Saturday, 12 June 2021

Q & A with Justin Fenton


Justin Fenton has covered crime for the Baltimore Sun for more than a decade and was the lead reporter on the Gun Trace Task Force story. He is a two-time finalist for the national Livingston Award for Young Journalists and won an award from the governor’s office in 2011 for his coverage of rape claims discarded by police. His book We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City is a devastating report on the systematic corruption within the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force.

Ayo:- Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Did you always intend to be a

Justin:- I grew up outside of Baltimore - my family subscribed to two newspapers, and I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood as a boy. I also watched "Homicide: Life on the Streets" every week during its run. The idea to become a journalist didn't come together until late in high school, but I haven't looked back.

Ayo:- How long have you been a crime reporter and what made you as a journalist gravitate towards crime reporting?

Justin:- I started covering crime along with other responsibilities while assigned to suburban bureaus at The Baltimore Sun when I first started there out of college. I gravitated toward the topic because it was inherently dramatic, and I could see there was quite a bit of difference between surface crime stories and those that delved deeper into the material. I suppose that's like anything else, but I liked telling in-depth stories.

Ayo:- For a non-American could you explain why the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) was set up, who it consisted of and why what happened within the task force was considered to be so unlawful and unconscionable?

Justin:- The Gun Trace Task Force was set up, initially, to target gun traffickers - to try to cut off the supply of illegal weapons into the city. It degraded over time into a squad that roamed the city pulling people over looking for one gun at a time. The officers were "plainclothes," so not in uniform or marked cars, and took advantage of autonomy granted to such units and a lack of strong oversight. Their behaviour was clearly unlawful and unconscionable - lying about the circumstances and justification for searches, stealing cash and drugs from people, and in some cases planting evidence.

Ayo:- What sort of relationship do you think that the people of Baltimore currently have with the Police Department and in the light of the Task Force Scandal, the death of Freddie Gray and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement? Is it a relationship that can be put on a better footing or do you think that there is still a crisis in confidence in the Police Department?

Justin:- For many residents the Gun Trace Task Force scandal validated concerns that existed for decades and were not taken seriously - for others it was a wake-up call that the problems were worse than they could have imagined. The fact that it happened during the post-Freddie Gray period during which reform was supposedly taking place was a jolt that will take police a lot of hard work to overcome, if it can be overcome. Conversations about defunding the police are now being spoken in some mainstream circles, which had not been the case previously. Police are in a new position of not just trying to calm critics and tamp down crime, but justifying their existence.

Ayo:- I find it fascinating that with the death of Gray which resulted in the Baltimore Police Department being placed under federal oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice that the illegal behaviour of some members of the Baltimore Police Force wasn't dealt with sooner. Do you think that there was a reason for this?

Justin:- According to federal prosecutors, there weren't a slew of complaints against members of the GTTF for the crimes that would later be uncovered, which speaks to the fact that many of the victims were in fact criminals with much to lose if they admitted their own crimes, or that people did not feel they would believed or were even advised by their own attorneys not to speak out. Still, I agree that it's remarkable that money being stolen gets only a passing reference or two in the Justice Department's comprehensive review of the department.

Ayo:- All through the book you quite deliberately track the progression of Sergeant Wayne Jenkins career. This appears to be deliberate. Was it intentional and if so why?

Justin:- In assessing the massive amount of material and the number of characters to track, I got advice from a friend to hone in on somebody and tell the story through their prism. It was then an easy choice to focus on Jenkins: not only was he the supervisor and leader of the GTTF, not only was he the worst of the bunch, but he was also viewed within the department as one of the best. His entrance into the agency in 2003 also helped tell the story of the modern BPD, and what factors it was grappling with and the shifting strategies. It was the period just before I started on the beat in 2008, and I was very familiar with it already.

Ayo:- Does one actually know how far back the criminal behaviour with the police force (specifically Jenkins) had been going on and why they managed to get
away with it for such a long time?

Justin:- It's been said that this has been going on for quite some time and was passed on through the ranks. Certainly, BPD has had corruption scandals in the past, though those that in the recent history were exposed tended to involve individual officers; in the 70s there were larger cases involving gambling and protection rackets and things like that. I suspect that the way this investigation unfolded - a careful wiretap case - allowed it to be detected in a way that perhaps prior cases were not.

Ayo:- Whilst Jenkins is the centre of the story you have also written about a number of other officers who were involved. How important was it to include them as well since Jenkins was the undisputable ring leader?

Justin:- I struggled with that because I did not want others to be afterthoughts or excluded. There's one chapter in particular that is a bit out of place that attempts to make sure people know about Rayam, Gondo and Hersl, and that was very deliberately inserted for these reasons. At the same time I thought there was much more to be learned by focusing on Jenkins and those in his orbit - those who worked with him and say they didn't know what he was up to; those who worked with him and had suspicions; those who knew and participated; and those who were victimized.

Ayo:- Was there a sense of relief when Burley and Matthews were released bearing in mind the fact that they were languishing in prison and had been protesting their innocence for quite some time?

Justin:- Certainly, and it was a moving scene in the courtroom when the judge stepped off the bench to shake their hands. I've never seen anything like that, though for Burley and Matthews it was certainly a small consolation for what they had been through. Their story is an important part of understanding that this went back much further than the wiretap case (their arrest occurred in 2010), and that it involved much more than drug money being taken.

Ayo:- Is there any one incident that really got to you whilst you were doing your investigation and if so which one and why?

Justin:- There were two older incidents that stay with me - both took place in civil courtrooms. One is Burley being led into a civil courtroom where he is being sued, and he clearly has no idea what is going on and has no representation and the judge just bulldozes through it until Burley is led out of the courtroom and slapped with a $1 million judgment. The other is the civil attorney Richard Woods, making an impassioned speech about how important it is to send a message to police officers that they have to follow the rules, and then his reaction as the jury comes down in his favor but awards one dollar. Some of those early courtroom videos, where Jenkins is confronted and prevails in spectacular fashion, really struck me. But there's many more that stand out as well.

Ayo:- The death of Sean Suiter which came just before he was due to testify is one of those moments where no one is ever going to really know what happened. In the book it is clear that his family (and even some of his colleagues) refused to accept that there might be a possibility that he took his own life. Even I know that if you die in service then your pension is dealt with differently than if you commit suicide. How difficult do you think that this situation was to all concerned?

Justin:- It's extremely difficult, because as you said it is so hotly disputed. The distrust that has been building over the years, and then for something like this to happen and be so unclear and engender such suspicion and debate, it's going to be controversial and difficult for a long time.

Ayo:- Two of the officers decided to plead not guilty and there was a trial which ended in November 2018. Were you surprised that with all the evidence that was stacked up against them they decided to go down that route especially since there were also a number of colleagues that testified against them?

Justin:- (The trial was in Jan-Feb. 2018). As a reporter I am really thankful that those two went to trial because it allowed so much more information to come out that truly would not have ever seen the light of day if they pleaded guilty. There's been previous police misconduct cases where the officers took pleas, and we learned nothing more than what was in the original indictment. The officers taking the stand, the victims taking the stand, the evidence that was displayed - it was those officers' final act of disrespect to the police department, to allow all that to be aired. And if Jenkins had gone to trial, I think we would have learned even more.

Ayo:- What do you think has been the biggest effect that this scandal has had on Baltimore? Clearly there was something systematically wrong with Baltimore Police Department over a long period of time, they had for example three Police Commissioners in five years?

Justin:- I think it was a wake-up call that the problems were worse than contemplated and made it that much harder for people to trust that the agency can be reformed. That was already a challenge but was compounded. And, the agency continues to grapple with citizen and political pressure to control crime, which was part of the reason the misconduct was overlooked.

Ayo:- We Own This City has quite rightly be spoken about as being the next best book about the police and Baltimore since David Simon's Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets which itself is a seminal piece of work. How much were you influenced by Homicide and do you think that any more can be written about the City of Baltimore and its relationship with the police?

Justin:- What was particularly special about Simon's "Homicide", beyond his terrific writing, was the fact that it was an up close portrait of the department, from the inside, while it was happening. I often felt like I was writing a history book, even though the events were recent, because I was not there to observe the misconduct and the things taking place behind the scenes, but rather trying to reconstruct it after the fact. I think there's certainly more to be said about the city and police, and I look forward to seeing how others might approach it.

Ayo:- What after effects did this investigation have on you personally?

Justin:- I was frustrated but motivated by the fog that hung over so many of the incidents not documented in detail by the federal investigation. With so much being manipulated, should I believe everything being alleged, or did I still need to apply the test of working to corroborate things to an appropriate standard? I had to forgo certain stories because the corroboration just was not there, and I wondered to myself many times if these things were to happen again without the proof, would we be able to report them? Would we, collectively, move past them as we did in the past?

Ayo:- As a crime reporter what advice would you give someone that was thinking of reporting on crime?

Justin:- That's tough. I think one thing is that crime reporting has become much more controversial, in a good way. People are pushing us to think more critically, be more skeptical, see the issues differently, and that is good. But I also think an aspiring reporter needs to ask if they are also ready to go against the grain - which in this case is reporting on an institutional narrative when everything indicates that it is actually correct and factual. Whereas in the past the police narrative wasn't questioned enough, now some people say, "It's all lies." I understand where that comes from, and it's our job to do our best to figure out what the story is.

Ayo:- In hindsight is there any advice that you would like to give your younger self?

Justin:- I generally think a big part of our job is to bring stories out from the inside of an institution that doesn't want them to get out, and I think I spent a lot of times trying to develop those sources and do that reporting. It is very difficult and if you don't work on it, you'll never get there and you're relegated to lobbing bombs from the other side of the fence, reporting blindly. But I also think I could have spent more time reporting from the outside-in, and both are a continuing challenge.

Ayo:- What are you working on at the moment?

Justin:- Believe it or not the GTTF story continues to play out - I've recently connected with two key players who wouldn't speak to me earlier in the process, and the department's commissioned outside report should be out in the coming months. Aside from that, we are watching very closely a federal investigation of our top prosecutor and city council president, who are married to each other. The lead prosecutor is the same person who investigated the GTTF.

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City by Justin Fenton

Baltimore, 2015. Riots were erupting across the city as citizens demanded justice for Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man who died in police custody. At the same time, drug and violent crime were once again surging. For years, Sgt Wayne Jenkins and his team of plain-clothed officers - the Gun Trace Task Force - were the city's lauded and decorated heroes. But all the while they had been skimming from the drug busts they made, pocketing thousands in Now, in light of their spectacular trial of late 2018, and in a work of astounding reportage and painstaking self-discovery, Justin Fenton has pieced together a shocking story of systemic corruption.

You can follow Justin Fenton on Twitter @justin_fenton

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