“No matter what you’re doing on those streets, by the time you walk into any courtroom in the city, your word prevails.”
Those words arrive in the middle of a lecture Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) gives his fellow officers about police brutality — and, subtly, belies everything he’s saying about how brutality gets in the way of doing the job. It is an essential truth that officers will be believed where it matters, with the small caveat that “being brutal” may attract Internal Affairs Division complaints and civil suits that make the work more difficult. Real accountability is vanishingly 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’s utterly flummoxed by it. “You guys know who I am?!”
Jenkins’s speech is undercut in less subtle ways, too, as series director Reinaldo Marcus Green splices in footage of Black men on the streets of Baltimore getting roughed up and incarcerated en masse, and Jenkins himself, as a young beat officer, terrorizing a street-corner wino for sport. Bernthal is an absolutely electric performer — his work in Green’s King Richard as tennis coach Rick Macci is one of many standout roles — and he gives Jenkins the swaggering arrogance of a cop’s cop who knows that the system works in his favor and can be easily exploited. He’s completely persuasive 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 spiking. And he’s a cock-of-the-walk on the job, too, glad-handing his way through the office and riling up his guys on the street. His word has prevailed, right up to the shocking moment when it doesn’t.
Like 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, contributes here too — the story comes together like a mosaic, in small pieces that are difficult to parse and oh-so-patiently suggest a larger picture. It took me a couple of watches to get situated in We Own This City because there’s so little hand-holding on the whos and whats of the show, and even the whens are a puzzle since the timeline is fractured here too. A chronology is established through “run sheets,” which account for the days and dates of police actions, but there’s still some toggling back and forth between 2017 and 2015, not to mention those much earlier glimpses of a young, stick-twirling Jenkins muscling his way around a neighborhood.
Those pieces do start to add up powerfully, though, as Simon and Pelecanos, adapting the nonfiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, underline the institutional failures of the police department even more emphatically than they did in The Wire. One key framing device is the testimony of GTTF members, starting with Momodu “G Money” Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), who does his best not to be forthcoming about the robberies and abuses of power that happened under Jenkins’ leadership. A dubious search-and-seizure job on a suspected stash house gets things started, but the root of GTTF’s troubles dates back two years earlier to June 2015, when an investigation into a series of overdose cases led to a collision between task forces.
In the suburb of Bel Air, Maryland, the latest in a rash of overdoses leads two investigators from the Harford County Narcotics Task Force, David McDougall (David Corenswet) and Gordon Hawk (Tray Chaney, “Poot” from The Wire), to a source in the city named Antonio “Brill” Shropshire. Brill seems untouchable, but the street dealer, named Aaron Anderson, is so comically accessible that two separate trackers are attached to the underside of his car. And that’s where things get sticky: As McDougall and Hawk labor to arrange a raid on Anderson’s apartment, as well as the Red Roof Inn room where he’s been sleeping lately, GTTF members bust into the apartment separately and clean it out. Between the evidence that the apartment door had already been busted open and the second tracker on Anderson’s car, a conclusion about the GTTF’s operations is within reach.
Yet it’s going to take two years to get there. In the meantime, the Baltimore Police Department is still adjusting to the fallout of Freddie Gray’s death, though “adjusting” is not the same thing as reforming. Gray was a 25-year-old Black man who suffered fatal injuries 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 “an uprising” rather than a riot — led to calls for great scrutiny of the department, but where We Own This City picks up the story, the result has been the firing of the police commissioner, a mayor who doesn’t want to run for reelection, a 60 percent drop in arrests, and an alarming increase in crimes across the city.
In this environment, the show sets its clearest protagonist and antagonist at odds. Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), an attorney with the Office of Civil Rights, arrives in Baltimore eager to root out corruption and extralegal violence within the BPD. Her introduction is a doozy: While driving to work, she catches the surreal sight of citizens filming two cops who are using excessive force to make an arrest but walk away from the scene with the cameras on them. Nicole’s conclusion afterward feels like the right summation of what’s happening within the department post–Freddie Gray: “If we have to police the right way, we’re not going to police at all.” And yet she and a new DOJ attorney, Ahmed (Ian Duff), move forward in an effort to take the worst of the worst off the streets.
The worst of the worst is Daniel Hersl, who Josh Charles plays as the very definition of a racist thug hiding behind a badge. Hersl’s tactics are so notorious that Nicole doesn’t even have to say his name before others offer it to her, yet the litany of complaints against him has not yet resulted in his removal from the force. In the two times we see him in action, Hersl pulls over a man ostensibly for running a stop sign, but actually for driving while Black, and later invents a confrontation with an innocent suspect to hang a charge of assaulting a police officer. The connecting thread is that Hersl doesn’t like “back talk” from the Black men he lives to brutalize and humiliate.
The intrigue doesn’t stop there, as the episode labors to establish other key figures in the series, including two more Wire veterans: Jamie Hector, the formidable drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield on The Wire, appears as Sean Suiter, a reserved homicide detective; and Delaney Williams, once the intransigent layabout Jay Landsman, is here the new police commissioner Kevin Davis. There’s a lot to absorb in this busy first hour, but it’s always worth allowing a Simon & Co. series the latitude to tell a big story at their own pace. His work has a 100 percent clearance rate.
• Fascinating political context regarding the Office of Civil Rights, which tends to go dormant when a Republican wins the White House. Fortunately for Nicole and Ahmed, Donald Trump looks like a long shot.
• “We’re not going to make a dent in this shit, are we?” As with The Wire, the one conviction shared by anyone involved in narcotics is that the War on Drugs is not winnable.
• More wisdom from Nicole after hearing the mayor’s plans to resign: “The politician that asks us to come to Baltimore and fix things won’t be the same politician who actually has to do it.”
• There’s not much flair here from a filmmaking perspective, but the surveillance-angle static shot of Anderson’s car leaving his apartment complex and the GTTF guys rolling in is a superb one-take wonder.