On today’s Crime Story Podcast, I interview journalist Justin Fenton, who covers the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun, about his new book, We Own This City. I first became aware of Justin’s work four years ago, as I read his reporting on a police scandal that dominated the news in Baltimore and that culminated in the shooting death of Homicide Detective Sean Suiter. I found Justin’s reporting to be clarifying and insightful amid the murkiness and confusion. In fact, his reporting reminded me of the work of another Baltimore based journalist who covered that very same beat on those very same streets three decades ago. That journalist was David Simon, who went on to give birth to the iconic Baltimore-based Crime TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner and The Wire. You can read my four-part interview with David here. My interview with David’s fellow Executive Producer on The Wire, George Pelecanos, is here. And my interview with Homicide: Life on the Streets Showrunner, Tom Fontana, is here.
Justin Fenton, thank you for joining us today.
Yeah, thank you for having me.
Justin has a new book out called We Own This City.Why don’t you tell us first what your book is about?
It’s the story of a city’s struggle with crime and police misconduct. I’ve been a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun, since 2008, crime, criminal justice, all the things that I’ve seen over the years, they really snowballed to this point.
The catalyst for it was the Gun Trace Task Force scandal that emerged in 2017, in which a squad of police officers were, uh, revealed to be robbing people, taking drugs, uh, planting evidence, falsifying information in police reports, uh, that has since expanded out.
You know, we had the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and the uprising and unrest that came with that. And this was a period where this department was supposed to be fixing itself. The Justice Department had come in, they’d done a civil rights investigation, there was a consent decree, and the while they’re trying to regain their credibility, or in some ways establish credibility, this scandal breaks.
You know, this was going on while the Justice Department was supposedly looking under every rock in the police department. These guys were so undeterred. and then there was the death of detective Sean Suiter, which was, you know, still controversial and mysterious circumstances. I just wanted to wrap it all up into a comprehensive story that shows how things overlap and intersect and how they are related to each other in some ways.
Would you give us a sort of brief history of the relationship between Baltimore, the Baltimore Police Department and the citizens of Baltimore, both Black and white, over the course of the last 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement?
50 years is difficult. I have been covering this, for the last, 13. I’m aware of the time period before. My understanding of it does pick up probably around the ’90s, the commissioner we had at the time was from the West Coast and trying to, you know, implement a more community policing model, so to speak. You know, in the early 2000s, they moved to zero tolerance trying to duplicate, the successes seen in New York city,and ended up locking up a lot of people without seeing the crime declines they were looking for. And then, and then they sorta tried to back away from zero tolerance and, and do more focused enforcement, as they called it, repeat violent offenders.
And then, Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 and the cases around the country leading to a lot of police reform, you can really see how each administration, whether it be mayoral or police commissioners had their own sort of like signature thing that they would try. And the book tries to trace how those things, worked, didn’t work and how it allowed… misconduct along the way, you know, were never really taken seriously.
I think that’s one of the things that I try to show. I trace the career of Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force, who was seen within the agency as probably one of their best officers. They thought very highly of him. They thought he was great. and he’s one of their worst officers, So I track his career with the changes in police strategy and how, and how, things just would continually get swept under the rug.
Perhaps no television show has defined a city and its policing more so than David Simon’s The Wire has defined Baltimore. Having written about and covered crime and policing and politics in Baltimore for the past decade and a half, what do you see as the impact of that show on the way that police are perceived and the relationship between police and the political powers in the city?
Yeah, that’s something that comes up a lot. I think the city has a love, hate relationship with it. I think that, for a while, we heard politicians and other leaders saying… “That’s not, that, that’s not what defines us, you know, The Wire was just a piece of this great city and it depicted us in a certain way.” and what I tell people who say that, is that what it depicted was a part of the city that people would rather not talk about, they would rather not focus on.
And it, and it tried to highlight the complexities of the issues, the way the issues were interconnected and It’s true that it depicted a certain part of the city that after all these years, after all these decades, you know, are still trying to help people in those neighborhoods and to fix the problems. And in a lot of ways, the city’s changed a lot since that show aired.
It’s, it’s been longer than I think people realize, but we’ve got the same issues, the same issues exist. And, and the fact that they got such a, you know, international airing of the attention of what is it like. It’s President Obama’s favorite show and stuff, and we’re, you know, there’s still these deeply entrenched problems. It’s definitely a fascinating issue.
Tell me a little bit more about the Gun Trace Task Force and what these cops who made up the gun trace task force were doing that was so outrageous and criminal.
Yeah, the Gun Trace Task Force was created during that period I alluded to earlier with the violent repeat offenders, post zero tolerance. This was supposed to be a period where the department was really trying to crack down on the, “the right people,” instead of enforcing minor crimes, in certain neighborhoods and sort of sweeping up everybody, giving everybody criminal records.
So, they were trying to take the smarter approach. And the task force was initially comprised of officers from other agencies, the Maryland State Police, Baltimore County Police, and they were supposed to really try to go after gun traffickers. The idea was that if they could go after straw purchasers and people who are bringing the guns into the city, sort of like a federal task force that would be a smarter way to crack down on this.
But, you know, as the years went on,the other agencies pulled out. the Baltimore Police Department itself, you know, there was a consultant’s report that said, “What are we, what are we doing with this team? You know, we don’t think they’re being utilized enough. we, we need them to do more street enforcement,” and that’s exactly what they got. They got a-another plain clothes squad of officers. It’s not undercover officers, it’s officers wearing jeans and bulletproof vests and backwards hats and things like that. And they drive unmarked cars. In Baltimore, they’re called jump out boys because they would always sort of pull up to a corner and jump out and chase people.
They’re also called knockers because of their aggressive tactics. And the Gun Trace Task Force ended up becoming another squad of knockers. The main character, we’ll call him, Wayne Jenkins becomes the sergeant of that unit in around,mid 2016, while the FBI is already investigating, he is in a different unit, in a different part of town. And while the FBI is bearing down on this corrupt unit, he joins them. And in my book, I explained how the FBI thought that this could have been a turning point. This could have been the part where everybody’s sort of straightened their backs and started, doing the work by the book.
But instead, they got taken over by, the dirtiest cop in the whole department, and it continued. And the things that they would do was, you know, was detailed by officers who flipped and cooperated with the government, testified at the trial, and they would roam the streets, looking for people committing minor traffic infractions. And they would search their cars without probable cause. And this was, ust as body cameras were coming along. These officers didn’t have them for the most part, until later. And even when they had them, we were able to get a glimpse into the misconduct because they would use… -someone pulling off literally 10 feet from a gas pump without their seatbelt on, and they would say, “Oh, you committed a traffic violation, mind if we search the car,” or they said they smell marijuana.
They would say that that gave them probable cause to search the car. And a lot of times they didn’t find anything. you know, one of the convicted officers testified they’d to go out and do this 50 times a night, and they’d ended up getting a handful of guns. And in the police department, which was embattled by, rising crime after, the Freddie Gray protests, crime here spiked by a terrifying amount. And it remains at that level today. We saw a 70% jump in gun violence in the city.
They were getting guns, and the commanders were saying, “Good job.’” You know, one of the emails I came across during my reporting was the commander saying, “I want you to teach everybody else how to do what you do,” and Jenkins responded, “Well, sir, you know, what it takes is people who are willing to work hard and do the job,” and, he was deceiving them or they weren’t looking closely enough. They weren’t scrutinizing what he was doing. And so that, that’s an overview of how it played out on a day-to-day basis.
Take me through a few of the examples of the GTTF’s criminal behavior.
Yeah. Jenkins’ behavior dated back years prior to when he got caught. He’d been getting away with it for years. And when exactly? We’re not even sure. We know that, a partner in crime of his, a bail bondsman, said that he’d been… Jenkins had been bringing him drugs since 2012; drugs that he took off the street and he would divert them to this bail bondsman who would then sell them to people in Baltimore County, which is outside the city. But we don’t actually know when Jenkins criminal behavior started. So there’s this day to day misconduct; the sort of jacking people up or searching cars, you know, and, and money being taken and things like that. But some of these things progressed to heists.
Some of the officers talked about how this went way beyond what they were used to, Sort of skimming some money off the top of a stack that they were supposed to report. It’s drug dealers money, you know, it’s no big deal is what they would say. And with Jenkins it was like, “We need to find somebody, we need to find who he called monsters,” you know.” People who dealt in large quantities of drugs.
Cocaine was his primary motivator, and people with tons of drugs were likely to have tons of money, and there are thefts that are in the tens of thousands of dollars, if not, sometimes hundreds of thousands have been alleged. And this went on for years.
Why don’t you talk about the incident that happened back in… I believe it was 2010,, where Jenkins and some colleagues tried to stop a car and the car fled?
Yeah. This is a case that came up, after the officers were arrested, and some of them started talking, and they would tell stories about things that Jenkins had told them over the years. And one thing that had been mentioned was that drugs had been planted on two men, who had fled from them back in April, 2010.
This predates the Gun Trace Task Force, but Jenkins was in another plain clothes squad. And they basically, they saw these guys, there’s Umar Burley and Brent Matthews, they swooped in on them. Burley and Matthews. took off at a high rate of speed and ended up getting into a crash, where an elderly man, a father of a police officer, actually, was killed.
And what emerged was that heroin had been planted in the car to justify the chase that like, “Aha, like, you know, we knew they were drug dealers.” And, Burley ends up getting charged with manslaughter, and pleading guilty to it and doing a sentence to a considerable period of time in prison. Matthews got sent to federal prison as well. And, Burley himself was trying to bring attention to this.
After the officers were charged, he wrote a letter and it’s the opening scene in the book. He says, “You know I need someone to look into my case. I need a lawyer. I’ve been sitting here in prison for something I didn’t do.”
Ultimately, Burley and Matthews were freed, correct?
They were freed and, and they were exonerated. their convictions were reversed.
I want to dive into one or two other incidents that Jenkins was involved in. On the day of, one of the most significant uprisings after Freddie Gray’s death, Jenkins was lionized by the Baltimore Police Department for helping and supporting other Baltimore Police officers during that time. Can you tell, tell us a little bit about that and what he was doing almost simultaneously with offering that assistance?
Yeah, I mean, Jenkins’ path in the agency is remarkable because truly there are many touchstone moments, major cases, and he always pops up. He’s there, he’s involved somehow. So, one of the things that I found, was that, when the charges were announced against the officers, charged with, Freddie Gray’s death, within moments, you know, an email goes out to everybody in the police department, and who’s it from? It’s from Wayne Jenkins saying, “We need to band together and we need to raise money for these guys. It could be any one of us that could be in the same position.”
And then when the riots break out, he’s right there. He sees officers, you know, at Mondawmin Mall, which is a mall on the West side of the city. And there’s rocks being thrown, there’s looting going on and he actually, commandeers a state prison van, kicks the driver out from the prison system, rides into the middle of it and helps, pull an officer who’s injured to safety and ends up getting an award from the department for it.
But that same night, according to his bail bondsman friend who was helping him to unload drugs, Jenkins shows up at his home with trash bags full of drugs looted from the pharmacies. And what he said was the pharmacies were getting looted at that time. That was something that happened across the city. A lot of drugs were stolen, that he’d essentially grabbed somebody running out, you know, with a garbage bag and he’d be taking it from the person.
And instead of submitting it, like he should have, he takes it out to Middle River to his buddy Donald Stepp so they can sell it. And Stepp doesn’t even know what the stuff is. It’s like pharmaceutical prescription drugs. He can’t even sell most of it, but he says that, Jenkins wakes him up in the middle of the night with this stuff.
Tell me about detective Sean Suiter. Give me a sense of his trajectory within the Baltimore Police Department. And then, tell me about how things came crashing down for him.
Sean Suiter had, at a point in his career, he spent some years in these plain clothes drug units. He progressed to investigating, non-fatal shootings and robberies, as a district detective. And then around 2015, he was, he was finally elevated, to the homicide unit and he was well-liked. By all accounts was well thought of, and, he was shot in late 2017,he’s out on duty, in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore.
And it is revealed in short order that the shooting occurs, the day before he was supposed to testify before a federal grand jury, investigating ongoing threads in the Gun Trace Task Force case, specifically the 2010 Umar Burley arrest and drug planting incident.
Can you talk a bit about the investigation into his death and the various narratives that grew around that investigation?
Yeah. I mean, at first there was a manhunt, you know. There was an officer shot in the head and killed, while doing the job and the police swarmed the neighborhood. They actually locked it down for an extended period of time. You know, they were raiding houses and getting up on wiretaps on, some pretty flimsy evidence, in hindsight. Just trying to do anything they could to find out who killed him. And it came to be a couple of days later that they started to reconsider the evidence.
I detailed in the book, but they… at first, they thought he was shot from a certain vantage point. And then they realized it’s from a different one. And that leads to the discovery of new evidence, which puts the case in a different light. And all of a sudden people start raising questions about, you know, maybe this was a suicide, you know, maybe he wasn’t killed at all. There’s no suspect out there at all.
Maybe he did this to himself and staged it to look like a suicide, which is a really extreme, premise really. I mean, the idea that he’s out there with a partner, it wasn’t the middle of the night, it wasn’t pitch black either. And that he would have tried to pull that off is, is kind of crazy to consider. But as they looked into the evidence there’s a compelling case that was made by an independent review board, which included two former, Baltimore Police homicide detectives, where they essentially said, “we think to a high probability that this man actually took his own life.”
There’s been a tremendous amount of pushback from his, uh, his family, from his attorney, even from fellow, uh, colleagues in the homicide unit who said, “That’s crazy, you know. They, they’re, they’re just trying to put this case to bed. They don’t want an unsolved killing of a cop on the books.” But you know, evidence has emerged since that, you know, raises more questions about whether in fact, you know, he either had culpability or, or just had a fear of, of, of being implicated.
I don’t know that we’ll ever know, but I try to put as much information into the book as I can to try to highlight just what information I was able to come across and the different viewpoints. I think readers ultimately will make up their own minds about that.
Ultimately was his family granted his pension? What was the impact of the IRB’s determination on the way that the family was treated?
One of the main, motivations for the suicide theory was that, there would be, benefits for his family if he was killed in the line of duty. And so as the police department inched closer to that viewpoint… and I, I think it’s fair to say that at this point, it’s a widely held view within the police, it’s not completely uniform, but that’s the agency’s position. Those benefits became in question, but the city ultimately did pay them out.
I think, at one point there was going to be a trial over the benefits, but they settled it and the family was able to get the money. The department believes it’s a suicide, but they’re keeping the case open to appease the family, but the family’s not appeased by that.
They’re very upset by that. They believe it’s a homicide that should be more aggressively investigated.
I want to step back and talk about you and your journey as a storyteller. Tell me about your path to becoming a reporter. Who were the storytellers in your youth that inspired you, and that began to make you think that your future might be in writing and in trying to make sense of complex true stories?
I first started writing for my high school newspaper, I guess my junior year, because I (laughing)… I was applying to colleges and I didn’t have a lot of activities to put on a resume, and I delivered my hometown newspaper, an afternoon paper.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up outside of Annapolis in Anne Arundel County in Maryland. And, you know, I signed up for the school newspaper for something to do, and then I realized that, you know, it required work, you know, that, uh, interviewing people… I, I’m, a shy person, I think. I, I think I’m kind of introverted and it really forced me to get out of… to step out of that and to talk to people and get them to open up. And then I’ve really enjoyed writing. I think, you know, I like writing about true events, the bad things that are going on. And, and, I, you know, I think like most kids, I think I wanted to write about sports at first and then about like, you know, entertainment and things like that.
And then you start to realize, “Well, there’s real issues out there, you know?” I went to, university of Maryland Journalism School. And, again, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a crime reporter. I covered politics and the university administration and things like that. And the Baltimore Sun is the only place I’ve ever worked. I got an internship out of college. I was hired as a two year intern and they made me a full-time reporter about a year into that.
And my first assignment was in Harford County, Maryland. And I was a one man Bureau. I worked in an office essentially by myself for extended periods. I had to change the light bulbs and the toner and the fax machine and get the mail. And I covered schools and the County council and the courts and the you know, everything. And it occurred to me that the crime stories, you know, I was drawn to them and I felt like the readers were drawn to them. They were inherently interesting. They were inherently dramatic, and I sort of started to focus on that.
And I got the opportunity just a couple of years in, actually, to cover crime for the Baltimore Sun, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve covered different aspects of it at different times, which I think really has been beneficial because you really only see one aspect of it if you’re covering the police. You know, what happens in the courts is incredibly important to understanding what you’re covering on the police end and vice versa. It sounds cliche to say it, but you asked like who I read, and it became apparent to me that I wanted to be a crime reporter. I would go into the newspapers archives and read David Simon’s old stories. And I was really captivated by the narratives and the deep dives he did. I just thought they were incredible.
And, you know,I wanted to continue that legacy. I know how cheesy that sounds, you know, but it’s an important one. I think the crime in the city is important. It’s not about sensationalism, although at times it can, it can feel that way. But really it’s about these stories exist and need to be told. And, I’ve been trying in my work to tell more long form stories that tell us about deeper issues.
And how did you first come upon the Gun Trace Task Force scandal? How did it emerge in your consciousness?
Oh, I’m not going to pretend like I uncovered this story. This dropped out of nowhere. We got an email that the Feds were going to have an indictment of a group of police officers. And, I had heard of some of them before. I had covered past incidents involving detective Jemell Rayam. In fact, it was one of the first things I covered, was he had shot three people in a span of about 18 months, 20 months. And, the state delegate had called for an outside investigation and, of course, nothing happened. And that was the end of it. And no one ever said another word about it.
Daniel Hersel, another member of the GTTF, fairly notorious. He had been featured prominently in a Baltimore Sun article about officers who face repeat lawsuits. there’d been a prominent rapper named Young Moose who had also said, “You know, this guy planted drugs on me. This guy harasses people.” He’d rapped about him. But I’m embarrassed to say, I had not heard of Wayne Jenkins. I did not know who he was. We refer a lot to the GTTF is an elite group of police, and that’s true, but the really elite are the guys on the federal task forces. And he wasn’t one of them, he couldn’t crack that.
Whether he didn’t want to be on them or whether they didn’t want to have him, he wasn’t. And I think for years, there’d been plenty of misconduct in the Baltimore Police Department. Plenty of officers charged with crimes, but it was always like a one-off. It was always a single officer caught doing something they shouldn’t have, and it was so easy for everybody to write it off as a bad Apple. You hear that phrase all the time. They would always say, “Well, you know, that guy’s a bad guy, but we got him, you know, and he doesn’t represent our values.”
The GTTF scandal really forced the department to reckon with the fact that this was widespread. It was ongoing. It was, beyond the seven officers who were part of the initial round of indictments. There’s been eight charged since, as they pursued the spider webs out and found officers who were a degree or two or three removed from Wayne Jenkins, who were also doing this stuff. And, I think, one of the quotes, the prosecutor said last week at a sentencing hearing was that it had metastasized.
You know, there was another… case they brought recently where they were able to figure out that three officers, not Jenkins, not anybody in the GTTF had stolen three kilograms of cocaine from what was a record bust. This was a bust in 2009 that the department was so proud of that it had called a press conference and laid out 40 kilograms of cocaine on a table and said, “You know, this is one of the best busts we’ve ever done. And we didn’t even need the Feds.” Well, the amount they presented was less than they actually seized ’cause three officers sold the drugs, had a confidential informant, sell it and kick the money back, and they split it up. And one of them… said he bought a boat with it.
And so it’s like… it laid waste to the department’s credibility, all these efforts to say, “We’re getting better, we’re fixing it.” Every commissioner says that department’s getting better. Misconduct complaints are dropping. It’s getting better. We’re on top of it. These are bad apples. It laid waste to that.
In fact, one of Jenkins’ predecessors as the head of the GTTF was part of one of those federal task forces when he was busted. Is that not right?
Yeah. And there’s a lot of questions about why that happened when it happened. Thomas Allers, who preceded Jenkins as the head of the Gun Trace Task Force, ended up on a DEA squad. He actually was moved while the FBI investigation of the Gun Trace Task Force was ramping up, which raised a lot of questions about whether people knew what was going on and whether he was being protected. But yeah, he was charged and pleaded guilty to some of these same kinds of things, stealing money.
But there were other officers too who worked on federal task forces who became implicated. Keith Gladstone is an officer who pleaded guilty. He’s awaiting sentencing. For years he worked on some of the highest profile task forces, like the HIDTA squad, that stands for High Intensity Drug Trafficking. He worked in those squads. There was an officer who worked with Jenkins in the 2013, 2014 timeframe who was on a DEA task force, then left the city altogether and became an ATF agent in California.
And, we were able to report that he had admitted to the FBI that he’d stolen money, used GPS trackers without authorization, things like that. And so this was not a random group of, malcontent officers who were getting away with something while no one was paying attention. These were actually officers that the department, viewed as some of its best.
Can you tell me where you were when you got word that Sean Suiter had been shot?
Yeah. I was at my desk in our downtown newsroom and it came across the scanner. I sit next to a police radio and… when that happens, you know, they tend to yell out “signal 13,” which means an officer’s in trouble. And there’s a tone that rings. And it’s a signal for every officer in like a mile radius to come flying to the scene. And it was just on the West edge of downtown and I was able to get out there pretty quickly.
And it was a chaotic scene, Suiter was rushed to the shock trauma hospital and while they were on their way there, they got in a car accident. He was put into an officer’s vehicle as opposed to an ambulance ’cause they wanted to get them there as quickly as possible. There was a car crash. And again, they locked down the neighborhood and it was very chaotic.
When did you become aware that he was meant to testify the next day, to a grand jury related to the Gun Trace Task Force scandal?
It was days. And I want to say it was even two weeks. I remember vividly, being at a relatives house for Thanksgiving and I had pulled up the court database because that’s the kind of stuff I do at family gatherings. I had pulled it up and I saw that there was like sealed filings in this Burley case and that the Gun Trace Task Force prosecutors had joined this dormant case that had been closed for years. Someone had called me the night of the shooting and I detailed this in the book, but I got like a frantic phone call… a woman that I’d met years earlier on a reporting assignment. I didn’t know where she got my cell phone number somehow and she called me and said, “This is, this is a setup. You know, he was going to testify against those dirty cops. This is a setup, you know. This is all connected.”
And that gave me goosebumps and, you know, and I said, ‘Well, there’s no court hearing this week.” The trial wasn’t scheduled until January. I didn’t know what she was talking about. And, in hindsight, I don’t know that she necessarily knew anything. I tried to figure out how she might’ve known what she knew. And I think it was a guess. Nonetheless, the idea was sort of planted in my head that there might be more to this, and sure enough, it came out later that this was on the eve of this federal grand jury testimony.
This police department’s track record, its reputation, it’s scandals, the coverups, there’s a lot of people who believe that he was murdered by other cops to keep him quiet. And I don’t think that’s, that’s ever gonna go away.
You recently became aware of details that Suiter was made aware of in the days before his death, and the days before his anticipated testimony. Can you talk a little bit about what that information was and where it came from?
Yeah, in my reporting, I was able to learn that some of the officers, who were cooperating with the government had indicated that they had heard different versions of the story that either Suiter might’ve planted the drugs himself, or that he was at least aware of it or became aware of it later. Separately, the independent review board’s review of Suiter’s death had said that he was confronted by FBI agents, asked if he was going to lose his job. They told him they wanted to talk to him about this case. Those two threads merged recently because I’m still reporting this, this story as a reporter to Sun. I’m continuing to try to dig up as much as I can about this, and there’s more to come.
I was able to get through the Freedom of Information Act. I was able to get a 302 report, which is an internal FBI document where they said that they actually confronted Suiter with these claims. He’d been told that there are people telling us that you were involved and that he had become frustrated and upset about that. And, I think for understanding his possible mindset, if in fact it was a suicide, I think that’s relevant to know. And it emerged only recently.
Tell me when you thought you had a book in all of these stories.
I was covering the trial at the time and I covered the Freddie Gray officer’s trials as well. And I had contemplated with one of my colleagues doing a book about that. You know, that had been such a big incident, and we thought there should be a comprehensive story, but we sort of played around with it and abandoned it. And I think I was covering the trial, it was still ongoing when David Simon reached out to me and said, “You know, you should write a book about this,” and I was like, “Well, how am I going to do that?” And he’s like, “Well, I’ll hook you up with my literary agent.” But it took a long time after that. this is my first time doing this and, and, you know, putting together a proposal was daunting.
There was a lot of rewriting it. There’s a lot of different versions out there. And for a while it was difficult to get a publisher to sign on, believe it or not. But I hooked up with Random House in the end, which is a fantastic place to be, couldn’t have worked out better and was able to tell it.
Okay, so take me through your approach in telling this story. How are you thinking about your audience? How are you thinking about the readers and, and how did you strategize laying out the story to involve the readers in the journey you were taking them on?
One of the things I did early on, which is trying to organize my thoughts. You know, I actually did that thing where you put everybody’s pictures on the wall and you draw connections and… that wasn’t helping me. See the story that just looked cool in my office. But I created a document where I laid out all the different events in the city, related to the events in the Gun Trace Task Force case, but also the events in the Justice Department investigation, the Freddie Gray case, any other notable events to see how they sort of all fit together. And it became clear to me that, the day the Justice Department report came out, I had body camera footage showing the officers of the Gun Trace Task Force hitting the streets and jacking people up.
This is a report that says they are racially profiling people. as a department they’re searching people without probable cause. And the officers were so undeterred by that. They go out that night. And so I was able to start, piecing together how this was all related. And there was important dates in the Freddie Gray case, trial verdicts were there. All the eyes in the city are on that case.
The national media is in town, and they’re robbing somebody of like $60,000. I felt like I was at a football stadium and I was looking out and all the seats were filled with all the different events and it was so overwhelming to try to figure out, “Well, how am I going to make sense of this?” It really began writing a series for the Baltimore Sun called Cops and Robbers, where I was writing a three-part series, trying to, bring more clarity and context to the story. And that was such a hard process. And I don’t think I did a great job with it, to be honest, in hindsight, but what the book allowed me to do was really let these things breathe.
And I got advice from a friend, if this is being printed, is spelled Wil Hylton. Hylton said to me, “You know, focus on somebody, find a main character, somebody you can tie everything to and follow that person.” And really there was no question that that was going to be Wayne Jenkins because as I’ve explained earlier, he’s not just the leader of the group, all these different things pass through him and he’s involved in so much. And he actually joined the agency, you know, during the ramp up of zero-tolerance, like, I could trace Jenkins’ life and career through the, you know, events and the, and the, the journey of the Baltimore Police department.
And, once I figured that out, things kind of clicked into place. it became a chronological story, so to speak. I think though the biggest thing we did on was the opening chapter… so Sean Suiter’s not in the county’s Gun Trace Ttask Fforce. You know, he’s a homicide detective. I didn’t want when Suiter gets killed for it to be the way it played out in real life, which was like, “Wait a minute, where did that come from? How was he involved?”
I needed to make sure that I introduced him early and that it was in the reader’s minds that something’s gonna happen to him. He’s going to be someone that you need to remember. And so we use the 2010 Umar Burley case to… set the, set the stage.
Give me a sense of the way that you drew the portrait of the relationship between Baltimore cops and the community that they police.
Jenkins’ journey… I don’t know what really happened in some of the early incidents that I highlight,, incidents of him getting his conduct being called into question, him being sued. And that tracks with the Gun Trace Task Force scandal itself. Years of questions and allegations. I have these questions about Jenkins coming up over the years, and then we flash forward to a point where we have tangible proof of what he’s up to.
Tracking the department’s priorities during his career, when they’re arresting everybody they can get their hands on. So is he; he’s arresting 300 people in a given year. That’s an incredible number. That’s just the ones that were taken forward by prosecutors. There’s plenty of cases back in those days that were being rejected at central booking as they were being brought in. But, you know, during zero tolerance, he’s jacking everybody up.
And then when they moved to this focused repeat violent offenders model, he’s on one of those task forces. He’s one of the guys who is supposed to go after, the violent offenders. And then, when crime is spiking, post Freddie Gray’s death, he’s called upon to sort of try to make a dent in the crime. So it was a very natural relationship to draw out.
What, what has been the impact of this scandal on the Baltimore Police Department, on policing in the city, on crime in the city and on the political infrastructure of the city?
I think that answer is still playing out. I think the important thing that it did was, again, over the years, there’s certainly officer’s getting in trouble, but this highlighted systemic problems. They were documented by a wiretap. You know, there was really no question about what had occurred. And, I think it was a real jolt that if this could happen while we’re in the midst of implementing a consent decree, that there are some real serious issues here.
I think for the police force, you know, they have felt, you know, since, since 2015 that, you know, they weren’t getting supported anymore. They were getting overly criticized that… you know, they’re afraid to do their jobs. And that, that is in some way contributing to the continued elevated violence. But I think even officers that had to be confronted with this idea that like, “Well, you know, actually what these guys did was pretty bad.” And, you know, I’ve talked to so many officers who were really shocked as more names were coming out. You know, people that they said they worked with or they thought highly of. Like, they, they, they say they can’t believe that those guys were doing some of the things that they were accused of doing.
So I think, I think for everybody… I think for people who dismissed Black Lives Matter and said that, “You know, you know, if you just comply or you know, like, you know, some of these things are…” trying to make excuses for some of the conduct that’s been seen and that was causing protests. I think, I think… I hope that people will read this book. I hope that people who feel that way will learn something about how this stuff does go on, and this is… it’s serious and, and people aren’t making it up.
And I wanted to convey through the book how there’s so many questions, how hazy it is, how hard it is to know. There’s one officer who I focus on. I can’t tell you whether he’s a good officer or not. I don’t have any evidence of him doing anything wrong but he’s around a lot of bad stuff. He’s around a lot of bad officers, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t know more.
There’s documented evidence that he’d been attempting to bring forward, others’ misconduct. And, I think people are gonna have questions about him and others
You know, one of the main investigators, John Sieracki, he said, “I worked drugs for years. I never saw anything like this before.” And I think he means it. but at the same time, I think it’s also more widespread than we know. I think there’s stuff that has not come to light from these officers and others. And There’s more to the story. I hope… that’s one of the things I hope people take away from the book.
tell me about the federal investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and the consent decree that was issued, and signed during the latter part of the Obama administration, and what has happened to that consent decree since it was signed.
Yeah. So after the Sun did the 2014 series Undue Force, which highlighted brutality claims, lawsuits, things like that, officers who were repeatedly subject to such claims, the federal government had opened an investigation where they were going to look at these things. After Freddie Gray’s death, they stepped it up into a full blown civil rights investigation. And that was understood to be a precursor to a consent decree, which essentially, it is a binding police reform overseen by a federal judge. So over the years, we had many commissioners who came here from other cities and things like that and they pledged reform.
The consent decree basically says, “You know, you’ve got a problem here. We’re going to document it. We’re going to lay it out and you’re going to agree to fix it. And, and we’re going to have a federal judge and a monitoring team who are going to keep an eye on you and make sure you do it, and that… and they’re gonna look over your shoulder and make sure you’re actually doing it.” So, this has been a years long process. In fact, they’re only just now in 2021, actually, implementing a lot of the training. They’ve been working on the training and, and rewriting policies and, fixing technology.
They’re just now, six years after Freddie Gray’s death, they’re starting to implement the training on the streets. And, you know, it’s a controversial process. It’s costly,… last year there was all this talk about defunding the police, and our new mayor said he was in favor of that. The consent decree calls for us to spend more money on police, you know, to add officers, to fix different things they’re not doing well, to spend more money to do it better. And the judge has said, “You know, you are not defunding this police department, that ship sailed when you signed this agreement in early 2017.”
And some cities can get locked in these things for years and years and years and end up begging to get out of them. One of our prior commissioners, Kevin Davis, he had been involved with one in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and it was ultimately a good thing for our department.
Our current commissioner, Michael Harrison, helped implement one in New Orleans and says the same thing, but officers are very skeptical. It is a lot of training. It is a lot of telling them what they can’t do. And, what they’re trying to tell them is what they can do. so, you know, we’re, we’re going to be in this for the foreseeable future.
One last question for you, Justin, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got as a reporter, as a storyteller?
There’s a lot of scrutiny about crime reporting right now. There’s even people writing essays saying, “it shouldn’t even exist anymore. That it’s racist, it’s, it’s sensationalist, it’s… too much of it doesn’t serve the public.” And I remember the Baltimore activist, DeRay McKesson, and he was a teacher here in Baltimore, and I followed him on Twitter prior to him emerging as one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. And I remember talking to him when he was in Ferguson. And he said to me that, “You know, when you guys write something, when you say that the police say something, the public takes it as fact, you know, they believe that you’re trying to tell them it’s true. And it’s a fact.”
And I remember that conversation striking me because I never see it that way. I always saw my job as putting stuff on the record. You know, this is what your police department, your taxpayer funded elected officials and officials are saying, and that if it turns out that that’s not true, there’ll be a record of it. And that we’ll continue to pursue these things to the extent we can and try to verify that our leaders are telling us the truth and are giving us accurate information.
And, a lot of that dialogue recently about crime reporting and police, reporting,… when you’re actually doing it, when you’re in the trenches doing it’s very difficult. Sometimes the police are the only source of information and that’s troubling. I mean, there’s cases from the Gun Trace Task Force scandal that I’ve reported in real time as they occurred, that turned out not to be true. And I don’t know what I could have done differently at the time. I don’t know for various reasons, people not being willing to talk, not being able to talk, not being in their legal interests to talk.
You know, I don’t know what I could have done differently, but that conversation stuck with me in 2014 and it continues to trouble me and be something that I want to be mindful of in 2021. I think the Sun’s crime coverage has become much smarter over the years. There’s a quote that I see on Twitter, it goes viral from time to time where someone says, “As a reporter, it’s not your job to ask people whether it’s raining outside, it’s your job to stick your head out the fucking window and find out whether it’s raining.”
And I tell people all the time that as a reporter, especially as a police reporter, “There’s not a window to stick my head out of. There’s a brick wall. I don’t know what’s on the other side. I do not know the truth.” I cannot sometimes independently validate these things. I have to say, “what did you see? What didn’t you see?” And try to synthesize these things.” And when only one narrative is out there it’s difficult, but it’s something to constantly be thinking about and trying to make sure, because it’s true that the police narrative often wins the day and there’s not any followup. And we don’t ever hear anything about it. And, these stories linger out there for, for forever in some cases.
Justin Fenton, good luck with the book. Congratulations on finishing it and getting it out there. And thank you so much for your time.
Yeah. Thank you so much for the conversation. I really appreciate it.