The significance of casting Treat Williams for a one-off role as an academy instructor on tonight’s episode of We Own This City will not be lost on anyone who’s seen Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, a brilliant 1981 crime drama about police corruption. Based on the true story of NYPD narcotics detective Robert Leuci, the film is about a rogue investigative unit not unlike the GTTF, full of dirty cops who rob criminals, plant evidence, and get involved in the drug transactions they’re supposed to be stopping. Williams plays a man driven by conscience to cooperate with a federal investigation with the caveat that he won’t turn on his partners, but circumstances force him to betray them anyway, and multiple tragedies unfold as a result. In the end, he avoids prosecution and winds up with a job as — you guessed it — a police-academy instructor.
Williams’s appearance here is a postscript for his character in Prince of the City, though the show does not imply that he was a dirty cop during his decades on the force. He tells Nicole he started serving in 1972 and did his longest stint in Homicide, though he’s been around long enough to know how the department works and how it’s changed. There’s not much he tells Nicole that she doesn’t already know — or us, for that matter, after watching four and a half episodes of the show — but he does reinforce the themes at play here about the complete loss of trust citizens have in cops, which is inevitable when “you’re beating on them or you’ve got a hand in their pocket.” And he gives an eloquent soliloquy (scripted by George Pelecanos) about the destructive nature of the war on drugs: “With a war comes police militarization. SWAT teams, tactical squads, stop and frisk, strip searches. A complete gutting of the Fourth Amendment. It’s like we’re fighting terrorists on foreign soil.”
The bleak message of We Own This City is that such trust is not only nearly impossible to reestablish through police reform but that such reform is a political nonstarter. As Nicole and Ahmed wrap up their federal consent decree for approval, they have to feed it through the eye of a needle: Once the Trump administration takes power, the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions is going to shut down any activity from the Civil Rights Division. So in order to get the decree passed, it has to be approved by a commissioner with no job security and a new mayor who’s loathe to invest the resources and political capital necessary to improve the department. Commissioner Davis, who’s been one of the most nuanced and fascinating figures on the series, seems sincere in wanting to take Nicole’s report seriously, but asking him to make cuts from the current budget to pay for reforms is a roundabout way of killing them. It would be hard enough to implement changes in a hostile department without also slashing jobs and resources.
And so the best that can be done is to deal with the bad apples, even if the orchard itself remains poisoned to the root. “Part Five” deals mostly with the conflicting testimonies of Gondo and Jemell, who turn on each other under interrogation like the GTTF members turned on each other in the field. And just as Hersl got promoted to the unit because he was too problematic to stay on a beat, Jemell went to GTTF after serving a two-year paid suspension while under investigation for a shooting incident — one of three, according to Gondo. Calling it “failing upward” doesn’t quite cover it because it’s not as if Hersl or Jemell are backing their way into the unit. It’s more that they’ve successfully auditioned for it, having proven in the field that they have the moral flexibility to stuff ill-gotten cash into their pockets.
The darkly funny part of the GTTF scandal — and the big difference between its members and what Williams’z character attempts to do in Prince of the City — is that there’s no honor among thieves. These guys cannot turn on each other fast enough. The FBI has Gondo and Jemell on the wire, laughing about the overtime Jenkins has approved for them with Gondo marveling over an $8,000 check from the city. But once they’re under questioning, they’re in a rush to implicate each other. That mind-set comes straight from the field, too, where they’ve agreed to split the cash and drugs they find, but Jenkins always takes the biggest cut and they skim off each other’s take whenever no one’s looking.
Two incidents stand out this week, both involving Hersl and both about Black professional men getting shaken for money without any evidence they’ve committed a crime. The first echoes the story last week about a father shot by a dealer after the cops stole cash intended to pay off a debt. Here the consequences are less serious, but Nicole talks to a man who lost $600 in cash, two days in jail, and an HVAC repairman job to Hersl for the crime of driving pizza home to his family. The second is about a sting on an affluent car salesman who had $416,000 in his bedroom when the GTTF invaded, but the county police only found $350,000. The scheme involved Jenkins acting as the least convincing state’s attorney in history, but it’s not as if he needed to be Daniel Day-Lewis to pull it off. Jenkins and his crew aren’t artists like Robert De Niro in Heat. They’re smash-and-grab guys — common crooks.
In the end, the timeline circles back to March 1, 2017, the day the Feds executed the arrest of seven GTTF officers. And despite their arrogance, despite feeling above the law, they cannot be surprised when it happens. The first line of this episode is Gondo saying that Jenkins “just didn’t care if he saw another sunrise.” And in a scene much later between Gondo and Jemell, who are still stealing under an active federal investigation, Gondo says, “When this shit ends, it ends.” They’d all set their lives on an irreversible course, one they couldn’t retreat from if they tried. Their only play now is to backstab each other into lesser sentences.
• Extremely interesting and subtle contrast set up in this episode between Suiter and a devoted Jenkins recruit nicknamed K-Stop. The show has been using Suiter as an example of a good cop, someone who was part of Jenkins’s unit but slipped off into the Homicide Division once it was clear he was on the take. But Suiter took the path of least resistance, which isn’t the same thing as a clean break. It was easier for him to play along uncomfortably with Jenkins while looking for the exit. By contrast, when Jenkins and Hersl give K-Stop a “hypothetical,” he’s firm about not wanting to be a dirty cop. It’s not a one-to-one comparison — Suiter is thrust into a situation, not a hypothetical — but Suiter’s guilt over his silence comes through in the final moments here.
• “In the minds of Wonder Bread Americans, these people aren’t really victims. They deserved it.” That’s Nicole’s colleague talking about the racist assumptions many white Americans make about victims of police abuse: They must be guilty of something, or else they wouldn’t have drawn the attention from the police at all.
• After watching The Wire, in which drug dealers suspect police attention and speak to each other in coded language through pay phones and burners, it’s hilarious to hear how incriminating the taped conversations are between Gondo and Jamell. One brief chat gets the two of them, plus Jenkins, on robbery, wire fraud, and tax evasion.
• David Simon absolutely detests former mayor (and failed Democratic presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley. The politically ambitious character of Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) on The Wire has been read as a dig at O’Malley, and Williams’s character here talks about a year when 100,000 were arrested while O’Malley was mayor. This is a fun clip in which O’Malley confronts remarks given by Simon in an interview.
• That’s Justin Fenton, the reporter who wrote We Own This City, asking a question at the press conference where the arrests are announced.
• “I don’t know if what we’re doing is going to change a thing, but shit …” Nicole saying what many well-intentioned Simon characters feel. Justice is elusive, but an effort must be made.