the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries, We own this town, was praised for its depiction of the widespread corruption and brutality that plagued the Baltimore City Police Department before and after the police killing of Freddie Gray; from wrongful and violent arrests and beatings to the theft of drugs, money and personal property. These illegal activities are all permitted by the code of silence, or omertà, which implicitly governs the municipal police. The candid portrayal of the real-life (though now defunct) show Gun Trace Task Force, led by unstable cop Wayne Jenkins (Jon Berntal), allows viewers to understand the mechanics of this silence on a smaller scale.
The series posits that omertà works top-down. Mayors and state attorneys come to power with the will to effect systemic change, but prove unable to stay the course, creating a pattern of inconsistent leadership, ever-changing enforcement protocols and of corruption. The strained relationship between the mayor and the “higher brass” of the police department inevitably creates a conflict of interest. And because law enforcement officials are rightly cynical about the political motives behind the mayor’s surveillance, the police department effectively operates as an independent, untouchable entity at odds with the winds of change. Any objection to even ineffective police tactics is therefore seen as a threat to the autonomy of the service. Exposing patterns of racism, brutality and corruption within the department is seen not only as an act of disloyalty to one’s own colleagues, but to law enforcement in general.
By extension, Jenkins’ superiors, under mounting pressure to bring down the crime rate, rationalize the task force’s brazen behavior as an inevitable victim of “drug and gun removal from the streets”. The assumption that the benefits of negligent or overzealous policing outweigh the costs allows figures like Jenkins to increase power without the threat of accountability. Bizarrely, Jenkins becomes a poster boy for the eradication of crime, and the greater his popularity, the more reckless he is. Acts of corruption are ignored as part of the larger goal of “fighting crime”, an aspiration that comes to cover a multitude of sins. Only the threat of personal ruin –– the long FBI investigation led by Erika Jensen (Dagmara Dominczyk) and John Sieraki (Don Harvey) –– enough to pit Task Force members against each other. Indeed, even as Jenkins’ colleagues are increasingly horrified by their boss’s actions – including killing a driver in an impulsive car chase, placing guns, impersonating a federal agent and skimming tens of thousands of dollars from drug seizures – they initially refused to speak out against him.
Jenkins’ growing indifference to the law, blatant as it was, allowed task force members like Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles), Momodu Gondo (McKinley Belcher III) and Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to reap huge financial rewards, making snitching an unattractive option. The catch, however, is that the Task Force members not only rob the people they arrest, beat, and interrogate; they steal from each other. It is their quest for personal gain that later allows formerly loyal agents like Gondo and Rayam to drop out during the FBI’s investigation. With their own future in question, it’s every man for himself. Although Jenkins’ anger had previously been enough to enforce the code of silence that binds these policemen, the possibility of jail eventually forces Gondo, Rayam, and other members of the task force to confess to their crimes.
While it’s hard to fathom how anarchic the gun-tracing task force has become, We own this town offers a nuanced view of the depth of entrenchment of omertà in the Baltimore City Police Department. The aversion to criticizing the department runs so deep that, despite ample evidence that his death was a homicide, many officers are infuriated by the state’s attorney’s decision to charge the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder. Gray’s tragic end is an indicator of the dangers of such blind interpersonal loyalty in law enforcement. And it also reflects the ease with which Baltimore’s police officers, devoid of any accountability, slipped into crime.
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