The We Own This City series documents the transition of power from the old guard to the new generation and the creative solutions they implement in the face of urban challenges.
“Regardless of what you do on those streets, by the time you walk into any courtroom in the city, your word will have prevailed.”
Those words are spoken in the midst of a lecture.
Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) lectures his fellow officers on police brutality — and subtly contradicts everything he says about how brutality interferes with doing the job. It is an unavoidable truth that officers will be believed where it counts, with the small caveat that “being brutal” may result in Internal Affairs Division complaints and civil suits, making the job more difficult.
True accountability is becoming increasingly rare — so rare, in fact, that when Jenkins is arrested by the FBI at the end of this first episode of We Own This City, he is completely perplexed. “Do you know who I am?”
Jenkins’ speech is also undercut in less subtle ways, as series director Reinaldo Marcus Green splices in footage of Black men on Baltimore’s streets being roughed up and incarcerated in mass, as well as Jenkins himself, as a young beat officer, terrorizing a street-corner wino for sport.
Bernthal is an absolutely electric performer — one of many standout roles in Green’s King Richard as tennis coach Rick Macci — and he gives Jenkins the swaggering arrogance of a cop’s cop who knows the system works in his favor and can be easily exploited. When he’s giving an official lecture about police brutality or the effectiveness of his Gun Trace Track Force (GTTF) at a time when arrests are down and crime rates are up, he’s completely convincing.
On the job, he’s a cock-of-the-walk, glad-handing his way through the office and riling up his guys on the street. His word has always prevailed, until the shocking moment when it doesn’t.
The story comes together like a mosaic, in small pieces that are difficult to parse and oh-so-patiently suggest a larger picture, as in any David Simon show — or Simon & Co. show, since George Pelecanos co-created We Own This City, and Ed Burns, a writer on Simon’s series since The Corner and The Wire, also contributes here — We Own This City took me a couple of viewings to get my bearings because there’s so little hand-holding on the whos and whats of the show, and even the whens are a puzzle because the timeline is also fractured here.
A chronology is established through “run sheets,” which account for the days and dates of police actions, but there’s still some backtracking between 2017 and 2015, not to mention those much earlier glimpses of a young, stick-twirling Jenkins muscling his way around a neighborhood.
However, as Simon and Pelecanos adapt the nonfiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, they emphasize the police department’s institutional failures even more emphatically than they did in The Wire.
The testimony of GTTF members, beginning with Momodu “G Money” Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), who does his best not to be forthcoming about the robberies and abuses of power that occurred under Jenkins’ leadership, is a key framing device.
A dubious search-and-seizure operation on a suspected stash house kicks things off, but the root of GTTF’s problems dates back two years, to June 2015, when an investigation into a series of overdose cases leads to a clash between task forces.
In the Maryland suburb of Bel Air, the latest in a string of overdoses leads two Harford County Narcotics Task Force investigators, David McDougall (David Corenswet) and Gordon Hawk (Tray Chaney, “Poot” from The Wire), to a city source named Antonio “Brill” Shropshire.
Brill appears impenetrable, but the street dealer, Aaron Anderson, is so easily tracked that two separate trackers are attached to the underside of his car. And this is where things get complicated: While McDougall and Hawk work to plan a raid on Anderson’s apartment and the Red Roof Inn room where he’s been sleeping lately, GTTF members break into the apartment and clean it out separately.
The evidence that the apartment door had already been busted open, as well as the second tracker on Anderson’s car, point to a conclusion about the GTTF’s operations.
However, it will take two years to get there. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Police Department is still dealing with the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, though “adjusting” is not the same as “reforming.” Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died while being transported in a police van for his (legal) possession of a knife.
The protests in Baltimore — which an aide in the mayor’s office is instructed to call a “uprising” rather than a riot — prompted calls for the department to be thoroughly investigated, but where We Own This City picks up the story, the result has been the firing of the police commissioner, a mayor who refuses to run for reelection, a 60% drop in arrests, and an alarming increase in crime across the city.
In this setting, the show’s clear protagonist and antagonist are at odds.
Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), an attorney with the Office of Civil Rights, arrives in Baltimore determined to uncover corruption and extralegal violence within the Baltimore Police Department.
Her introduction is a slam dunk: While driving to work, she witnesses the bizarre sight of citizens filming two cops who use excessive force to make an arrest but then flee the scene with the cameras trained on them. Nicole’s subsequent conclusion feels like a good summary of what’s going on within the department in the aftermath of Freddie Gray: “If we have to police the right way, we’re not going to police at all.
“Nonetheless, she and a new DOJ attorney, Ahmed (Ian Duff), press on in an attempt to remove the worst of the worst from the streets.
The worst of the worst is Daniel Hersl, played by Josh Charles as the epitome of a racist thug hiding behind a badge. Nicole doesn’t even have to say Hersl’s name before others offer it to her, but the litany of complaints against him hasn’t resulted in his removal from the force.
Hersl pulls over a man ostensibly for running a stop sign, but in reality for driving while black, and later fabricates a confrontation with an innocent suspect to hang a charge of assaulting a police officer. The common thread is Hersl’s dislike of “back talk” from the Black men he lives to brutalize and humiliate.
The episode works hard to establish other key characters in the series, including two more Wire veterans: Jamie Hector, who played the formidable drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield on The Wire, appears as Sean Suiter, a reserved homicide detective, and Delaney Williams, who played the intransigent layabout Jay Landsman on The Wire, is here the new police commissioner Kevin Davis. There’s a lot to take in during this hectic first hour, but it’s always worthwhile to give a Simon & Co. series the freedom to tell a big story at their own pace.
His work has been cleared 100 percent of the time.