Q&A: Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg on police power in Baltimore and beyond

Baynard Woods (left) and Brandon Soderberg. Photo: J.M. Giordano

The story of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) is one of egregious police corruption and rampant abuse of power. Officers routinely robbed civilians, planted evidence, made unconstitutional arrests, committed overtime fraud, and sold drugs themselves. The New York Times called the force “brazen,” and NPR and the Washington Post both described the federal case investigating the unit as “jaw dropping.”

Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, local journalists who covered the task force for multiple Baltimore-based outlets—including the Baltimore Beat, the Real News Network, and the now defunct Baltimore City Paper—paint a vicious portrait of the GTTF in their new book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. The first chapter opens on Sergeant Wayne Jenkins—later, the unit’s leader and “criminal mastermind”—arresting Oreese Stevenson, an alleged drug dealer. Jenkins and his fellow officers proceed to illegally search Stevenson’s home, stealing $100,000 and two kilos of cocaine. 

The book’s accounts of robberies and rights violations are dizzying in their multitude as well as their magnitude. Through vivid detail and scene-building, Woods and Soderberg illustrate the terrorizing effect the unit had on their victims and on the city as a whole. With few exceptions, GTTF members wouldn’t speak with Woods and Soderberg; instead, the reporters relied on trial testimony, wiretaps, jail call recordings, and body-camera and surveillance footage to construct their story.

While the crimes of the GTTF were extraordinary, the Baltimore Police Department, which oversaw the force, is no stranger to civil rights violations. In August 2016, the BPD was the subject of a damning Department of Justice investigation following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the 2015 Baltimore Uprising. The report concluded that the BPD had engaged in a pattern of excessive force, discrimination, and unconstitutional policing. Meanwhile, the GTTF was still on the streets until March 2017, when seven officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges. Since then, six additional BPD officers, one Philadelphia officer, and five civilians have been charged in connection with GTTF crimes. The GTTF was officially disbanded; the federal case against it remains open. 

For a city nationally known for its high homicide rate—and for its depiction on The Wire—the GTTF case could be seen as yet another case of Baltimore cops gone wild. But Woods and Soderberg are careful to tie their story to a broader pattern of police abuse across the country, particularly among plainclothes units, which Soderberg says operate as a kind of “shadow police force.”

I spoke with the two authors about their process researching and reporting the book, as well as lessons other American cities can learn from Baltimore. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

 

“It shows a portrait of a post-uprising city, and how the police regrouped as a counterinsurgency. That’s something that many other cities are about to start going through in really scary ways.”

 

Your book is coming out as the country is having a much-needed conversation about policing. Why is the story of the Gun Trace Task Force important to our current moment? 

BS: We are questioning the core motivations behind policing. While the task force is an exceptional example of corruption, what they did is just the logical end of contemporary American policing—which is war tactics. When you start to see people as part of a war, it makes it much easier to do all these terrible things to them.

BW: In a way, the logic that we saw in policing is also the logic of whiteness. Police, like white people in general, think that the law is supposed to protect them—protect us, but not bind us. They argue that they can’t do their job without breaking the rules, but that civilians should all be prosecuted, especially Black people, for breaking any very small rule. That logic is important for people to think about right now—how we, as white people, in some ways are lesser versions of the thing we’re complaining about with police.

I Got a Monster really is a post-uprising book. It shows a portrait of a post-uprising city, and how the police regrouped as a counterinsurgency. That’s something that many other cities are about to start going through in really scary ways.

 

The Gun Trace Task Force was a national story when it broke. What do you feel like the media got wrong or misunderstood then? What was challenging about covering the trial?

BW: One of the tricky things in writing it—both for us and, I think, for some national coverage—is that “bad apple” narrative, which of course misses the whole second half of the saying, which is that a bad apple ruins the whole barrel.

In some ways, Wayne Jenkins really is an exceptionally bad person. But what makes this story so troubling is that it’s both an institutional problem as well as a problem of individuals, and it’s a problem that can be replicated everywhere. When you have an overall system that allows cops to not have to answer questions after misdeeds, that’s going to bring out the worst parts in a person’s character. Also, I think, generally, the press is fairly naive about covering police. 

BS: The default of the news is to believe cops and cop stories. So even as the GTTF scandal was covered, every time there is another cop controversy—abuse, a shooting, etc.—it begins again as a “police say” story and, except for rare occasions, remains a “police say” story. 

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BS: For people who already understood the severe problem with American policing, this was a bit of a moment of vindication. Like, there are now people on a federal witness stand under oath saying the kinds of things that we’ve been saying, and especially Black Baltimoreans have been saying for decades. But it was diffuse because it was a trial. Finding a thread through the five people who testified on any one particular day was complicated, and the information revealed in that testimony was fragmented. Putting it back together in chronological order was helpful.

It really makes me think of how the press covered Trump. The media didn’t understand how to deal with someone that violated all norms. What the GTTF did was so outside what most people think of as policing, but reporters were still covering it as a policing story. It’s a crime story, it’s a gang story, and I don’t think a lot of reporters were really ready to handle that. It just became a wild anomaly, like, “Hey, cops in Baltimore are doing crazy stuff,” instead of the most illustrative scandal of the problems with policing.

 

What were the biggest challenges that you faced researching and reporting the book?

BW: It was nothing but challenges. Most of the cops didn’t want to talk to us. Getting the trust of sources was incredibly difficult and took a huge amount of time. Then, being able to put all of that together into a narrative—it felt like making a sculpture, but you had to build the stone first. There was just so much information.

 

How did you get your sources to trust you? 

BW: Perseverance really was the biggest thing. Sticking around, being willing to listen, being open to the stories that people had. Sometimes I still wonder why someone would decide to trust the press at all. In some cases, they saw our previous work, so they saw that we weren’t trying to demonize them like the press has done here for decades, as almost an adjunct force to the drug war. Sometimes, I think, just the chance to talk to someone when you’re in prison, just wanting your story to be heard.

BS: It’s really important that Baynard and I, just like all other reporters—especially white reporters—reckon with our occupation, which is getting people to tell us things that they don’t want to tell us. Coming at it from an unconventional perspective, where we understand that the police are the villains in this story and that the drug war is a farce, opened people up in different ways.

BW: People talk to you when you can give something back to them a little bit as well. Sometimes it’s like playing therapist; sometimes it’s like connecting dots.

 

You mentioned in your authors’ note that many of your story’s characters “have reason to lie.” How did you reconcile conflicting accounts?

BW: The thing that makes it most complicated is that Wayne Jenkins lied to everybody, so even his coconspirators had different stories, or one half of the story. Sometimes people were just repeating the lies that someone else told them. Sometimes they’re adding an additional lie on top of the lie.

It’s really complicated with what everyone’s motivations are. It’s not always to tell the absolute truth of the story, it’s to tell the story as it benefits them. That’s why you talk to as many sources as you can and piece it together.

BS: We spoke to someone who said that one of the police officers didn’t do anything—he had sort of been forced into saying he was guilty. I spent a month tracking down people that this guy had allegedly robbed, and every person I spoke to—I spoke to five—said, “Yeah, he robbed me, man. There was money. They took it.” Between testimony, probable cause, cop testimony, going to the event, driving it, walking around where it all happened, you started to arrive at what you felt like was a very sturdy understanding of how it happened.

 

Police brutality disproportionately affects Black people and other people of color. As white journalists, how do you approach reporting on those issues?

BW: That’s a question that we thought a lot about in the course of writing this, and in the course of our careers covering a majority-Black city, where far too many of the reporters are white. It wasn’t like trying to, say, tell the story of Freddie Gray, which I wouldn’t have felt confident to tell in the way that we told this. This story being about especially this one particularly bad white cop—as less bad white people, I felt that we were actually really equipped to tell his story particularly. Brandon grew up near where Jenkins grew up and lived. I grew up in South Carolina. There was a lot of that psychology that we did understand. 

Then, being really aware that there were a lot of things that we didn’t understand when we were talking to the Black victims of their crimes, whom reporters had traditionally not believed or had written stories that had helped convict them. Coming in with that almost Socratic awareness of your own limitations really helped people open up to us.

During the uprising, I realized that we were a completely apartheid city—I think a lot of white people had that realization. It’s a very segregated city, and policing functioned entirely differently in areas where white people predominantly lived than the areas where Black people predominantly lived. 

We came to the reporting as if the war on drugs really was a war. So then it became about talking to people about the experience of having war waged on them, rather than about this specific criminal complaint and “What did you really do?”

BS: When you’re a white journalist, by nature of the job, you’re someone who’s trying to get in people’s business, and you don’t actually understand their business. If you begin there, it was a way for me to always question and be mindful of where I was coming from. 

This story is ultimately about power, but it’s also about whiteness. If you think about it as about power and whiteness, then it’s a story that white people should be smart enough to understand and tell.

 

Aside from simply learning about the GTTF, what do you hope that readers will take away from your book?

BW: It’s not just police, it’s the whole criminal justice system. Prosecutors are a problem, judges are a problem. When journalists believe police readily, that’s a problem. The issues extend from the average citizen up through every part of the system.

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Nora Belblidia is a freelance writer and editor based in Baltimore. More of her work can be found on her website.