David Simon returns with a new show about policing in Baltimore called We Own This City, 20 years after The Wire first aired. It’s an even more damning depiction of the state of urban policing — but one that betrays Simon’s confusion about how to fix it.

We Own This City focuses on the troubled state of Baltimore policing in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder in 2015. (HBO)

To mark the twentieth anniversary of The Wire, creator David Simon, his creative partner Ed Burns, and writer George Pelecanos have returned with We Own This City, another HBO show set in Baltimore. While The Wire always had Baltimore police as a focal point, the sprawling show also touched on urban crises ranging from deindustrialization to under-resourced public schools to the decline of traditional media, all over the course of five sensational seasons. By contrast, Simon’s new show is a taut six-episode series that focuses exclusively on the troubled state of Baltimore policing in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder in 2015.

We Own This City paints a devastating portrait of Baltimore police. If there was any hope for viewers of The Wire that progress had been made in urban policing in light of that show’s popularity and changes in the discourse surrounding criminal justice in the last twenty years, We Own This City is here to break the news that circumstances have only gotten worse.

Simon’s new show follows the true story of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force headed by rogue officer Wayne Jenkins. Simon retains his penchant for unflinching portrayals of modern policing: the degree to which Jenkins’s unit, as portrayed in the series, breaks the law and terrorizes African-American residents of Baltimore is stomach-turning. Jenkins, in a captivating performance by Jon Bernthal, leads his unit in an ever-escalating series of unconstitutional incidents: stealing money and drugs from crime scenes, planting evidence, and assaulting Baltimore residents. The show also delves into the crisis Jenkins’s unit created as it pillaged the city’s overtime fund, lying about hours worked and cashing obscene checks that warped the department’s budget.

Set in 2016, the show flashes back to Jenkins’s brazen displays of illegality as members of his unit are interviewed by the FBI. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is investigating Baltimore police after the killing of Gray the year prior. Gray’s death in police custody sparked enormous protests throughout Baltimore, part of a nationwide uprising over police violence that began with events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Wunmi Mosaku plays Nicole Steele, a civil rights attorney working for the Department of Justice as it pursues a consent decree to reform policing in Baltimore. Steele and the FBI agents investigating Jenkins serve as stand-ins for the audience as we uncover the magnitude of malfeasance in Baltimore; Mosaku’s performance is terrific as her shock turns to outrage. When the public’s reaction to Gray’s murder intensifies and it becomes clear that new police chief, Kevin Davis, is willing to accept a consent decree, officers in Baltimore protest by not leaving their vehicles or making arrests as crime skyrockets.

Unlike The Wire, We Own This City’s plot is pulled directly from real-life events, and the show’s gritty portrayal of urban policing in the 2010s mirrors what the public has seen consistently in recent years regarding police violence and its aftermath. We Own This City is released into a context that is strikingly different from the one in which The Wire aired. The public is much more aware of (and visibly outraged by) police misconduct. We Own This City follows the massive protests of 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd as a kind of rumination on how urban policing ended up where it did.

The Wire’s character development and multifaceted analysis of Baltimore, beyond a narrow focus on the police, makes it the more engrossing of the two shows. We Own This City is a much more streamlined series that at times feels like an overlong documentary on police misconduct. While well-acted, the expository nature of the show — its plot largely driven by FBI and DOJ interviews — does not lend itself to multidimensional character development, to say nothing of the occasional levity that lifted The Wire out of its self-imposed gloom.

Still, We Own This City is overall a success. It is mostly good dramatic television, and it allows Simon to insert his voice into the recent spate of police controversies, an opportunity he uses to accurately depict the severity of the crisis while continuing to champion reform.

What Should Police Reform Look Like?

Exactly what kind of police reform we should pursue is a controversial question, even for the showrunners. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Simon and Burns reflected on the legacy of The Wire while also discussing We Own This City. The two men noticeably differed on the question of police reform. Burns seems to embrace the solutions championed by left-wing reformers:

Recently, the [Joe] Biden administration and the New York mayor’s administration said they want to increase the number of police on the street. It amuses me that what they’re doing is a definition of insanity: You try something, it doesn’t work. You try it again, it doesn’t work. It’s about time you try something different. They’re still doing the same thing.

Granted, “defund the police” is not the right way of presenting the argument. But rechanneling money away from the police to people who could better handle some of the aspects of it would be good. And then doing something even more dramatic, like creating an economic engine, other than drugs, to help people get up and start making something of their lives.

By contrast, Simon seems to believe that any reduction in policing is misguided:

Police work is as necessary and plausible an endeavor as it’s ever been. . . . And all the discourse about “abolish the police” or “defund the police” — I’d be happy to defund the drug war. I’d be happy to change the mission, but I don’t want to defund the police. Good police work is necessary and elemental, or my city becomes untenable. I’ve seen case work done right, and I’ve seen case work done wrong, and it matters.

This has always been Simon’s message: that policing is important and necessary work, but the War on Drugs negatively altered it, leading it astray.

His sometimes-frustrating nostalgia for the “better days” of policing comes across in We Own This City. One of the most important scenes in the show is when Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh and her team are going over the city budget with police chief Davis. The writers seem to lament that the Baltimore Police Department’s budget has to be cut even though the consent decree calls for more spending on police — for new training and equipment like body cameras. The mayor refuses to make cuts to education or other social services in order to fund the measures outlined by the consent decree. The show’s writers do not gesture at how they would go about addressing this budgetary issue, other than Steele exasperatedly saying that all the fraudulent overtime money claimed by police could be used for more worthwhile endeavors.

Regardless of what happens to the police, root causes of crime — namely inadequate housing, employment, education, and mental health care — must be addressed. Meanwhile, creating any degree of police accountability in a system as dysfunctional as the current one, with police as resistant as they are, seems as far-fetched as “defunding the police” or any other radical approach to reform. Why not attempt to reduce crime by investing in greater stability for the people most engaged in and directly impacted by it? That option seems much more favorable to the alternative of increasing funding for a policing and criminal justice system that clearly are not working.

As Alex Vitale lays out in his book, The End of Policing, any argument for police reform that involves expanding resources for police should be challenged:

Community policing, body cameras, and increased money for training reinforce a false sense of police legitimacy and expand the reach of the police into communities and private lives. More money, more technology, and more power and influence will not reduce the burden or increase the justness of policing. Ending the War on Drugs, abolishing school police, ending broken-windows policing, developing robust mental health care, and creating low-income housing systems will do much more to reduce abusive policing.

Simon would probably accept the premise of the second half of Vitale’s quote while still insisting on greater investment in the police. But moving money away from the police and toward social services while dramatically rethinking the role of police in our society seems like the only logical solution to the enormous crises depicted in We Own This City.

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