The monster in the title of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad doesn't refer to the criminal cops it chronicles, but it would be easy to make a case that that's what they were. These plainclothes officers held certain parts of the city in a reign of terror that reads like a lost season of The Wire.
The story of Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force, and the swath of criminality and violence it created rather than terminated, is chronicled in I Got a Monster by ex-alt-weekly editors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg in a staggering feat of research. The two painstakingly reconstructed the actions of the crew from trial testimony, evidentiary text messages, transcriptions of calls from jail and from tapped phones, and dozens of interviews. Orlando Weekly spoke with the authors about how the GTTF can be seen as a microcosm of the "counter-insurgent" mindset of modern police departments – a mindset that's spreading across the country, as we've seen in the increasingly militaristic response to protesters.
Can you give a quick synopsis of the events you cover in the book?
Soderberg: I Got A Monster tells the story of the Gun Trace Task Force, a Baltimore police squad whose objective was to seize guns and locate gun dealers (essentially doing what police do with drugs, but with guns, all under the auspices that it would curb violence) and instead robbed people, stole drugs, dealt drugs, planted evidence and routinely violated people's constitutional rights. Our book focuses on how these cops responded to the 2015 Baltimore Uprising following the death of Freddie Gray and their last year in action, when they went on a particularly shocking crime spree that lasted almost until they were federally indicted in 2017. It is a gang story, except here the gang is the police.
Woods: And on the other side, since the gang is the police, the investigator is Ivan Bates, a Black defense attorney who had been battling Wayne Jenkins, the squad's white leader, in court for years. The story begins when Jenkins steals more than $100K from Bates' client. So, reversing the cat-and-mouse game you normally have in true crime, where a cop goes after a criminal, we have the defense attorney investigating the cop (who is the criminal) and piecing together the crimes – because no one in the system would listen.
We often overlook cases of police misconduct and violence because we are eager to believe they are taking down bad guys.
Baltimore has a reputation as a high-crime city. Is that deserved? And what makes I Got a Monster more than just "a Baltimore story"?
Soderberg: The crime here is very real. Especially the homicide rate – which has surpassed 300 homicides per year every year since 2015. The nature of that violence, though, is what's maybe not perceived accurately – or at least, it's often simplified. There is deep and pervasive segregation. There is a severe lack of jobs because of deindustrialization. There is an unaccountable political and business class who see it as their only job to give tax breaks to developers and their other buddies at the expense of working people.
And there is, as our book shows, just a shocking level of police corruption here – and that is part of that violence too. Cops in Baltimore were creating crime and running a criminal enterprise within the police department. The police corruption is part of, for example, The Wire – it's there occasionally – but what we came to see is that corruption defines the Baltimore Police Department.
Woods: Sometimes it feels like there is no legitimate authority in the city. While we were writing the book, the police commissioner who took over after the GTTF indictment was sentenced to prison for cheating on taxes and the mayor was busted in a crazy, and lucrative, children's book scheme. And like Brandon said, there's 300-plus homicides a year and a clearance rate of around 30 percent – meaning the cops aren't going to get the guy who shot your brother. So people are scared on all sides and arm themselves. That's what the GTTF was created to respond to – but it only added to the chaos, corruption and violence.
This task force obviously believed their wrongdoing didn't matter because it was in service of taking down "bad guys." Would you say this is applicable to the police in general? Becoming more so?
Woods: Like the rest of us, these cops grew up watching all of the movies and shows that tell us that great cops break rules to get bad guys. They get the job done and they also buck against the bureaucracy and we love them. Wayne Jenkins was exactly that kind of cop. We all made him. But just like he wanted to be the best cop, I think he wanted to be the best criminal. But we, as a society and often as reporters, overlook cases of police misconduct and violence because we are eager to believe they are taking down bad guys.
Soderberg: What informed these cops' criminality – especially Jenkins' – is the logical extension of American policing: People are the enemy (even though cops are supposed to "protect and serve"), crimes must be stopped by any means necessary (even if that creates more crime) and police are in a war with the citizens (a war on drugs but also in Baltimore, a very similar "war on guns"). This kind of thinking is common in police forces everywhere and it enables corruption. You see this behavior all around the country right now at protests where cops are attacking protesters. If this is what the police will do to people who are in public, you can only imagine what these cops are doing when no one is recording them. And through FBI wiretaps and body camera footage, for example, we were able to see what the GTTF were doing when they thought no one was watching or listening to them.
Do you think these guys saw what they were doing as more important than just getting paid? Were they shoring up their power in a moment where white people were starting to question police tactics?
Soderberg: What happened in Baltimore in 2015 is what happened in Ferguson in 2014 and what happened nationwide this summer following the police killing of George Floyd. We understood these cops in our book as a "counter-insurgency." They were out there to crush the protests and then after the protests ended, destroy any insurgent sense citizens still felt. They did this by aggressively and illegally policing. They went harder after the uprising.
You see that now across the country. People protest police violence and the cops show up and get violent, proving the activists' point. Then the cops use protests or even just public criticism of the police as a reason why they have to keep doing the kind of policing everyone wants to stop. It's a pretty good scam.
Woods: Paradoxically, the more crime there is, the better it is for police. Every time we surpass the old record of annual homicides, people call for more money for the police, which often translates into overtime for individual detectives and officers. And less accountability – as long as you're getting guns that the department can put up on Twitter and Facebook, people will look the other way. So if you are stealing drugs and money, you're creating chaos on the streets, which leads to more crime. Which leads to more leeway and more overtime.
You started work a few years ago, but IGAM came out in summer 2020, when it seems like consensus has finally been reached on the idea that policing as it's being performed now simply does not work. Do you feel optimistic about change happening?
Soderberg: I'm not optimistic, but it is encouraging that more and more people are seeing through the rhetoric that protects police and realizing it for what it is. Trump's rhetoric, police being more brazen in showing just who they protect (or what they protect, which is property) is all terrifying – but it also shows that people in power are scared. Also like Trump, there doesn't seem to be a bottom to the corruption. Take these stories about the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department having a gang in the department called the Executioners, for example. You can't "reform" that.
What with the ongoing investigation and the fear of retaliation, the logistics of making this book had to be challenging. The public records requests alone must have been insane.
Woods: We had a long email exchange with one of the former cops, who was in federal prison, and we spoke with the cocaine-dealing bail bondsman who was probably Jenkins's closest co-conspirator. But it was also really important to us to talk to the people who had been victimized by the task force. They are the Freddie Grays and George Floyds who lived.
Soderberg: And while there were public records requests, nearly all of them were ignored by the police. One of the few they responded to was to charge Baynard $40,000 for Jenkins' department emails. So even public information here in Baltimore is an extortion racket by the police, you know?
We also would go to the scenes of crimes and walk around and reconstruct the robberies and cross-reference it with details from our interviews and documents and testimony. So that was all used to build out the book's events because the book (which is all true, just to be clear) really feels like a novel more than conventional reporting. I wanted it to be a piece of investigative journalism that felt like a movie.
People protest police violence and the cops show up and get violent, proving the activists’ point. Then the cops use the protests as a reason why they have to keep doing the kind of policing everyone wants to stop. It’s a pretty good scam.
As I said, IGAM could be seen as just another wild "Baltimore story." But these task forces and undercover units exist in most, if not all cities. How much oversight is there? How can citizens get a sense of what's happening with the police in their own city?
Soderberg: In terms of what citizens can do, here are two fairly easy things. The first is that whether you support "defund" or "abolish" or aren't sure about it or hate it but want there to be changes in policing, you need to concede that those ideas are not any more "outrageous" or "not feasible" than cities spending huge chunks on their budget on police who always ask for more, are unaccountable and are harming citizens. It is very useful to just imagine what a world without police or very different police looks like.
The second thing: Try to understand how policing works. I Got A Monster is really intimate and by being so close to them, it's a case study in how corrupt cops operate. I'm glad you mention these kinds of task forces and plainclothes units because it's central to this book and I think, many of the problems with policing. We give these plainclothes cops a lot of power, little oversight, and let them run wild. It's almost like a shadow police force: guys in unmarked cars in cargo pants and henleys driving around looking for people to roll up on, throw against a wall, chase, whatever. The lack of oversight is the point. The cops in I Got A Monster got away with it because they were also producing results: seizing guns, making arrests. The corruption can't be extracted from what is considered "good policing" with plainclothes.
Woods: Over the last generation, we've all but abandoned the 4th Amendment. We need more 4A absolutists, because, in every single town in America, the police have the capacity to engage in some versions of these crimes, because of the power we have given them. We have created a shield of invisibility around police departments everywhere at the same time that we have given them more power – both power over citizens and firepower. We're seeing similar cases coming out of Mount Vernon, New York, and I think we'll see a lot more in coming years. But if you want to know about dirty cops, talk to public defenders. Defense attorneys in general, but especially public defenders, are the heroes of the book.