Policing and the War on Drugs and American Cities
By John Freimark
From the creative minds of HBO’s The Wire comes another deep dive into the war on drugs and the difference in power between the police that swear to protect the people against the people they swore to protect. Their new series, conveniently titled We Own This City, takes an in-depth look at the massive police corruption scandal in Baltimore that was uncovered in the years following the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015. David Simons and George Pelecanos return to Baltimore with some new and some familiar faces and guide viewers along with one of the most disturbing and mind-blowing exploitations of power not only in terms of law enforcement but in the history of our country. Without revealing too much too early, I want to preface this essay by saying while this may seem like a straightforward examination of the corruption that occurred in the Baltimore police department, it is much more of a meditation on the war on drugs and the effect it has had on America and her citizens.
This limited series is one of the most engaging and disheartening pieces of media that I’ve watched in some time. Not only does it dramatize and demonstrate the failing nature of the war on drugs in the United States, but also how police institutions are crumbling and have bred the greatest sense of distrust within our country between the social institutions we’ve created and the people they were created to represent. The main idea that spoke to me is the way the federal government and public institutions have failed the American people and tainted our way of life with the war on drugs. The aspect of this show that I found most effective in terms of representing power, difference, and discrimination is the editing between timelines featuring our main cast of characters.
As the show follows the origins of the corruption and racketeering case, the audience gets to see the breadth of corruption that had spread throughout the department. To go along with the impressive and unique editing techniques that blur timelines and shift perspective from both sides of this case. In addition to realistic and naturalistic cinematography that feels authentic to the way, life is captured through the eyes of onlookers. Lastly, the aspect of this series that I found strongest is the performance of Jon Bernthal. Not only does Bernthal portray one of the evilest and most corrupt law enforcement officers that have graced the silver screen but it is also one of the most nuanced performances associated with masculinity that I’ve seen since Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.
Since the summer of 2020, I have felt myself opening up and paying closer attention to the copious amounts of discriminatory behavior that police officers have exhibited specifically people of color. This all started with my first viewing of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing soon after George Floyd was murdered by Minnesota police officers. Since that time my sensitivity towards atrocities like Floyd’s murder has been turned to an all-time high. When my best friend told me about the development of this series I quickly became very excited just by the news of the creative team behind the project. But very little could’ve prepared me for the story that would unfold for me in the ensuing 6 weeks. While watching this 6-episode series I discovered that no show is more important to understanding the troubles that face America today than this story. Not only does it tackle a relevant story that is less than a decade old, but it forces the audience to take a look at their perceptions of the war on drugs and their relationship with police institutions. This show premiered in the aftermath of another Black Lives Matter resurgence, a controversial presidential administration, and the exposure of more police brutality; this couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.
The best way to judge someone’s character in my opinion is to observe how they treat other people. In terms of how that relates to We Own This City, we get to see one of the most disproportionate examples of difference ever put to screen. From episode to episode we see a different example of how mismanaged and corrupt the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) had become under the leadership of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and how he was able to create an environment that allowed him to police in any way he desired. Not only did Jenkins employ tactics that are more closely associated with organized crime. Tactics like intimidation, extortion, robbery, and assault. But more importantly how this show relates to the tactics associated with America’s war on drugs. A study was written by Michael Vitiello titled, “The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences,” talks about the effect the war on drugs has had on the American people and how the tactics of police and the sentencing of the judicial system have violated or twisted their constitutional rights. It says, “ Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often failed to protect fundamental rights in times of moral panic. For example, it eroded Fourth Amendment protections during the War on Drugs. Similarly, it failed to protect drug offenders from excessive prison sentences during the War on Drugs. This article examines whether it is time for the Supreme Court to rethink its precedent upholding extremely long sentences for drug crimes.” The importance of exposing the war on drugs and showing the dramatized version of it in this show cannot be understated. The idea of having such important themes and ideas packed into a show so entertaining with a massive superstar actor isn’t something new but within this particular setting is unique to this story.
While the show features some of the most visceral and horrible acts of police work (that actually happened by the way) the series doesn’t do anything to glorify the actions of these police officers. Some may suggest that casting an actor like Jon Bernthal to portray a notoriously corrupt officer is counterintuitive to creating a show that doesn’t glorify their actions. I believe it actually works in its favor. Bernthal is unflinching when it comes to accurately capture the nuances of Wayne Jenkins and leaves the audience not wanting to spend more time with him, but unwilling to look away as Jenkins spirals further and further into corruption. The nuances of corruption and mishandling of citizens don’t just stop at the GTTF, and Wayne Jenkins though. It extends to the highest heights of America and the refusal to let the war on drugs end in our country only leads to more distrust amongst not just the police but the politicians who create the policies those officers act on. This encounter in the final episode of the series between Nicole Steele and a police instructor is fascinating when it comes to owning up on the state of this war. The officer says, “The drug war? Exactly, and in a war you need warriors. In a war you have enemies. In a war civilians get hurt and nobody does anything, in a war you count the bodies and you call them victories. Is the justice department or even the office of civil rights ready to declare that we long ago lost this war? That we’ve achieved nothing but full prisons, routine brutality, and a complete collapse of trust between police departments and their cities.” This exchange between actors is incredibly powerful and basically pinpoints the main thesis of this show, that America’s desire to hold onto the war on drugs and its flawed conquest has done nothing but eradicate the trust between its citizens and the institution that was created to protect them.
When examining a show like this it isn’t easy to pick a specific scene that does the greatest job of displaying the imbalance of power found between the law enforcement institutions and the people of Baltimore. But I can definitely pick out the scene that had my head nodding the entire time. I wasn’t nodding in agreement with Wayne Jenkins when he was delivering a speech to the GTTF about how to exploit the overtime system to maximize pay. And I wasn’t nodding along when he marvels at them saying that as long as they are bringing in guns and money off the street their department will look the other way and protect them at all costs. I was nodding along because the filmmaking skill is being displayed on the highest level. It is elite-level writing and dissection of this character’s psyche and how he commands himself and inspires that level of notoriety within his unit. It is this speech that allows the viewer to see the true seductive power of money, greed, toxic masculinity, and the imbalance of power between the police force and the people in the community. Let’s take a closer look at the speech Bernthal gives, “ We gotta keep up that good work. So starting tomorrow we’re gonna work 8-4, but we ain’t coming in till 2. But when we do come in we come correct. We go proactive as a motherfucker, you understand me? We go and we come to hunt, we go get those guns. Because as long as we do that, we go get those guns. We can get away with whatever the fuck we want. You understand me?…. We own this city.” Not only is this speech from Jenkins incredible because of what he thinks he can get away with. But it’s just incredible how Bernthal committed to this character and embraced his evil nature in hopes of unabashedly staying true to the authenticity of the story and the imbalance of power. Bernthal says, “ “It was done with sensitivity, with respect, with a journalistic integrity to really tell the truth in all of its complications and to not preach and not to have agendas.”
At the front line of all police-related stories is going to be the discriminatory relationship between officers and people of color. And while I think there are some qualities that are laced into all of the interactions portrayed in We Own This City I think the real discrimination comes not just between people of color and the police, but more specifically between people from lower classes and the police. This is going to relate closely to what I wrote previously about differences, but some of the speeches between an older police officer turned instructor and a representative of the Civil Rights Office about the war on drugs are illuminating to me. The discrimination of classes doesn’t just stop there. Traces of it can be found within the police department itself between the top-earning percentage of officers and the lower-level patrol officers who make much less money. It is this disparity amongst them combined with the opportunity presented by the war on drugs that created an environment that fosters criminal activity even by those employed by the institutions created to stop it. A very real way of describing the discrimination that occurs as a result of the war on drugs comes from David Simon himself which came from a 2016 interview. The article published was titled, “The Wire’s David Simon on the drug war and why he hates the shows Cops and Law and Order.” Simons sat down and said, “Even cops I respect, who came up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. If you had a reputation in the squad as “He won’t fight” or “He won’t get out of the car.” Everybody has to fight, and we can’t lose. Because if you lose then the next three guys on the post, we lose the post. So if the midnight guy’s weak, and you’re going to come on at nine, they’re going to try you now, because he let them have the corners. And that’s like a war.” This quote does a great job of exemplifying the idea of discrimination and how it relates to the war on drugs and the themes expressed in this limited series.
There are always two sides to every story and this story is no exception. While Simons and Pelecanos are no strangers to telling both sides of a war, their previous work on The Wire is probably the clearest example of that. I would say that We Own This City doesn’t suffer from some of the controversial opinions that surrounded The Wire at the time of its release. Propaganda, or in the case of this show “copaganda” is almost nowhere to be found. To use a phrase I used earlier, this series is unflinching in how it portrays the behavior of this unit and the corruption that reaches the highest heights in public institutions of Baltimore. I think a major distinction here is that The Wire was a fictional television program with no specific reference event while We Own This City is a limited series based on nationally publicized events. If the creators would’ve learned any way other than complete anonymity I believe the show would’ve lacked some of the punch that hit so hard for so many viewers. While The Wire is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed television series of all time, it still faced some pushback about the glorification of police officers, especially in a city like Baltimore that features so much crime specifically against people of color. While I do think this aspect of The Wire is more nuanced than how my comments suggest, I feel like We Own This City is a way for Simons and Pelecanos to definitively say they don’t create copaganda. In a recent interview with Simons and Pelecanos, they discussed the connections between The Wire and We Own This City and how they mirror each other. The article titled, David Simon and George Pelecanos Call ‘We Own This City’ a “Coda” for ‘The Wire. Simons and Pelecanos say, “We started arguing these things in The Wire years ago, but things have reached a pass and ultimately some of the characters we depicted in The Wire who were already off the rails, but they weren’t dragging the whole department with them — you know, the Hersls and Carvers of The Wire — they’re now the Colonels and the Majors. And they’re now training the lieutenants in the story on how not to do police work the right way.”
As a prospective film student, I often find myself gravitating toward pieces of media that have someplace in the cultural lexicon. Films like The Godfather, Serpico, The Shawshank Redemption, and series like The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad have always had an elevated level of importance to me. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch The Wire yet and the level of fandom and acclaim surrounding that show is about as high as anything else. I did know the level of craftsmanship that was used in that show by Simons and Pelecanos is at the highest tier, so when I heard about this new limited series featuring Jon Bernthal, I couldn’t have signed up any faster. Not only do I get to scratch and satisfy my itch for some content from two geniuses, but I also get to watch one of the greatest character actors of his generation immerse himself into his most complicated role yet. As if I couldn’t have been more excited about the very idea of this series, it also comes at a time when tensions in the United States are at an all-time high. The relationship between the police and the people of America couldn’t be worse and telling a story about the abuse of power amongst these departments isn’t only relevant, it’s essential. While I don’t believe We Own this City is something that’s going to heal the wounds created by the distrust associated with the police I do believe that spreading awareness of instances like what happened in Baltimore with the Gun Trace Task Force is of the utmost importance especially to reach generations like mine who spend hours looking for a captivating story while mindlessly scrolling through streaming services.
If you step back and look at the breadth and state of the narrative media industry now some will say that it’s bigger than ever and some will tell you we’re on the verge of a creative collapse with the domination of intellectual property. With that in mind, it is refreshing to see a new series that is not only highly entertaining and crafted masterfully, but is as relevant as anything you’ll watch in a year. We Own This City engages with its audience in a way that’s respectful to their viewing intelligence with its multiple timelines, but coaches along the way address social issues that have lost traction in mainstream media and remind the nation of a racketeering scandal that happened only 5 years ago. For this, we have to thank David Simon and George Pelecanos not just for creating an excellent series that I couldn’t recommend enough, but for also bringing notice to some of the worst qualities in our country and being unafraid to make us look in the mirror and ask ourselves the difficult questions.
Vitiello, Michael. “THE WAR ON DRUGS: MORAL PANIC AND EXCESSIVE SENTENCES.” Cleveland State Law Review, vol. 69, no. 2, Jan. 2021, pp. 441–83. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&A N=149896031&site=ehost-live.
“’I Made a Lot of Mistakes’: Jon Bernthal on Machismo, His Violent Past and Playing a Corrupt Cop in We Own This City.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 May 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/may/02/i-made-a-lot-of-mistakes-jon-bernthal-o n-machismo-his-violent-past-and-playing-a-corrupt-cop-in-we-own-this-city.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Opinion | ‘the Wire’s’ David Simon on the Drug War and Why He Hates ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2016/10/24/the-wires-david-simon-on-the-dr ug-war-and-why-he-hates-cops-and-law-order/.
O’Keefe, Meghan. “David Simon and George Pelecanos Call ‘We Own This City’ a ‘Coda’ for ‘the Wire’.” Decider, Decider, 22 Apr. 2022, https://decider.com/2022/04/25/we-own-this-city-on-hbo-david-simon-george-pelecanos-intervie w/.