Fenton weaves the career of his antihero, Wayne Jenkins, the unit’s head, together with accounts of Baltimore’s high crime rate and the desperation of Baltimore’s leaders to get guns and drugs off the streets, no matter the methods. Jenkins doesn’t go on the record — although he denies many of the crimes for which he was convicted — but in some ways this makes for a better story, as a huge range of people offer a pointillistic portrait of this slippery, somewhat mysterious figure. In a perversion of traditional drug investigations, Jenkins asked his victims — mostly drug dealers whom he knows nobody will really see as victims — which other dealers they would rob, as a way of finding new targets. We see a young policeman’s desire for action allowed to fester toward troubling extremes, as Jenkins gets into multiple, dangerous high-speed chases every day.
Clearly inspired by “The Wire,” Fenton populates his narrative with a network of officers, informants and street dealers, all with different motivations and interests. Some of these personalities come through more vividly than others, but the overall effect is to capture the disorienting, churning quality of a city where the good guys and bad guys aren’t easily distinguished. Fenton lays out the meticulous work of F.B.I. agents to unravel the corruption, and at many moments their success seems anything but assured: While this is all playing out, Freddie Gray famously dies in Baltimore police custody, protesters fill the streets and prosecutors fail to get convictions.
“Between those who had experienced the abuse and the relatives, friends and co-workers who heard their stories, people who had never trusted the cops in the first place became only more contemptuous of them,” Fenton writes of the task force. “Baltimore’s Black communities have been both overpoliced and underpoliced.” Favoring hard-boiled reporter’s prose, Fenton mostly emphasizes story over such analysis, but he shows how, in our zeal to combat crime, we have allowed institutions to produce it.
There will always be a role for adrenaline junkies among the ranks of emergency workers, and there will always be moral ambiguities when we send people, no matter how well trained, into difficult, chaotic situations. Both Brooks and Fenton implicitly question the value of our culture war over policing, instead offering close observations and cautionary tales. They also offer glimmers of hope, whether in Fenton’s admiring portrait of the F.B.I. agents who saved Baltimore from its rogue officers, or in Brooks’s encounters with decent people who are attracted to the profession for the right reasons. “I’m worried about getting cynical,” a young officer tells Brooks. “I don’t want to turn into the kind of cop who just shrugs when someone gets shot.”