One could be excused for wondering whether there is any more to say about Baltimore and crime. But the gripping new book “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption” puts that concern to rest. Written by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, the book tells the incredible tale of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, an elite plainclothes unit of the Baltimore Police Department tasked with getting guns and drugs off the streets. The unit had the most urgent crime-fighting mission in a city where many neighborhoods are inundated with drug dealing and terrorized by persistent gun violence. But most of the cops on the task force turned out to be every bit as gangster as the drug dealers and other criminals they were pursuing.
Their crimes, which went on for about a decade before officers in the unit were arrested in 2017, seemed straight out of the movies. They robbed suspected drug dealers (some of whom may not have been dealers), sold stolen drugs, illegally used GPS devices to track robbery targets and planted evidence. They initiated reckless — and at least once, fatal — car chases. One officer routinely carried a BB gun as insurance, knowing he could always drop it at a crime scene if he got into a jam by, say, shooting an unarmed suspect. For good measure, some cops in the unit stole scads of overtime from the city, at times even collecting it while they were on vacation. Eight members of the nine-person squad ended up going to federal prison after being convicted on corruption charges.
But perhaps the officers’ most insidious crime was how they helped undermine confidence in a police force in dire need of much more citizen cooperation. The city of 600,000 residents has clocked more than 300 murders in each of the past five years, and the majority of those killings have gone unsolved largely because witnesses are reluctant to step up. Part of the reason is that they are scared of retribution, but many citizens also do not trust the police.
Amazingly, many of the unit’s misdeeds took place even as federal investigators were scrutinizing the police department for civil rights violations after the disturbances that followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
One of the culprits that emerges from the book is the war on drugs itself. The huge amount of money washing around in the trade is a corrupting force that attracts a seemingly inexhaustible stream of players, no matter how many people police lock up. Where else can they make so much money so fast? Meanwhile, the disputes that inevitably erupt between dealers, and the desperation of people addicted to drugs, help feed the violence that plagues Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities. At the same time, the cops who are called on to keep order frequently behave like a callous, occupying force, and, all too often, the money corrupts them, too.
Many people who read this book may come to the same conclusion that former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke reached more than three decades ago, when he offered a radical proposal for rooting out the problem. He said drugs should be decriminalized to take the profit out of the game, and addiction should be treated like the public health problem that it is. As history has shown, the proposal did not get very far.
Fenton touches on the larger issues raised by the shocking activities of the Gun Trace Task Force members, but he doesn’t linger there. His focus is on the characters in the unit and the fascinating twists and turns of the investigation that eventually brought the rogue cops to justice.
Among the many striking revelations in the book is how casual the officers were about their crimes. They did not worry about being reported for stealing drugs, stacks of cash or expensive watches. Nor did they worry much about ramming their cars into suspects’ vehicles, or rolling up on people and roughly questioning them without probable cause. As they saw it, they were victimizing criminals who would not dare talk to authorities.
As brazen as the crimes by task force members were, they went undetected, or at least under-investigated, for years, largely because their beleaguered bosses were mostly concerned with getting violent crime under control. For all their misdeeds, members of the task force delivered when it came to gun and drug seizures, and they arrested some serious criminals. For the series of police commissioners and mayors that Baltimore went through during the unit’s crime spree, those statistics offered a good enough proxy for progress.
By the time members of the task force were taken down, they had left a long trail of damage. There were wrongful convictions, the death of an innocent civilian and the mysterious killing of a detective who was shot a day before he was scheduled to testify against the unit. And through it all, the devastating pace of violent crime in the city of Baltimore continued unabated.
We Own This City
A True Story
of Crime, Cops, and Corruption
Random House. 335 pp. $28