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Home > Reviews > We Own This City

We Own This City

Author Justin Fenton

ISBN No 9780571356614

Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 335

Publisher Faber

Publisher URL

Year of publication 06/09/2021


We Own This City

Our Review


£ paperback 14.99

If you liked The Wire, the television series and the book, We Own This City is for you. It's inevitable to make that comparison, as both arise from the same city, Baltimore. Both dive into detail and took the reader or viewer beyond cops and robbers (or drug dealers) to examine how crime and wrong-doing affected a whole city, both in people's lives and politically.

Indeed, one chapter is titled 'The Wire' but is nothing to do with that other story; instead, it's about wiretaps by investigators into corrupt police. Federal (FBI) investigators were learning that a lauded elite police squad in Baltimore, the GTTF (Gun Trace Task Force) was in fact working with drug dealers, and 'civil rights violations' besides, lying about their police work. The chapter's climax is that the FBI sets up a 'sting operation', of 'bait money' inside a motor home that the GTTF would be sent to, 'and the cameras would be rolling'. But, if, as the investigators had inklings, the corrupt officers suspected a 'set up', and didn't take the 'bait', that the corrupt police did not take money would be in their favour when their case came to court. The investigators 'pulled the plug' rather than risk it.

The sub-title of this 'truth is stranger than fiction' book is: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City. In truth it is three stories in one - of the corrupt police, the investigators after them, and the story of the people who suffered under police wrong-doing - such as Freddy Gray, who died in police custody in 2015 and which sparked rioting.

Professional Security has reviewed books about corrupt London coppers of the past, most recently Rot at the Core, by Graham Satchwell. Those interested in corruption, whether for the all too human stories or what it says about policing and society, can see comparisons between 1960s and 1970s Britain and Baltimore of the 2010s. Police who become criminals in uniform, colluding with drug dealers and sharing their profits, falsifying reports, even taking part in robberies, are at once corrupt within and able to shield their wrong-doing from others in the force; which does beg questions about what colleagues and those in higher ranks know - is it worse that superiors do know of wrong-doing and don't act on it, or are ignorant of what's going on?!

Students of fraud will note that a leopard does not change his spots; a corrupt cop isn't corrupt in one part of his life and angelic in others. One GTTF sergeant 'was raking in $170,000 in city pay between his salary, overtime pay, and the fraudulent overtime work'. He appeared not to show 'red flag' signs of a life beyond his lawful means, as he stayed in the same house. The FBI learned that the sergeant allegedly had hundreds of thousands of dollars 'buried somewhere': "No such stash has been located." It begs the question as in so many fraud cases; the crime was done, over quite some time, for greed; but ultimately, for what? An FBI agent speculated that that sergeant 'had impulse control issues'; in plainer (American) English, the corrupt cop frittered the money away.

The journalist-author ends his work with an 'epilogue' set first in the 'pandemonium' of rioting streets in Baltimore in 2015. A Crips gang member saves Fenton from likely assault and theft of his mobile phone. Fenton follows up on that good Samaritan who was once arrested by one of the discredited GTTF officers. The gang member explains that 'the riot was a result of people being repeatedly forced into a corner and pushing back'.

In other words, as Satchwell and Fenton set out, corrupt cops were not being corrupt in a vacuum; corruption hurt victims, and rotted wider society; and hence the Black Lives Matter movement, and the implication that more lies behind police brutality than the act of violence. It meant that lawful police weren't trusted by communities, and that victims didn't bother to complain, or weren't believed if they did complain - because who are you going to believe, a man in uniform or an accused drug dealer?! It meant that the corrupt could and did become ever more brazen.

Fenton ends by addressing that question in the title: who owns the city? Police will say that they do. The corrupt GTTF officers said that they did (the gang member disagreed). As Fenton said, the corrupt police had authority on the streets and enriched themselves. "But the task of building trust and keeping people safe, the job they took an oath to provide, was not something all the officers' power was able to achieve."