We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City

Justin Fenton

Faber, £14.99

Review by Neil Mackay

EVEN the most progressive of folk on this side of the Atlantic scratched their heads in confusion at the seemingly counterproductive nature of the slogan “Defund the Police”, which took hold at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. “Defund the Police” was an understandable howl of rage, a visceral response to the killing of George Floyd – yet another black American killed by a white man in blue uniform. However, it seemed self-defeating, offering an open goal to right-wing culture warriors by asking the impossible: the dismantling of the police force.

The only problem was: that’s not what “Defund the Police” meant. It wasn’t about dismantling police departments or removing all funding from law enforcement. The slogan was simply shorthand for the idea of taking some of the vast sums of money funnelled to an increasingly militarised US police force and using it, instead, to improve cash-starved services like social care and mental health.

Too many heavy-handed cops and not enough nurses, schools, public housing and drug facilities – that was the well-intentioned, although badly expressed, central idea. Yet, an hysterical and perpetually offended right-wing US media – constantly screaming about cancel culture while simultaneously engaged in an endless campaign to cancel voices on the left – deliberately took the clumsy term literally. ‘Look!” they hollered, “social justice warriors want to disband our police forces. There’ll be anarchy on the streets!”

After reading Justin Fenton’s astonishing and powerful work of investigative journalism, We Own This City, many would be forgiven for deciding that it’s indeed maybe now time to take the “Defund the Police” slogan literally – that in America, at least, law enforcement is so utterly tainted and perverse that the US would be better to rip it all up and start again. To read Fenton, is to confront a police service as dangerous, wicked and out of control as the criminals it purports to protect citizens from; a law enforcement culture which permits abuse on a grand scale carried out by those who are meant to protect and serve.

This is a timely book – more so for America, but also for the UK, confronting as we now are abuses of power carried out by police. Today, in Britain, our focus is upon male officers and their behaviour towards women in the wake of the Sarah Everard killing – the concerns only highlighted by chilling scenes of police manhandling female protestors demanding justice for women. Do we need reminded that events such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence have already shown policing in Britain to be institutionally racist?

Fenton – a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize winning crime reporter with The Baltimore Sun newspaper – tells, in forensic detail, a tale almost too outlandish for Hollywood, yet all true. It’s the story of a cabal of police officers in Baltimore who are no better than gangsters. They robbed, beat, and sold drugs – they planted and fabricated evidence and framed people. One would call them rogue were it not for the fact that Baltimore’s Police Department seems rotten to the core and the subjects of Fenton’s investigations merely the worst of the worst.

I came to the book as a writer who’s covered crime for three decades. What I read, left me enraged and shocked in equal measure. What Fenton uncovers reads like the behaviour of police in a Latin American banana republic in the 1970s, not 21st-century America. The scandal plays out against the backdrop of the death in 2015 of Freddie Gray – yet another black man who lost his life in an encounter with police. As the city tries to come to terms with the death, police have turned Baltimore into their own criminal fiefdom.

Fans of The Wire by David Simon – another Baltimore Sun reporter, who turned his experiences on the streets into TV gold with a Dickensian flourish – won’t be disappointed. This is the “Bodymore, Murderland” (Baltimore, Maryland) of the HBO series in all its ugly, filthy criminal squalor, except here the villains are in squad cars and uniforms.

Fenton concentrates on one elite unit of police: the Gun Trace Taskforce, whose job it was to get dangerous organised criminals off the streets. They were the dangerous organised criminals, however – specifically their lionized frontman Wayne Jenkins, the darling of the BPD. Jenkins and his gang treated citizens like animals. They behaved as they pleased – breaking the law for the hell of it. One lawyer said police acted as if they were “doing patrols in Afghanistan”. Without irony, these cops referred to themselves as “Vikings”.

Detectives like Jenkins would bust a drug dealer – pocket their cash, heroin and cocaine, then hand on the seized narcotics to favoured dealers who’d sell the drugs on the streets, under police protection. Cops who didn’t take part in crimes were seen as the odd ones out and shunned by officers like Jenkins. As one crooked cop says: “Everyone else was doing it and I wanted to feel accepted and trusted.”

The criminality wasn’t just about corrupt police lining their pockets at the expense of drug dealers. Innocent people died. Police even took part in home invasion robberies. Citizens went to prison for years for crimes they didn’t commit. The Taskforce and Jenkins comprised “a supergroup of corrupt cops”. Jenkins owned a full robbery kit: sledgehammers, ski masks, grappling hooks.

Unsurprisingly, police chiefs did nothing, and crime in the city rotted ordinary lives. In the end, thanks to dedicated state prosecutors, Jenkins and co were caught and put on trial. Inevitably, they “ratted” each other out for sweet deals and less prison time. In all, eight members of the Gun Trace Taskforce were sentenced – Jenkins for 25 years. As many as 800 prosecutions which the detectives were involved in were deemed contaminated and overturned – some involving real dangerous criminals, rather than patsies fitted up by crooked cops.

Fenton has done his city and nation a service, holding real power to real account. This book matters in Britain as well. We know our police forces are mismanaged and in need of refashioning so they’re fit for purpose in the 21st century. Fenton shows the worst that can happen when police are put on a pedestal. A uniform isn’t a get out of jail free card – especially when sometimes it’s the cops who are the robbers.