How Justin Fenton’s ‘We Own This City’ became an HBO miniseries

Published on: April 25, 2022 8:00 AM EDT|Updated on: June 13, 2022 8:36 AM EDT

"We Own This City” director Reinaldo Marcus Green, right, and actor Jon Bernthal discuss a scene on location in Northwest Baltimore on Sept. 15, 2021.

Twenty years after “The Wire” aired, Baltimore returns to the small screen Monday with the HBO miniseries “We Own This City.” It’s based on the book of the same name by veteran criminal justice journalist Justin Fenton, now an investigative reporter with The Baltimore Banner. It chronicles the systemic problems with corruption that exploded into public view with the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal.

In advance of the premiere, Fenton shared some thoughts about the story, his book and the TV treatment it’s getting.

What do you make of the comparisons between “The Wire” and “We Own This City?”

They’re very distinct shows that reside in the same universe. “The Wire” drew from real-life events, although it put them into a blender as a work of fiction to map the infrastructure of a city and explore how institutions work and don’t work. Police corruption was touched on, but here we focus specifically on it and use real — and recent — events.

Between the “Wire” alums who appear and some stylistic and narrative trademarks of the showrunners, I think it will make for a satisfying sequel of sorts for viewers outside of the city while highlighting a story that perhaps didn’t get enough attention nationally.

For local residents, I hope it will serve as a visual retelling of a story they’ve been watching unfold for years.

Take us back to 2017. What do you remember about the day the news broke that seven Baltimore police officers had been indicted on federal racketeering charges? Did you know then that this was something very different from the hundreds of stories you had written about the BPD in the past?

We were not that far removed from a group of officers being charged in the death of Freddie Gray, but this was clearly different. For starters, we were being summoned to the offices of the U.S. attorney, who never loses a case. They were using the word “racketeering,” and it was clear that investigators had uncovered prolonged misconduct, not just a particular incident as tended to be the case in previous such prosecutions.

It was somewhat fascinating because we thought we’d seen the last of Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who had accepted the role of No. 2 in Donald Trump’s Justice Department, but was now laying out this awful corruption case. The volume of cases these officers had been involved with, the high regard the department had held them in, and the fact that some of them had in fact been flagged previously as problem officers made it clear there was going to be a lot to dive into, but it took some time to unspool. And continues to.

Can you talk a little about when and why you decided to explore the story in greater depth in a book? And how did things evolve from there to discussions to turn it into a TV series?

The federal Gun Trace Task Force trial hadn’t even concluded when David Simon reached out and suggested that I should write a book that could form the basis of a possible miniseries. Given all that had transpired, and how difficult it was to fully lay out the context in newspaper articles, it made perfect sense, though it took some time to convince a publisher that I was up to the task.

The idea of the show was so far off in the distance that it didn’t factor into how I approached the book — as a first-time author, I felt a lot of pressure to get the most information possible and tell it in a readable way. David and George Pelecanos were wrapping up “The Deuce,” and I know that some projects don’t pan out, so it was amazing when they convened the first writers’ meetings.

A panel discussion with the cast, producers and director at the New York City premiere of "We Own This City," led by writer D Watkins, left.

How much of the TV series have you seen already, and what are your impressions of it?

I’ve seen most of it; the first two episodes in particular struck me as very intense. I am proud that the show tracks with the book, which is to say that the producers wanted to explore how the corruption takes root and how the priorities of the department factor in, and also addresses the question of how others could be in the same orbit and credibly claim they didn’t know what was going on.

I thought a particularly smart move was the character of Nicole Steele, played by Wunmi Mosaku, who is not based on a real person but exists on the show to represent the hopes and limitations of reform and to help viewers understand the issues.

The cover of the book "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption
Book," by Justin Fenton

You’re still on the beat, and the effects of the scandal continue to play out, with pending cases and the recent disclosure by federal prosecutors that the investigations are ongoing. What impact do you think the scandal has had on the Baltimore Police Department?

The Baltimore Police Department, as an organization, is so beleaguered by scandal that they often try not to dwell on scandal, which in and of itself has perpetuated problems. They almost went without commissioning an internal review of the scandal, and one hopes that people read and took to heart the findings of the one that was eventually released four months ago.

While most members of the public probably don’t understand the federal consent decree, put in place as a result of the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation following the death of Freddie Gray, I think it is very clearly guiding major changes in the department. The city is being policed in a vastly different way than it was in the past, but I think questions remain about whether they go far enough or, conversely, have had an adverse effect on the crime rate or whether these issues are far more complicated. I’m going to be exploring those issues for The Banner.