Make Time For Friends (with Justin Fenton) | Crooked Media
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March 09, 2021
Pod Save The People
Make Time For Friends (with Justin Fenton)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, De’Ara, and Sam dive into the underreported news of the week, including Sunday voting, Colorado bail reform, pandemic overdoses, and Arkansas vaccinations. Netta Elzie gives an update on what’s happening with the nationwide protests. DeRay sits down with Justin Fenton to discuss his new book “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption”.









DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save The People. On this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara And we cover the unreported news that you might not have heard about. And then Netta comes on to tell us what’s going on with the protests. And then I sit down with reporter and author Justin Fenton to discuss his new book about the corruption in Baltimore’s police department. 

Now, this week is a special week, because we all talked about our news separately, which is unlike the normal episodes, but it’s still the news. So here we go. 

My advice for this week is make time for your friends. There was a point in my life where work was all I did. That was the defining part of who I was. I worked really hard. I went hard. Like that was like me. It was all of me. 

And over the years, I’ve gotten much better at being really focused on my work and making sure that I embody excellence. And also making sure that my personal relationships are really strong. That I tend to them. That I’m not choosing one or the other, but that I actually have like a fulfilling work life, a fulfilling personal life, a fulfilling family life. 

And I was– I don’t know, the images of work that I’d seen growing up were like you could have one or the other. And that’s just not true. Make sure that you have healthy relationships and healthy spaces across the board. Here we go. 

DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of pod save the people. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter De’Ara Balenger. So my news today comes from The Guardian. And it tells us the story of a woman, named Wanda King, who heard from her auntie and her cousin, who fell into the over 70 age group, that they could get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

However, they were struggling to find where and how to get their shots. They live in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. It’s a rural town in the eastern part of the state, with a population of about 650. Now, the town has a medical clinic, but no pharmacy. And so we’ve talked about this before, how just the medical infrastructure in some of these states, particularly in rural areas, are just going to have a challenge when it comes to getting folks the vaccine. 

Wanda King talks about how the town is really limited on resources. And that they were asking for help as a city. And so without finding much help there, she turned to the AKAs, a Black sorority. And so her sorority sister, Michelle Smith, is actually the Director of the Office of Health Equity and HIV Elimination at the Arkansas Department of Health. 

So Michelle helped Wanda King locate a pharmacist in the town of Brinkley, about 12 miles away. And she actually joined them in hosting a clinic in Cotton Plant in late February, that would offer up to 880 vaccination shots. So shout out to Michelle Smith, who really is not only figuring out how her sorority sister can get the vaccination, but then also going to Cotton Plant to say, OK, let’s figure out how we can get some more slots here. 

So Wanda King talks about how she immediately started spreading the word when she knew that Michelle had coordinated getting these 180 slots. So spreading the word on Facebook, asking other people to spread the word, she recruited other sorority sisters to help coordinate sign-ups, get snacks, masks, hand sanitizers, and actually greet people on the day of the event. She says, anything we can do to roll out the red carpet for these individuals, that’s what we want to do. 

So the clinic in Cotton Plant is part of a broader effort, actually, by the state health department in Arkansas, chapters of historically black sororities and fraternities, otherwise known as the Divine Nine, working together to help Black Arkansans get vaccinated. 

And so we’re seeing this across the country, how Black sororities and fraternities are organizing within the sororities and fraternities, but also within their larger communities. And I’ve heard of them actually coordinating webinars with different folks at NIH. Also, just really to support vaccine confidence. So both helping to kind make the case of why the vaccine is important and safe, but also coordinating folks to get it. 

So in Arkansas, evidently there were nearly 630,000 people vaccinated by the end of February. And a state health department spokesperson has said that the agency is still compiling the data to try to identify how many of those are Black residents. Currently, anyone over the age of 65, health care workers, and educators in Arkansas are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

So this is another issue we’re going to have. Because in some states, like in Arkansas, we’re really not getting the demographic data that we need to understand who is being vaccinated, but importantly, who is not being vaccinated. And what really have to be done to meet those disparities. 

So I think this is just another story to highlight how people are organizing themselves, particularly Black folks, around how to get this vaccine. So I just wanted to bring this one to the pod because I thought it was an interesting piece in The Guardian. It’s nice to shine a light on these Black fraternities and sororities that are doing so much to organize within their communities. That’s it. 

KAYA HENDERSON: My news is out of The Washington Post. It’s an article entitled, “Attacking Sunday Voting as Part of a Long Tradition of Controlling Black Americans.” And this story is about voter suppression, Black voter suppression. And it, in fact, connects what’s happening today to a history of voter suppression and controlling Black bodies that has happened over the centuries in this country. 

Most people know about Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from voting in the 19th and 20th centuries. And recently, we’ve seen a bunch of voter suppression techniques, like voter ID laws, the purging of polling lists, and the mass closures of polling places in predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

But the Georgia House passed a bill recently that is another attack on Black voting rights. And that is targeting or eliminating Sunday voting. And this actually connects deeply to our history in this country, where as enslaved people, Black people enjoyed more autonomy on Sundays. They were able to visit family members. They attended worship. They cooked for themselves. They bought and sold goods. 

And on this day off, where they had control of themselves, we saw slave patrollers monitoring the areas around plantations, checking for written permission and harassing people on their only day off, their only day of freedom. 

In the 19th century, there was a religious campaign, called the Sundayist Campaign, to end Sunday commerce and mail delivery. And who was buying and trading on Sundays? And who, of course, were the people carrying mail? African-Americans. 

After the Civil War, many African-Americans found work in the post office because they had decades of experience handling mail for the enslavers. The post office was federally controlled. And so they could get jobs there. 

The Sundayist doubled down, campaigned really hard, got new allies, and they won the end of Sunday mail in 1912. Now, this was not just about preventing Black people from a particular business or industry. This was also about controlling their way of life. 

Because it was customary on Sundays to go to church and then to go to the post office and pick up your mail. And Black people would congregate at the post office, and read mail to one another, and lounge, and relax. And so this was a control of their social behavior. This was a control of how they moved in the world. 

Thankfully, there are groups that know this history and are pushing back against these attempts to curtail our voting rights and our social behaviors. There’s a group in Georgia called Souls to the Polls that are trying to exert political agency on a day steeped in our history of community and our exertion of freedom. 

Souls to the Polls is trying to motivate low income and minority voters to vote. They’re trying to get people to go from church to the ballot box to exercise their right. And they’re organizing. And this is the kind of thing that turned the state of Georgia red to blue. 

And so oftentimes, we are disconnected from the history. We see things. We see tactics and strategies that are happening. And we see them out of context because we’re disconnected to the history. But there’s a history in this country of trying to control African-Americans on Sundays. And we see that popping up in the new voter suppression tactics that are being employed by the Republican Party. 

So this has a historical tradition. And as the saying goes, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. 

SAM SINYANGWE: Hey, it’s Sam, @samswey on Twitter. And today for my news, I want to talk about Colorado. So you may not have heard this in the news, but it turns out that there is a pretty significant piece of legislation that is moving through the state Senate in Colorado right now. 

It’s a bill called Senate Bill 21-062. And it may not sound that impressive. But when you look at the details, this bill could fundamentally shift the approach to policing and incarceration in that state. And here’s why. 

According to research estimates, 80% of all arrests that the police make nationwide are for misdemeanors, low-level offenses. These are often things like drug possession, or disorderly conduct, trespassing, having an open container of alcohol, things that are often proxies for mental health issues, substance abuse issues, poverty, and a host of other issues that are people in need, not people who should be arrested or incarcerated. And yet, again, 80% of all arrests nationwide are misdemeanors, low-level offenses. 

And in Colorado, what this bill would do is essentially prohibit the police, except for a set of narrow circumstances, would prohibit the police from making arrests in these situations. And it’s a pretty broad array of situations and offense types that this would cover. 

It covers traffic violations, petty crimes, misdemeanors, even some low-level felonies and drug felonies. The police would be prohibited from making an arrest in these situations essentially unless the person was threatening somebody else or the police officer at that moment. And what is wild about this, though, is that this could dramatically reduce the number of arrests that are made in Colorado. 

And in doing so, could dramatically reduce police violence in the form of use of force, and even deadly force as well. Because when we look at the data on police killings in our Mapping Police Violence Database, the majority of cases in which people are killed by the police, year after year, are situations that originate from some of these low-level offenses. About 120 people were killed last year after a traffic stop by the police, for example. 

And what this legislation would do is essentially dramatically restrict and limit the power of the police during these encounters. So they would no longer be able to make arrests. They could no longer incarcerate people. People could no longer be held, having to pay obscene amounts of money in order to get out of jail after one of these encounters. All of that would be addressed through this legislation. 

So again, this is currently winding through the state Senate. If you live in Colorado, call your state senator, call your state representative, make sure they know about this bill, that they’re supporting it. Again, it is Senate Bill 21-062. 

We’ll be monitoring this bill, seeing what happens as it goes through the legislature. Hopefully, it will pass and create a model for the rest of the country to emulate. Because if we can cut arrests by 80%, that will be a huge difference in so many people’s lives and a dramatic reduction in the power and the breadth of the carceral system in this country. Now, let’s win. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So my news for the week is an article that was reported by NPR, titled “Drug overdose Deaths Surge Among Black Americans During Pandemic.” And it is just a reminder that, lord, the disparities just show up in every type of way that we look. 

So what the scientists at the CDC showed is that fatal drug overdoses nationwide have surged about 20% during the pandemic, killing more than 83,000 people in 2020. So you think about everybody being at home, you think about people not having money, all these things have just like literally killed people. 

And I didn’t know until reading this that the CDC actually doesn’t track overdose deaths by race, which is interesting. That really blew my mind. Especially because the death data, in some ways, is some of the easiest data we have in general. Because you know where the body is. There is a process for a death certificate. There’s a whole process for this. 

So I was actually shocked that the CDC doesn’t track overdose deaths by race. And I’m going to do more research to figure out how do we fix that. Is that a policy change? Is that a law change? Like, what do we do? 

But what’s interesting is that there’s been a set of researchers who’ve been trying to figure out how do we actually talk about the racial disparities. And there is a researcher, Dr. Khatri at the University of Pennsylvania, who started to look at what the disparities look like. And she found something that really blew my mind. 

She found that in Philadelphia, when looking at overdose data, that overdose deaths surged more than 50% among the city’s Black residents. And among whites, drug overdose fatalities remained flat. And in some months even declined. 

So we see that the impact of the pandemic is really, just like it’s hitting people differently. These are things that we knew already. But we didn’t know how it was showing up. And to think that the overdose is actually hitting people of color, Black people specifically, is really wild. 

And even before the pandemic, there were studies that showed that overdose rates in Black communities were rising much faster than whites. And you think about why. And what the research shows is that there are essentially treatment deserts. There are places where it is very hard, if not impossible, to get affordable treatment, to get any treatment, or to get a response to addiction that’s not incarceration and arrest. 

I think about in Baltimore, both my parents were addicted to drugs. My father raised us. And my mother left when I was three. I think about my father helping people during the recovery process in a way that so many people helped him. And there were times where he was just like, there is not a bed. Like, literally, I want to help people. 

They want to go to a clinic. They want to get referred. And they can’t afford it. Or they can’t get it. Or they go somewhere and they get turned away. And this idea of treatment deserts is something that we have to pay much more attention to. I’m going to try and find some more guests to come on the podcast that can help us think through what the solutions are here. 

And we’ve had some people on the podcast before, like Dr. Nzinga Harrison, who runs the Eleanor Health Network. We had her come on to talk about this. But like seeing the disparity during the pandemic of overdose deaths amongst Black people really blew my mind. And I wanted to bring it to the pod. 

Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming. 

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DERAY MCKESSON: And now, I check in with Johnetta Elzie, who gives us an update on what’s happening with the protests. 

JOHNETTA ELZIE: Hey, what’s up, everybody. It’s me, Netta. Happy to be back again with you all this week. In personal news, I went to the gun range on Sunday with a good friend of mine up in Baltimore. And I just have to say, I really didn’t disappoint. 

It was a little iffy at first. But then I decided I wanted to be just as good as the dude next to me, who really must play Call of Duty all day. Because he was hitting every target. It was wild to watch. So I definitely had to engage him afterwards. Like, excuse me, sir, how long have you been shooting? How long have you practiced? What are some tips? Blah, blah, blah. 

It was actually a really cool environment, though. I can’t even lie. Like, everyone was just professional, super serious, because you’re dealing with firearms, of course. But it was also really dope, because there was like a whole– just, I don’t know what happened, like I don’t know what signal went out, I have no clue. But there was so many Black women at the gun range. 

And I just– I was like, OK, I like what I’m seeing. We all got the right idea. So thanks, again, to my friend, Jamal, for taking me and showing me the ropes. 

Also, thank you so much to everyone who sent me actual links to things to read about plants. My Peace Lily, she was truly just being dramatic I feel like in the last week, we’ve really got to know each other. She is now sitting up. She’s perky. I have her in the sun, but not directly. So listen, I’m learning, I’m learning. 

Dealing with two living beings besides myself in this house, it is– this is an adventure. But I’m happy in my little plant mom journey. And I’m looking at her while I talk. 

So anyway, let’s get to the news. In Kentucky, it could become illegal for people to exercise their right to free speech when it comes to talking to police officers. 

Anyone who accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or initiates gestures or other physical contact that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person, could face up to three months in prison and a fine if convicted, if the bill passes. And to layer on the systemic oppression, if that person happens to receive public assistance, they could lose that too. 

But let’s talk about the coded language here. Who exactly is the reasonable and prudent person? And reasonable and prudent according to whom? 

Because the track record shows that police officers routinely, and I mean routinely, verbally disrespect and physically abuse the people they are supposed to protect and serve. It’s so challenging for me. Challenge day can be any day for the 5-0, if you ask me. Their authority is not absolute. 

And while the bill’s main sponsor, a Republican by the name of Senator Danny Carroll, said that it’s not about lawful protests in any way, shape, form, or fashion, let it also be said that when the protesters hit the streets in Louisville after Breonna Taylor was fatally shot, it was a Black man, the community barbecue man, David McAtee, who was killed by the National Guard. The problem ain’t the protesters. 

More Malcolm X news this week, which I love. As a teenager, Malcolm X came to live in Boston with his sister, Ella Little Collins, in the early 1940s. That house in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston is now a part of the National Register of Historic Places. 

Malcolm’s nephew, Randall Collins, says they plan to use the home to house graduate school students on the first floor and treat the upstairs, where his uncle Malcolm lived, as a museum and a special event space. 

In LA, a formerly enslaved man by the name of Robert William Stewart, became one of LAPD’s first Black police officers in 1889. Mr. Stewart was unjustly fired because of a false accusation about a year later. So a whole 121 years later, LAPD decided to reinstate Mr. Stewart as an officer, as if that Black man didn’t go up yonder in 1931. Hello, somebody? 

Paula Minor, an LA Black Lives Matter activist said that she feels like LAPD did it just because it was Black History Month. The highly symbolic gesture doesn’t actually do anything to address racism and oppression within the actual LAPD department. 

The department’s police commissioner said it was one way they could show Black folks in this country have made a difference. Sir, what? Please, we don’t need poorly timed, poorly thought out, guilt-ridden gestures. How about you all start by, oh, I don’t know, valuing Black people that are actually still living? Whoo. 

And lastly, it looks like the city of Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, plans to cut a $10 million reparations check to its Black residents. Black residents who apply could receive up to $25,000 per person to use for housing. Robin Rue Simmons, the Black alderwoman who pushed for the legislation, says that this was the only option which would allow them to reconcile the damages in the Black community. 

Evanston City Council is slated to vote on the first reparations roll out by the end of March. Like many cities throughout the country, Evanston is racially segregated because of redlining and other racist systems that have kept black people out of homeownership and from creating generational wealth. Activists with Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations in the city say that the program won’t actually help close the racial wealth gap, and that it distorts what reparations actually are and how they could be more effective. 

I will definitely be keeping up with this story. I used to live in Rogers Park in Chicago. And so I’m very interested in seeing what happens with this. And I’ll share as we learn more. 

Over the weekend, I spoke at the Brave Summit at Georgetown. And one of the many things that the Black students asked me was, how do I manage keeping some things for myself versus giving everything to the movement? And my only response was what my great grandmother would tell me often. Just keep living. 

Because one thing she knew to be true was that life will teach you every lesson you call yourself skipping. So with that, I got to go live, y’all. Talk next week. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come. 

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DERAY MCKESSON: Reporter Justin Fenton, and author, joins us to talk about his new book, We Own This City, A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption. Here we go. 

Justin, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People. 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yeah, thanks for having me. 

DERAY MCKESSON: So I have a lot of questions. And I’ve known you for a while, but this is your first book, right? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Oh, definitely, yeah. I never had plans to write a book, but when this story– everything that’s transpired over the past couple of years with Baltimore, it almost– it cried out to be like wrapped up into a comprehensive story. So, yeah, no, it was like the right opportunity, the right time for it. 

DERAY MCKESSON: When I wrote my book, I was telling people that writing a book is a little bit like dying. And I don’t know if that’s true of somebody like you, because you write every day almost, like you put out articles. And how was it transitioning from writing daily articles or like feature-length articles to writing a whole book? Was it similar? Was it like a completely different experience? 

JUSTIN FENTON: I really enjoyed it. It’s true, I do write articles almost every day for The Baltimore Sun, whether they are short articles, long form articles. And you typically have to meet a certain space requirement, and you’re restricted in what you can say. And really, you’re battling for people’s attention. 

I think that they’re always telling us to keep things short because people don’t want to read long articles. And depending on the subject matter, of course, but you’re always trying to find a way to make it interesting. And there’s so much stuff that I came across in my reporting that didn’t fit an article. It didn’t like have a headline to go with it, but it absolutely needed to be told to understand the whole picture. 

So I really enjoyed the process of like digging deep on things. And really being able to like not give up. In daily newspaper reporting, sometimes a door is slammed in your face and like the next day you’ve got to do something else. And here, I was able to like really stay on top of people for a prolonged period of time and make sure that I was able to get everything I needed. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Before we jump into the book, can you talk about how you came to The Sun? Like, The Baltimore Sun is the biggest newspaper. It’s the newspaper of record in Baltimore and in this region. How did you get to The Sun? 

JUSTIN FENTON: I’ll go back a little bit further even. I was a paper boy growing up in outside of Baltimore, in Arundel County. And I worked for my high school newspaper. And that was my only activity that I could really put on a college resume to get into college. 

So it just translated to me going to the University of Maryland Journalism School. And I worked at a paper there. And I got an internship with The Sun. And I’ve been there ever since. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked, outside of one other summer internship earlier in my college career. So I’ve been at The Sun since 2005. 

And I was lucky enough to be put on to the crime beat, the criminal justice beat in 2008. And I’ve covered different aspects of it since, including the courts, and juvenile justice, and prisons, and things like that. And eventually getting a 360 view of it, which was really helpful. Because honestly, as a police reporter, you just get one aspect of it. And there’s a lot more that you can see when you’re covering the other parts of it. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I love it. OK, so let’s talk about the book. You said that you wrote the book because there were so many things that didn’t make it into articles, what happened with the GTTF and the surrounding story was a big enough story that you thought it warranted a text like this. Can you, for people who don’t know anything about that task force, can you give us the 10,000-foot, like what are the broad strokes? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yeah, so the Gun Trace Task Force was a unit of plainclothes officers, which I want to be clear, differentiated from like undercover officers. These aren’t undercover officers pretending to be somebody else. These are officers who get to run around the city, basically wearing regular clothes and driving unmarked cars to try to, essentially, sneak up on people. 

And it was a squad that was robbing people. They were lying about evidence and searching people without justification or warrants. They were using GPS trackers without getting court authorization to follow people and pretend like they were conducting personal surveillance. In some cases, there was guns and drugs planted on people. And some of the officers were taking drugs and having them resold. 

And this was going on for an extended period of time until investigators fell backwards into it. That’s the 10,000-foot view there. 

DERAY MCKESSON: OK. And what were you adding to the conversation in the book? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yeah, I wanted to find out– the big question was, like how did this go on for so long? And it’s a complicated answer. And so I wanted to explore all those aspects. I also wanted to know more about the case that didn’t come out in trial, in terms of how the investigators pieced it together. 

I wanted to talk to people who are affected by it, whether it was an officer who worked in the unit, who didn’t get caught up in the crimes, or someone on the street, who was wrongly imprisoned, or maybe rightly imprisoned, but also telling their story about how they came to be in that position. 

So there’s like a– I like to say there’s like a kaleidoscope of different views. You hear from just about everybody involved in the case in one way or the other. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I learned a lot in the book that I didn’t know. Like I didn’t know that Jessamy might have been one of the first prosecutors to ever do a don’t call list. Like, I read that in the book and I was like, whoa, holy snap, I didn’t know that. 

I also didn’t know– there were two other things, just like on a basic level. You wrote about Batts tried to do like a special team to deal with use of force. I didn’t know that. Was that like– did I just miss that? 

JUSTIN FENTON: As far as the Anthony Batts thing you refer to, creating a force investigation team, I think that we hear so many initiatives from police chiefs in an attempt to show that they’re reforming an agency. And I think that sometimes they do fall behind the wayside. Because either it doesn’t sound new, or it sounds like more of the same, or something like that. 

But yeah, he was trying to take a different approach to it. Ultimately, it was staffed by some of the same types of investigators who always did that kind of work. But they were supposed to be a more dedicated unit and take a different approach. 

As far as– you referred to Patricia Jessamy, who was the top prosecutor in Baltimore from 1995 to 2010, when she was in office, there was always these public battles with police. And really, they weren’t battles. They were police criticizing her mostly. It was police criticizing her for dropping cases, police criticizing her for not putting officers on the stand. 

And she looks real good in hindsight. Like history is kind to her. But she got really bruised along the way. And she was essentially run out of– it’s so interesting how far this stuff has come in a short period of time. The 2010 State’s Attorney’s race in Baltimore City was waged on who would support cops more. 


JUSTIN FENTON: And it’s like– and like five years later, the FOP’s endorsement is like a Scarlet Letter. Like nobody– you never see anybody talking about the FOP’s endorsement for any political office, really. They’ve been like excommunicated. 

So, yeah, Jessamy started the do not call list, where she said the police department is putting officers out there on the street to do police work who I think are not credible. And I’m going to have problems when these cases go to court if you keep having them involved in cases. So I’m going to toss every case they bring, even if it’s good. Because I don’t like them. And I don’t trust them. 

And this made the police crazy at the time. They said, you’re trying to tell us how to run this place. You’re trying to be the judge and jury, not fair. And the do not call List was abolished when she was defeated. And we still don’t really have one. 

We have this ad hoc constantly rotating list that nobody really knows who’s on it. And the history in that is certainly interesting. 

DERAY MCKESSON: I thought Mosby does have a do not call list. She doesn’t? How about that– I thought she said she did. No? 

JUSTIN FENTON: She does, but it’s like a static list. And like it’s not public. It changes based on like the status of investigations. I think there’s some people who definitely have landed them self on it for life. But they’re also the kind of people who aren’t in the agency anymore. There was a lot of people added to it post Gun Trace Task Force trial. But as far as I understand right now, it’s an ever-changing list. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And how is that different from Jessamy’s list? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Jessamy made a– had two lists, basically. She had people who had just been deemed untrustworthy and there was no going back from that. And then there was a list of people who like let’s see how this plays out. It was a list that got leaked to us. We knew who was on it. 

We don’t know who’s on the current list. But in some ways, it is kind of the same, as far as people who are cemented on it and others who are coming and going. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Got it. And in that chapter of the book, you also wrote about what I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that one of the– it seems like what you suggest in the book is that one of the impetus for making the list was that there was a whole period of time with no trial boards, or essentially no discipline of police officers. 

I didn’t know that. That is like, we should be yelling that from the rooftops, as the legislature is now trying to deal with the LEOBR. 

JUSTIN FENTON: I think that was more Jessamy’s perspective on it. She didn’t feel as though they were handling these things correctly. I don’t think there weren’t trial boards, period. I think it was more so that she didn’t feel like they were effective or being used correctly. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Got it. OK, so there are some things I want to talk through with the task force. So we ended up in indictments. Can you just give us the broad strokes of the numbers? How many people involved? How many people were actually convicted or indicted and convicted, so that we have a better understanding? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yeah, so initially it was the members of the squad. Not all of them, interestingly enough. There was one officer who was on the squad while a lot of this was going on whom they just didn’t find any evidence that he was involved with it, which seems hard to believe. But there were seven officers charged. 

And then they went from there. They continued to investigate the spider webs that went out. And they hopped around to other similar squads who had ties to these officers. I think what was really important was officers cooperating. 

I write in the book that there was a case in Philadelphia that was very similar to this, that was indicted in 2015. Everybody stood their ground. And it went to trial and they were acquitted. And the Feds don’t lose cases, but– 


JUSTIN FENTON: –those guys were acquitted, yeah. And in this case, officers started cooperating. And they said, here’s what we did. And they uncovered for the government, showed them more crimes, and explained things, and put them in context of how they happened. 

So it’s not just some wiretapped phone calls and people who were victimized. The officers themselves played a key role in helping to shed light on how this happened. So the number is up to about 14 or 15, at this point, of officers who were implicated. And I think they’ve all been resolved, with the exception of one. There’s one officer who’s still fighting his case. And we might see a trial in the next year or so. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And this is the single highest number of officers convicted at one time that we can recall in Baltimore, yes? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yes. And that’s why it’s so important. Because I feel like for years, there was this– it sounds cliche, but this bad apples thing, where they would catch one officer at a time. There was an officer indicted in 2010 for dealing drugs from the district station. And they were like, well, we got him. There was one bad guy, and we got him, and we’re not going to let that happen again or we won’t tolerate this. 

And there would be another officer who was improperly accessing information and feeding it to people on the street. And she was charged. And they said, we got her. And then there’d be instances of brutality. And they would say, that’s been taken care of. 

But here we had an entire unit and others working in their orbit who were doing this for years. And I used the term, like it laid waste to their credibility on this bad apple argument. Like you can’t say these are bad apples when it’s multiple officers throughout the agency doing it for years. 

Now, again, that doesn’t mean that every officer is bad either. That’s still true. And again, I think I show that, that there’s officers who work with these guys, who I think can credibly say, I didn’t know this was going on. It’s hard to believe, but there’s no evidence to the contrary. But this bad apple thing went out the window with this case. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Can you thread– and you do this in the book so well, but can you help us understand the relationship between what the protests and the killing of Freddie Gray uncovered, the Gun Trace Task Force, and then what happened, or didn’t happen, frankly, next? Like, what’s that throughline? 

JUSTIN FENTON: Yeah, I think that’s a devastating part about this whole scandal, is that, again, we’ve got this climate where the FOP’s endorsement is being sought. Elections are being fought and won on reducing crime and working with police. 

And then Black Lives Matter happens. And in each– every city in the country it seemed like, every couple of weeks, there’s a viral video about some awful thing happening at the hands of police. And then it was Baltimore’s turn. 

When Freddie Gray is killed in the back of a police van, people were angry about it. And they wanted to see justice. And there were six officers charged. And then the Justice Department says– and I don’t know what took the Justice Department so long to come to Baltimore. Because when you think about it, we’ve had a reputation for troubled policing for a long time. 

But they said, we’re going to come and do a consent decree. We’re going to do a Civil Rights investigation of the agency. And you would think, and maybe I’m being naive, but you’d think during that period of time everybody sort of stiffens their backs a little bit and is maybe on their best behavior, in a general sense. 

But the Gun Trace Task Force crimes are occurring during that period. That was what was so interesting about laying everything out and putting all the pieces together. The day of the Justice Department report being released that says that officers are disproportionately stopping black people without probable cause, and searching them without probable cause, the Gun Trace Task Force hits the streets that night with their body cameras on and does exactly that. 

And you don’t hear about the cases, in the media and things like that, where they pull someone over and they don’t find anything. You only hear about when they pull someone over and they get something. But they would pull people over, dozens of people, for like seatbelt violations. And search their cars. And send them on their way. And that’s not allowed. But they were doing it, even with all this going on. 

It’s so devastating to think that officers are told the Justice Department is doing ride-alongs and looking under every rock for misconduct and they’re still doing it. But that’s exactly what happened. 

DERAY MCKESSON: And I think one of the shocking things too is that nothing changed, right? It wasn’t like this happened and it led to a restructuring and some big– it was like, I don’t know– I was sort of shocked. But one of the things you talk about is you actually help us remember that leadership either did take action or didn’t. 

You talk about Rawlings-Blake. You talk about Davis and Batts. You help weave in the people with power who either did believe in the purge at Mondawmin or didn’t believe. How did this make you think about the leadership showing up in the city or abdicating its responsibility to show up, given all the stuff you uncovered? 

JUSTIN FENTON: That’s a great question and it’s hard to answer. To a certain extent, our city is plagued by constant leadership turnover. I feel like there are so many structural and deep problems. And I think too often people say, well, if you fire the person in charge, it’ll get better. 

And what that leads to is turmoil, constant churn. And the former commissioners have talked about this. They’ve said nobody respected me because they felt like I was just here for 18 months and then there was going to be somebody else. That they knew they weren’t going to have to deal with me long term and I was a placeholder. And that I couldn’t even bring in an outside leadership team because people would not want to work with them and they wouldn’t respect them. 

My editor at the paper said, I want to hold all these commissioners accountable for the failures that occurred on their watch. And I get that. And when you talk to the commissioners, and when you talk to the officers on the ground– one of the interesting things about Wayne Jenkins, who’s the main character in the book, and he’s the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force, he was a sergeant, which means he was a first-line supervisor. 

And what everybody told me was, if the sergeant bluffs his lieutenant, meaning he doesn’t tell him the truth. He’s able to lie to him. He doesn’t tell him what’s really going on with his officers. There’s a chain of command structure. 

The lieutenant then tells the lie to the– an unknowingly lie, perhaps, to the captain. And the captain lies to the major. And the major lies to the lieutenant colonel. And the lieutenant colonel lies to the colonel. And the colonel lies to the deputy commissioner. The deputy commissioner lies to the commissioner. 

I just feel bad for these commissioners, who said, I’m not from here. I didn’t know anybody. I was brought in to make change. And I don’t know who these guys are. I don’t know who Wayne Jenkins is. I’ve been here 18 months. And I’ve got 3,000 officers. And every day, there’s an emergency and there’s a crisis going on. And how was I supposed to know? 

And I think there’s something to that. And yet, if we don’t hold leaders accountable, it seems like there’s a lack of accountability. So it was troubling to walk that out through the reporting. Because it’s like, OK, well, how are we supposed to get out of this? 

And I think ultimately, it does underscore how important supervision is in the police department. And how they haven’t necessarily taken that seriously enough, in terms of training for supervisors, and people up the chain really pressing, and scrutinizing, and keeping a close watch on the folks below them. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, I hope everybody gets a chance to read the book. It’s called We Own This City. But one of the things that I thought this book does better than almost all of the books that I’ve read about the police, and lord knows, I feel like all I do is read about the police, is it helps– 

JUSTIN FENTON: That’s a high compliment, yeah. 

DERAY MCKESSON: It helps us to remember that these things are structural. That there’s a system of structures, and rules, and policies that either allow these things to happen, or don’t. I’ll ask you– something that has always fascinated me, is can you talk about how they even found out in the first place or tease us about that? Because what always sort of blew my mind was that it wasn’t a departmental investigation that uncovered this. It had to come from somewhere else. 

JUSTIN FENTON: Absolutely, totally. So people were making complaints against these officers, but not to the extent you would expect. Because they either had something to lose. They were targeting drug dealers. In addition to the people that they were pulling over in traffic stops, there’s a lot of cases where they were– they knew somebody was a player in the drug game. 

They had intelligence or informants, and they would target those people. And is not in those folks’ best interest to say, yeah, I had a lot of cocaine, but they took some of it. I actually had more than was reported. Or that they had large sums of money, which the government looks at as evidence of drug dealing. So a lot of people just did not make complaints. 

And when people did make complaints, they were not really believed for various reasons. I spoke to not just prosecutors and police who said that, but defense attorneys would say, I don’t believe my clients when they say that stuff to me. And it’s not going to help us anyway. So that’s like a really troubling situation when you’re trying to police this stuff and keep an eye on it. 

So in this case, what it took was investigators from the surrounding counties, who were investigating drug dealers in the city, who were supplying drugs to people in their jurisdictions, who were overdosing. And they wanted to– they didn’t understand how these dealers were able to do what they were doing without being stopped by the city police. 

So the county came in to do the city’s job essentially. And in doing so, they picked up on one of the task force officers essentially colluding with one of the dealers. It was like a childhood friend situation. And he was looking out for them. And it just went from there. They were able to get a wiretap up, and uncovered more, and more, and more. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Boom. Appreciate you. And everybody, buy the book. 

JUSTIN FENTON: OK, awesome. Thank you so much. 

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. 

Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lanz. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe, and our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie.