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Jon Bernthal stars in We Own This City.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

To live in a big urban centre is to learn to make compromises. Neighbours and tight spaces mean compromise. To live in a city also gives rise to cynicism. There are so many layers of government and so many institutions that there is always something out of sync with the rest.

In a labyrinthine system, people or institutions can go rogue and unnoticed, especially in the arena of crime and policing.

For a stark perspective on what can happen, we return to the streets of Baltimore, under the guidance of David Simon, who set his masterpiece The Wire there. This time, mind you, the story is anchored in fact and in the very recent past.

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We Own This City (streams on Crave, new episodes Mondays on HBO/Crave) is a dramatization of the events surrounding an extraordinary scandal that enveloped the Baltimore Police Department in 2017. Simon, working with long-time collaborator George Pelacanos, adapted the six-part series from the nonfiction book by Justin Fenton, who reported on the story for the Baltimore Sun. The fact that it’s the unembellished truth is part of its power. And for anyone who has watched prestige-TV over the past decade, Baltimore will feel very familiar.

At the centre of the story is the group called the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), an elite plainclothes unit within the Baltimore Police Department, tasked with getting guns and drugs off the streets. The GTTF had an excellent record; the stats showed they were doing their job with aplomb. The leader of the group for years was Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), a guy who went from straight-arrow beat cop to the embodiment of corruption and boss of an outfit that seized and kept money for themselves, and sold weapons and drugs they took off the streets. Also, tellingly, they put in for a lot of overtime they didn’t deserve.

How did this happen? Well, it’s complicated and the complications of policing a big urban area allowed the corruption to flourish. There are the city police and those who oversee them, there are the county police and officials, and there is the FBI and the Department of Justice. As always there are feuds about jurisdiction and as always there are assumptions made about who is overseeing what. In this instance, it was only by accident that the trail leading to Wayne Jenkins was discovered. County investigators from outside the Baltimore Police Department are watching a known drug dealer and put a tracking device on his car. When they retrieve it, they discover a second tracking device on the vehicle. Who would be doing this in secret and why?

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WE OWN THIS CITY (TV Series). Shown: Rob Brown, Ham Mukasa, Robert Harley, Jon Bernthal. Based on the book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, the HBO limited series WE OWN THIS CITY chronicles the rise and fall of the Baltimore Police Department's Gun Trace Task Force and the corruption and moral collapse that befell an American city in which the policies of drug prohibition and mass arrest were championed at the expense of actual police work. Courtesy of HBO / Crave

Based on the book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, We Own This City chronicles the rise and fall of the Baltimore Police Department's Gun Trace Task Force.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

As Jenkins, Jon Bernthal is formidably compelling. It’s a very physical performance and demanding. We watch Jenkins slowly morph from a slightly hesitant newbie to confident thug, to swaggering buccaneer, lord of his corrupt domain. Bernthal conveys the changes in Jenkins by subtly changing his voice, his demeanour, even his gait as he walks into a police station. You are at once in awe of this figure and repulsed.

There are about 12 years of activity to cover and the narrative doesn’t move in a neat, linear manner. When the story opens Department of Justice attorney Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) is investigating the Baltimore Police Department. She’s poking around, talking to officers and the victims of racist officers. The real case of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 is referenced often. Nicole is interested in the big picture and in civil rights issues, but one case leads to another and her perspective begins to widen. The evolution of Jenkins and the GTTF is told in vignettes that leap from the official police logs that mention Jenkins. That means the story told is given in pieces, but the pieces come together quickly. Once you get a handle on the nicknames used and the vernacular of the cops, you’re in.

Now, this limited series is not The Wire, nor was it meant to be. It’s six hours long and David Simon’s masterwork comprised 60 episodes over five seasons. Still, We Own This City inevitably expands outward from its core story to present a city from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens and honest police officers. In the latter case there is wonderfully nuanced work from Jamie Hector (he appeared in The Wire as Marlo Stanfield) as Sean Suiter, a recently appointed homicide detective who is quietly wise to corruption, as his career began alongside Wayne Jenkins.

What you get here is not something unmoored from reality. The dirty-cop narrative is a path toward grasping just how ugly, unwieldy and ungovernable most big cities can become. But your cynicism is lessened by knowing the dirty cops were caught and convicted.

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