a citation or criminal charge.’ Elsewhere he tells the story of a man who was arrested five times in three months: on one occasion he was taking the trash out, on another he was arrested for ‘loitering’ in front of his own home. ‘How do you get arrested in front of your own house for loitering?’ he asked. As one bystander in Baltimore put it after Gray’s death: ‘You can only put so much into a pressure cooker before it pop.’