Interview: Criminal Justice Reporter Justin Fenton

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our August-September 2021 newspaper edition, published on August 6.]

Peninsula resident Justin Fenton has been the Baltimore Sun’s criminal justice reporter since 2008. His new book, We Own This City (Random House, 2021), about corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, is now being made into an HBO limited series. Justin, who has lived in different peninsula neighborhoods since joining the newspaper in 2005, now resides in Riverside with his wife and six-year-old daughter. – Lena Ambrose

Riverside resident and reporter Justin Fenton is drawn to the water views and “hidden treasures” of the peninsula in his off hours from covering the challenging criminal justice beat at the Baltimore Sun. Photo by Mary Braman.

Of all the places to live in the city, what drew you to the peninsula?

I first lived in Sharp-Leadenhall, and I’ve been finding places on the peninsula ever since. I like the proximity to the water. I grew up near water in Anne Arundel County, but it was inaccessible private property. I love walking my dog and being able to look down the street and see the water.

I definitely like Tide Point and that view. And then there’s the Harbor Connector down there. It’s a free water taxi ride, so I like to take it with my daughter and shoot across to Fells or Canton.

What other activities do you like here?

I like urban kayaking. I put my kayak in the water at a little beach by the Baltimore Museum of Industry and also in the Middle Branch from the rowing club there. I like to see people fishing and crabbing there. There’s a little hidden spot in Port Covington behind the old Walmart that has a great view.

I like city life, but I also like the nature things that it has to offer if you can find them. As you live here longer, you start to discover little hidden treasures. I enjoy telling people about them.  A lot of folks, especially younger folks, move here and go to Cross Street Market and to a ball game. They might go the whole time living here without knowing some of these hidden treasures.

Your new book reads like a thriller with amazing details on how a police unit that was created to get guns off the street ended up robbing drug dealers and innocent residents for years. How could this happen?

It was able to happen because of a police department that was singularly focused on crime. It didn’t believe people who were complaining about officers or didn’t take the time to get the information needed to discipline them. It didn’t want to discipline them.

It’s a culture where people don’t come forward in the first place. And people who were engaging in criminal activity didn’t have an incentive to say, “Oh, I had more drugs or cash than you arrested me with.”

You had this secret world basically where the officers were given tremendous leeway to do their jobs without a lot of supervision, without strong skepticism of how they were getting so many guns off the street.

When did you realize while covering the trial of some of these officers in 2018 that this story should be a book?

The trial was extraordinary. If these guys had all pleaded guilty, we wouldn’t have found out about 80% of this stuff. There were jaw-dropping details.

I wasn’t thinking about a book at that time. I’m a daily journalist and I was thinking about what other articles I can do. It was David Simon, another peninsula resident, who called me towards the end of the trial and said, “You should really think about writing a book. It’s caught HBO’s eye.” I wouldn’t have known where to start, but he connected me with somebody and we developed the idea from there.

Your book is now going to be an HBO limited series, with Simon of HBO’s The Wire as one of the creators. What is your role in the series?

I’m a consultant with the writers. So I throw out examples of things that really happened. Or, if they’re writing something that doesn’t sound quite right to me, I try to point that out.

In the book you describe covering the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Police and others warned you that you could be in danger. Is being a crime reporter in Baltimore dangerous?

I often tell my wife, whenever I go to a crime scene, it’s the safest place in the city at that time because it’s swarming with police officers. But in general, when I go into the neighborhoods to talk to people and it’s not a crime scene, I’ve never felt uncomfortable with the exception of one or two times. There’s one time early on in Westport that I got like chased out of the neighborhood by a guy with a hammer and had to wait him out so I could go back to my car. But other than that, when you approach people in a respectful way, people respond in kind.

The riots were different and that was obviously a pretty tense situation. But I had to be there to see what’s going on. There were a lot of reporters there. Some who got hurt. 

What was the impact of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal on the community?

The police department was already reeling after Freddie Gray. Then we were told a consent decree was going to come and this civil rights investigation and we’re going to get to a better place.

Yet the worst scandal in the department’s history was going on while they said they were improving the place. So for the community’s trust in the police, it’s devastating.

Baltimore gets a lot of criticism from outsiders. What do they get right or wrong about the city?

It does break my heart that these negative things sort of win the day. And I’m saying that as a crime reporter whose job is to highlight these things. But I know how much people appreciate living in this city.

It’s like I say about the book. People think that the Gun Trace Task Force shows that everybody on the police force is corrupt. And I wanted to show that’s not true. But also, what the bad guys were doing was worse than you think. It’s sort of a metaphor for the city. It’s a great city and it doesn’t get enough credit in that regard. And the problems are severe problems that need all the attention they can get.   

Where did the book’s title come from?

It comes out in testimony at the trial ‒ cops think they own the city and can do whatever they want.

“We own this city” sounded ominous to me. But I’m able to bring it full circle with the gang member who came to my rescue during the riots. He was talking about how people in his neighborhood don’t want shootings and drug dealing going on. It’s the residents who own the city and the officers can’t get anything done without the cooperation of the residents.

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