In June 2019, before he was the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Ivan Bates testified before the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, laying out the many ways members of the Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force had terrorized city residents for more than a decade. More specifically, Bates directed the bulk of his attention to the task force’s sergeant, Wayne Jenkins. In the years prior, Bates, a defense attorney, represented a handful of clients who’d accused Jenkins and other officers of robbing them for money and drugs while also planting evidence to arrest them, further ensuring the success of those robberies.
Bates’ on-camera testimony is the vehicle that drives the narrative for the new Kevin Casanova Abrams-directed documentary, “I Got A Monster,” released Friday in select theaters and on Prime Video, and based on Baltimore journalists Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg’s 2020 book of the same name. Last year, showrunner David Simon took on the same topic with HBO’s “We Own This City,” a star-studded scripted miniseries which is based on the book from Justin Fenton, now an investigative reporter for The Baltimore Banner. While both filmed projects cover the wrongdoings of cops in the GTTF (a subject I’ve written about, too), the angles they take are polar opposites.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two tellings of the story on screen is that, in the documentary, which features interviews with the victims and police body-camera footage, the priority is magnifying the necessary nuance and depth of people who were targeted by the task force. Jamal and Jovonne Walker of Northeast Baltimore stick out in particular.
The married couple had amassed more than $40,000 from a weekend of party promoting in 2010, but after Jenkins and former cop Keith Gladstone stopped Jamal outside of a neighborhood bar — assuming that he was a drug dealer — they found the cash and took it. How did they justify it? By saying they found a small bag of weed that Jamal stresses was never his.
Curious to know if he had more laying around, the cops went to the Walkers’ house, forced entry and arrested his wife in front of their children. The ordeal derailed the couple’s lives with criminal records, making it difficult for them to find work to provide for their family.
A West Baltimore arabber named Levar Mullen, who had already been under close monitoring for previous handgun charges, tells a story of Jenkins and other plainclothes officers being familiar with him through his parole officer, who was stationed out of the Western District. They pulled Mullen over on Edmondson Avenue, took him out of his vehicle and drove it to the nearest police station. He later found out he had a new gun charge, which landed him back in prison for more than three years.
“With my criminal background and my history, it’s easy to put that together because I got a history of it,” Mullen says in a scene that primarily takes place in a local stable and shows him caring for his horse, leading it around the city and demonstrating his best arabber hollers. It’s a nice break in the film’s slow pace, as it gives a brief peek into Baltimore’s colorful culture, though it’s the only moment like it in “I Got a Monster.”
A particularly tragic story comes from Umar Burley and Brent Matthews, who were headed to support a family member in court in 2010. Jenkins and other officers, in plain clothes and unmarked cars, brandished guns with masks on as they sandwiched Burley’s car and surrounded him and Matthews. Burley fled in fear for his life and got in an accident nearby that left an 86-year-old man dead. Jenkins and his team came to that scene, only then identifying themselves as officers, and arrested Burley and Matthews.
Officers also claimed to have found heroin in Burley’s vehicle. Both men served jail time for the alleged crimes they were associated with that day. They both fight back tears when they retell the story as Burley reveals he is now without permanent housing.
As Bates tells the stories of these victims through his 2019 testimony to the police trust commission, a few key points are emphasized. One is that even as an attorney fighting for the justice of citizens being wronged by public servants, the system protects who it wants to protect.
For years, Baltimore Police internal affairs refused to hand over Jenkins’ file to Bates. Jenkins regularly didn’t show up to court to tell his side of these busts. His arrest numbers were up, which seemingly made leadership within the Police Department too willing to disregard psychotic behavior.
The second, and most gut-wrenching, piece, is that many officers in majority-Black cities like Baltimore, where poverty and unemployment are rampant, are keenly aware of the fact that no one on a systemic level will stand up for Black people — whom they believe are inherently guilty of crimes, even if those people never actually commit a crime.
When “We Own This City” premiered, a criticism of Simon’s miniseries was that it drove copaganda, a term that describes irresponsible depictions of police work that are often from the perspective of officers.
In the HBO series, actor Jon Bernthal, a conventionally attractive man who is often lauded for his looks, plays Wayne Jenkins, who, in real life, is a stubby dude that would never grace the pages of sexy magazine spreads. The fictional Jenkins lives like a rock star, cheerfully beating up Black men on the street, partying at strip clubs and filling his pockets with drug money as he speeds through town. A man who terrorized Baltimore City for over a decade with the backing of the Police Department is the star of a TV show, reimagined as a tall, chiseled firecracker, while his victims are rendered as hopeless casualties. It’s reasonable to think that someone who is considering being a cop would see that and be reassured that they’ll likely be able to get away with ruining people’s lives on a daily basis without much consequence.
“I Got A Monster” attempts to flip this narrative. It prioritizes the citizens who, from the looks of it, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, under the attack of crazed people who were protected by their badges. But the story isn’t particularly hopeful. You don’t get to the end of this documentary thinking, “We’re on the right track to weeding out bad officers.” At least I didn’t. Rather, I finished this film doubting it will actually ever change. Police will form new tactics on how to get away with stomping on the little people to make themselves feel large.
But it’s important that films like this see the light of day because they challenge the controlled, uncriticized police narrative that most citizens are given. In reality, for every Wayne Jenkins who is caught and punished for his actions, there are handfuls of similar characters who will probably go unchecked.