We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption, by Justin Fenton (Random House, 335 pp., $28)
Residents of Baltimore are getting used to the feds swooping down on the city in pursuit of official malfeasance. Federal prosecutors are investigating Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, and Nick Mosby, her husband and the president of the city council, for alleged tax evasion and abuse of office. The mayoralty of Catherine Pugh ended when she resigned in May 2019, later pleading guilty to fraud, tax, and conspiracy charges.
Before that, in the spring of 2017, Baltimoreans learned, through local radio and television reports and in the pages of the Baltimore Sun, of the criminality of an entire city police plainclothes unit. According to Sun reporter Justin Fenton, who has written a book about it, it’s the biggest corruption case in Baltimore’s history. Picking through the rubble of this disaster is not a pleasant task, but it reveals urban dysfunction in all of its demoralizing complexity.
Certain common elements pertain. First, drugs. Just try to send officers out to enforce laws and solve crimes when at every turn they encounter loads of valuable pills, powder, and marijuana, as well as thick stacks of cash. It’s called temptation. And Internal Affairs, the traditional watchdog within police departments, is kept out of the loop in Baltimore City. Fenton explains that, in a neighboring jurisdiction, “the functional equivalent of internal affairs officers accompany drug units on search warrants.” Evidently, some police departments do a better job of guarding against temptation than others.
Bent cops will do bad things; that is a given. But a law-enforcement agency’s org chart creates problems of its own. Fenton shows how the bureaucratic bloat inside the Baltimore Police Department looms as large as drug addiction and all its attendant crime and violence, worsening the dilemma he lays out in the book’s opening pages: as citizens, we want cops who will put down the doughnuts and show initiative in fighting crime, but we do not want them crossing the line into misconduct. Cops can hate red tape—and perhaps cut the occasional corner—but they have to love, or at least respect, the rule of law and the Constitution.
With the authorities desperate to reverse Baltimore’s downward slide, it’s understandable that city officials trot out new initiatives. New units, which show dynamism for a while, eventually succumb to bureaucratic inertia and merely carry on. That’s what happened with the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), the elite plainclothes unit created in 2007. The GTTF got dramatic results at first, with “fewer but more deliberate investigations” that saw large numbers of weapons confiscated from serious criminals efficiently, without mass arrests. Then the rot set in, with no one really keeping track of an officer named Wayne Jenkins. Jenkins put on employee-of-the-month airs, all the while inveigling his fellow task-force members to pocket money and drugs from criminals. His wrongdoing under the color of police work included performing warrantless searches, planting weapons or drugs on suspects to frame them, robbing drug dealers and reselling their wares, engaging in reckless car chases that injured and in one case killed bystanders, faking a car theft to collect insurance, and—as if all that wasn’t enough—revealing the names of police informants to drug dealers.
Jenkins wasn’t the sole source of criminality in the unit. Some of the policemen had been skimming money during searches for drugs and firearms before joining his team. One, Maurice Ward, who cooperated with investigators, recalled that early in his career as a Baltimore cop he accidentally forgot to turn drug evidence in. It was a serious breach, or so he assumed: “I was terrified because in the academy they teach that IAD [Internal Affairs] knows everything, is always watching.” But no reprimand ensued, so he inferred that he was pretty much on his own.
According to one of the book’s heroes, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, GTTF members “threw drugs away all the time. [They] just [didn’t] submit them. What we were told is that you drive along Interstate 83 and throw it out the window because it’s a pain in the ass to submit the paperwork.”
The GTTF was more than conscientious when it came to another kind of paperwork, however. Overtime theft is everywhere in We Own This City. As with some of the other malfeasance, Jenkins wasn’t the only one doing it, but he took it to new heights. Ostensibly the model cop who “never moved from the small ranch-style home he had bought with his high school sweetheart,” Jenkins “was raking in $170,000 in city pay between his salary, overtime pay, and the fraudulent overtime work.” And that’s not counting the proceeds from robberies and drug sales. An officer “told the FBI that Jenkins had once said he had $200,000 buried somewhere and was building toward $500,000.”
Jenkins sent cheerleading emails to the department’s upper echelons, but out on the streets, he pulled stunts that others wouldn’t dream of, like phoning his lifelong friend, a crooked bail bondsman named Donald Stepp, during drug busts so that Stepp could “show up undetected to help pilfer drugs without his officers knowing.” One day, suspicious colleagues quizzed Jenkins about this random person entering a restricted area with them. He told them Stepp was with “the fugitive task force.”
It took years for the FBI and federal prosecutors to build their case against the GTTF, which began with accusations from drug dealers that officers were ripping them off during arrests. A similar federal case against drug cops in Philadelphia collapsed when the accused stuck together and retreated behind the “blue wall.” So prosecutors proceeded very carefully in Baltimore. When they moved in and apprehended the eight officers, Jenkins, with his usual brazenness, tried to hire the very defense lawyer whose complaints—that Jenkins was shaking down his criminal clients—helped originate the case. The lawyer declined to represent him.
After the scandal broke, several officers in the Baltimore PD said they were not surprised; Jenkins’s testosterone-fueled excesses and general pushiness had alienated some. But his immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Marjorie German, was caught off guard. She admitted that she couldn’t control Jenkins, that he would go over her head to garner special treatment from higher-ups, and that he sometimes got others to sign his overtime slips and didn’t even work out of the locale to which he was assigned. Still, the GTTF’s crimes were a “kick in the gut,” and she “did not expect this” from Jenkins. “He gives 150 percent on the street and is always running and gunning, and that is what they want.”
German took no responsibility for letting a wayward unit operate with impunity for years. Instead, she shifted blame: “While she did not want to absolve the officers of responsibility for their own behavior, she said, ‘Command created the monster, and allowed it to go unchecked.’”
How much can police reform accomplish in Baltimore—or in any city—if this kind of institutional sclerosis is left untouched? The feds have been looking over Baltimore’s shoulder since the riots following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015. A U.S. district judge is implementing the Justice Department’s consent decree and has been proctoring police-training sessions in a program called Ethical Policing Is Courageous.
EPIC represents the latest in police reform. It’s what they’re calling the “peer-intervention approach.” Good cops, as Fenton shows, face a lot of pressure from bad cops to participate in misconduct in the ranks, or at least to look the other way. Overcoming the diffidence that stops officers from keeping one another in check sounds commonsensical—but it can still be tricky. Clearing out the mid-level empty suits would also help, but that item is not covered in the consent decree.
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images