We Own This City Is Based on the True Story of Wayne Jenkins and Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force
After months of inane true-crime television in the form of hucksters and dating-app swindlers, HBO redeems the genre, returning to its early 2000s crime drama roots with We Own This City. The series, from The Wire creator David Simon and writer/producer (and, also, Wire alumnus) George Pelecanos, follows the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, members of whom were indicted on federal racketeering charges in 2017, including former leader of the task force, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal in the series).
The series is based on the book “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption,” by former Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, which chronicles the task force’s corrupt activities and ultimate crackdown by the FBI. (The same task force was the subject of another recent book, “I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.”) The New York Times noted that the book was “clearly inspired by ‘The Wire’,” a fact that comes full circle with Wire writers Simon and Pelecanos now turning the story into a television series.
Like The Wire, which is based on events and personalities involved in the Baltimore criminal and law enforcement spaces of the 1990s, We Own This City is also a Baltimore crime story that doubles as an American crime story—this one set between 2015 and 2017.
It’s connection both to Fenton’s book and to its television predecessor means that viewers can expect hyperrealism in the story’s depictions of historical events and proceedings.
Simon was a crime reporter himself at The Baltimore Sun for over a decade, work experience that has no doubt given his television writing strong verisimilitude.
Here’s the true story behind his latest, We Own This City.
The Murder of Freddie Gray
Although it is never shown on screen, the death of Freddie Gray—a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who died in the back of a police van in 2015, a death later ruled a homicide—haunts the events of We Own This City.
The series pendulums the narrative between 2015 and 2017, two calamitous years for the Baltimore Police Department.
The events of 2015 in the series occur after the death of Gray—the ensuing protests, the resultant criminal investigations into the six officers involved, and the rise in crime in Baltimore following the killing.
The climate in the police department seemed to be one of extreme frustration. The Baltimore police union denied that its officers were responsible for Gray’s death—a belief that was likely held by other officers at the time and is reflected in the series’ dialogue.
It also appeared to be a climate of extreme reservation, resulting in fewer reports, fewer car stops, and officers allegedly turning a blind eye to criminal behavior. These events are all depicted in We Own This City’s first episode where two cops suddenly choose not to arrest a man they had handcuffed.
As in the series, crime then began to rise in Baltimore and would ultimately hit an all-time high in 2017, the other timeline in We Own This City.
In April 2017, the Justice Department announced that there would no charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s death.
A month, earlier, however the police department was rocked by a federal investigation that would end in court—and discipline for several Baltimore Police officers.
Wayne Jenkins, Daniel Hersl, and the Gun Trace Task Force
On March 1, 2017, several members of Baltimore Police’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were arrested on racketeering charges. An indictment against them described “robberies committed during street stops, traffic stops, and residential searches; false affidavits and police reports submitted to facilitate their crimes; and massive overtime fraud accomplished through lying about the hours worked by the BPD members”—all of which occurred between 2015-2016, the years after Gray’s death.
We Own This City‘s first episode concludes with the arrest of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins who led the task force at the time. The other officers arrested included Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor, Maurice Ward, and Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles in the series).
An executive summary of the investigation into the GTTF explains the significance of the indictment.
“The indictment charged that the officers had transformed the GTTF—and BPD as a whole—into a racketeering enterprise, a charging framework usually reserved for cases against members of organized crime, not police officers. … The arrests and the indictment of these officers stunned BPD and the entire city of Baltimore. Immediately referred to as “the GTTF scandal,” it was characterized as the most extensive and damaging corruption scandal in the history of BPD. It was particularly damaging because it came to light at a time when the relationship between BPD and the residents of Baltimore—particularly communities of color—was especially fragile and strained. Several dimensions of the corruption scandal made it one without precedent in BPD’s history: the depravity of the behavior, the range of crimes committed, the number of officers involved, and the duration of the corruption. And it turned out that the initial arrests and charges were just the beginning.”
Interviews conducted following the arrest revealed an even wider network of corruption, which began well before 2015.
It was by 2015, however that Sgt. Wayne Jenkins had become something of a department favorite. Following a surge in violent crime, the department appears to have placed additional importance on gun seizures, a metric for which Jenkins’ task force was able to show improvement. Jenkins became the task force leader in June 2016.
Hersl, too, as depicted in We Own This City, appears to have been tolerated simply because of his arrest numbers—despite the myriad of complaints against him, including use of force complaints. Hersl joined the GTTF in 2015 and participated in the task force’s crimes, including stealing thousands of dollars from a Maryland home.
Jenkins ran the GTFF for five months. During that time, Jenkins and several others stole thousands of dollars—some from homes during search warrant executions, some from individuals whom they arrested. The task force also planted evidence in the form of guns and stole 400 grams of cocaine, which they then sold themselves.
Where are Wayne Jenkins and Daniel Hersl now?
After an FBI investigation into the unit discovered the GTTF’s crimes, federal officers arrested Jenkins alongside several others in the unit.
In June 2018, after pleading guilty on charges of racketeering, robbery and falsifying records, Jenkins was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
Hersl was sentenced to 18 years.
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