We Own This City, review: Bad cops are everywhere in David Simon’s grubby new detective drama

The Wire’s creator digs into a police department drowning in corruption, following the real-life 2015 death of Black Baltimore resident Freddie Grey while in custody

David Simon is back in Baltimore, where conditions have severely deteriorated since his iconic series The Wire wrapped in 2008. The crime rate is up. The cops are dirtier. We Own This City, co-created by Simon and The Wire producer George Pelecanos, isn’t so much a sequel to his groundbreaking detective drama but its dark epilogue. There have always been bad cops in Baltimore, but what happens to a city when there aren’t any good cops?

The new six-episode series chooses real-life police sergeant Wayne Jenkins – an impeccably cast Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, King Richard) – as its cocksure avatar for a department drowning in corruption. It’s 2017, two years since 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died in police custody after being picked up for carrying a switchblade. Over a week of protests followed. Six officers were eventually charged in Gray’s death, but none convicted.

The incident, as this engrossing series lays out, had two contradictory effects on the city’s police force. Some officers participated in a work slow-down, refusing to make arrests at all, citing fears of viral videos. (As one character explains, “After Freddie Gray, if we have to police the right way, we’re not going to police at all.”) But those who didn’t, like Jenkins, became untouchable; their unethical conduct all but ignored by the top brass who were desperate to put more arrests on the board. (Like on The Wire, the ethical trade-offs of policing by way of stats and spreadsheets is a significant, if difficult to dramatise, aspect of the plot.)

Based on a 2021 book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, We Own This City isn’t driven by suspense. The bad cops are bad from the get-go. Bernthal’s twitchy Jenkins just exudes insubordination, from the arrogant tilt of his chin to his penchant for ad hominem attacks delivered in the key of office humour. Name an abuse of police power and Jenkins has committed it: planting evidence, stealing, violence. More revelatory than what the bad guys do is how outrageously, frequently and flagrantly they do it.

On the other side of the fight between good and evil sits Department of Justice attorney Nicole Steele (Nigerian-British actor Wunmi Mosaku), dispatched to Baltimore to investigate the source of the city’s systemic rot. The answers here will also be familiar to fans of The Wire, perverse financial incentives for arrests and a bulldog police union among them. Still, the series isn’t entirely despondent about the state of modern policing. In flashbacks, we watch a rookie Jenkins learn the crooked ropes from the veterans he’s partnered with. Bad cops aren’t born in Baltimore; they’re made.

As watchably infuriating as We Own This City can be, it occasionally suffers from loyalty to its true story. Good police work happens interrogation by interrogation, which isn’t necessarily the pace of electric TV. And while the acting is infallible – the normally genial Josh Charles is particularly menacing as cop with a history of brutality — there’s simply not enough room across six hours to make a character as indelible as The Wire’s obsessive detective Jimmy McNulty or Cedric Daniels, its ramrod straight head of Major Crimes.

The bulk of the characterisation here is dedicated to Jenkins, who, when we meet him, is delivering an unexpected speech about how police violence actually gets in the way of real police work. To stop crime, he tells his fellow officers, you need information. No one’s going to talk to you if they’re worried about getting hurt.

He makes a good point, but we understand quickly it’s only half the truth. Jenkins and his ilk are paid to get guns off of Baltimore’s city streets, yet it’s the money they stuff down the fronts of their Kevlar vests that keep them comfortable. And you can’t steal what no one helps you find.

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