Based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Justin Fenton and written and developed by George Pelecanos and David Simon, one of the creators of the seminal HBO series THE WIRE, WE OWN THIS CITY is a miniseries that acts a spiritual sequel THE WIRE. It’s powerful, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and all too real.
Told non-linearly in time in six parts, WE OWN THIS CITY is based on the shocking true story of a plainclothes police unit in Baltimore that ended up becoming as bad if not worse than the criminals they were policing. Played by a terrific ensemble cast with numerous familiar faces from THE WIRE, the many characters include police officers, a Department of Justice civil rights team negotiating an oversight deal with the city to help it clean up its police department, the powerless police commissioner, and the FBI agents bringing the rogue police unit down.
I’m a sucker for institutional conflict and drama, where an institution’s problems and contradictions are brought to light via storytelling. An example is TRAFFIC, which examined the drug war. WE OWN THIS CITY similarly shows how the contradictions and defects in Baltimore’s police department produced the Gun Trace Task Force, which for years operated with impunity, robbing drug dealers and honest citizens, planting evidence to cover up mistakes, and eventually selling drugs themselves. The show makes the case that the problem with the War on Drugs is thinking of it as a war, resulting in mass incarcerations, the militarization of police departments, ignoring Constitutional search and seizure protections, and broken trust between police and the communities they serve.
Through this lens, we get all sides: the pain of the community that feels oppressed by an occupying force, the police who feel overburdened and under siege, the politicians in a broke city who can’t fix institutional problems. On the police side, we’re largely given the point of view of Jenkins, played by Jon Bernthal. I like Bernthal a lot but think he works too hard to chew the scenery; I have to say, though, he was born for this role. Through flashbacks, we see how the system shaped Jenkins to become the cop and criminal he is. In a fascinating bit of characterization delivered by real life, Jenkins believes he’s untouchable because he’s a super cop who delivers results, results that also give him a free pass to do whatever he wants. In his view, he may steal, frame, and sell drugs, but he’s not a “dirty” cop, which to him means being an inherently bad person.
On the downside, the storytelling convention of flipping around in time easily got confusing for me. Things are happening on multiple timelines, and I found it hard to keep track of what was happening when.
In the end, it’s a small criticism. Overall, I loved WE OWN THIS CITY and hope we get more like it.