Two of the most famous names behind The Wire are back with another story examining the underbelly of law enforcement in Baltimore. David Simon and George Pelecanos, who worked together on the acclaimed 2002–2008 HBO drama, have teamed up for the new HBO Max miniseries We Own This City, about a real-life rogue gun-tracing unit in the Baltimore Police Department.
Adapted from former Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s 2021 book by the same title, the show, arriving April 25, chronicles one of the most shocking instances of police corruption in the city’s history. In 2017, eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), assembled to remove guns from the streets in an effort to stamp out violent crime, were charged with robbery, extortion, racketeering, and overtime fraud. Six of the officers pleaded guilty, while another two were convicted in 2018. Sentencing for those involved ranged from seven to 25 years.
Simon himself is a former Sun reporter who covered the police for more than 10 years before transitioning into television work. He and Pelecanos, who also writes crime novels set around Washington, D.C., worked to keep the story of We Own This City as authentic as possible, using the names of the real officers involved and filming where actual events took place. The producers spoke to TIME about creating the new series, working together, and how the TV landscape is affected by real-world issues.
TIME: Do you remember when you first heard about the Gun Trace Task Force investigation? What was your reaction?
Simon: I was reading it in real time in Justin’s coverage. I actually called Justin and told him this should be a book. My initial engagement with it was that this deserves more [attention] than it’s getting. It was just this localized series of articles in the newspaper. I wasn’t thinking about a miniseries or television; I was just thinking about what the story was journalistically.
Pelecanos: As David and I always do when we decide if we’re going to do something or not, we asked each other: What’s this about? It had to be about more than about corrupt cops—that television show has been done before. We saw it as an opportunity to talk about the current state of policing in America, and how it gets to a point where this kind of corruption can occur under the watchful eye of the department.
The end result feels almost like a documentary, rather than a TV drama. Is that sensibility intentional?
Simon: You have to deny yourself the perfect drama sometimes. Sometimes you have to say, Yes, this would be the grander arc if we could portray it this way, if the guy had a more poetic line. And sometimes you have to kill those, because they deny the reality that you are responsible if you’re dealing with nonfiction material. Sometimes you’ve got to give in to the writer, and sometimes you dare not—that’s always an argument that we have in the [writers’] rooms. It’s what makes it interesting.
Pelecanos: The level of detail is intentional. If we have any fears about doing these shows, it’s that a person in Baltimore will look at our Baltimore show and say, That was bullsh-t. Same thing when we did The Deuce in New York. If one person knows we didn’t get it right, it bothers me.
Did the actors bring anything to the script that you didn’t anticipate?
Pelecanos: Josh Charles is from Baltimore so he was a perfect choice to play Daniel Hersl, who I would say is the most brutal of the GTTF officers. Josh would ad-lib the Orioles lineup of 2011—that wasn’t scripted. He just knew. Jon Bernthal would come to the set with his own information [about the case]. Everyone was really committed to this. All the actors asked a lot of questions. They were serious about it.
As longtime collaborators, how would you describe your working dynamic?
Pelecanos: David and I don’t really see each other a lot when we’re in production. We don’t even call each other that much. We know each other well enough to know what the other guy wants.
Simon: George and I can convey a lot of concern about an upcoming scene in a sentence and a half of a text. Not everything requires a meeting—and less requires angst-ridden arguments. It’s getting easier at this point, which is good because we’re getting older.
Some might say this is a peak moment for based-on-truth TV dramas. What it is about this format that you think appeals to viewers?
Pelecanos: People like to see rich and successful people get taken down. That’s why a show like Law & Order is so popular. It’s always the person who lives on Central Park West that did a murder. It’s a false narrative; it makes people feel like yeah, there is justice. The truth is those people don’t go to jail. I think shows that highlight the realities stand out more.
With all the debate around criminal-justice issues and policing today, how do you expect this show to resonate with its audience?
Pelecanos: It’s a divided country right now, so I don’t have the delusion that we’re going to convert a lot of people who are steadfast in their “thin blue line” views. We actually gave a character a line about it. He’s reading a report the DOJ did and he says, “Half the country’s going to look at this and say, Well, [someone stopped by cops] might not have been guilty of something that day they were stopped, but they were guilty of something.”
Simon: We don’t believe “back the blue” or the “thin blue line” is the motif that you need to take into a serious discussion about law enforcement. But we also don’t believe that “defund the police” works as a simple mantra that solves anything. We live in the middle. There’s a role and a mission for good police work that’s not happening in Baltimore, which is the most dangerous it’s been in modern history. If you live for a slogan and that’s where you reside in your assessments of what’s going on in America, you will be at points disappointed in the arguments that we’re trying to present.
How has the way these topics—police misconduct, systemic racism, and so on—are discussed in American culture changed since 20 years ago when you premiered The Wire?
Pelecanos: One thing that happened since The Wire is smartphones. The technology really made a difference. Everybody can record what’s going on in the streets, and people can’t lie as easily because it’s on record. [The officer who killed George Floyd] never would have been convicted without the footage from the iPhone.
Simon: When I was a police reporter, if a guy came out of the back of a wagon beat up, you basically were dependent upon how well the arresting officer wrote that report, because there was no smartphone in that alley. It was the police officer’s word against the suspect, and the police officer would prevail.
Beyond that, it wasn’t just the cops who came up with the idea of overpolicing poor people. This country embraced the mission of drug prohibition being a means of making neighborhoods safer. We have to end the drug war. Policing has to get back to what it is, which is protecting cities and the people in them.
And are viewers more conscious of those issues than they were when you two first started working in TV?
Simon: There’s been a sufficient amount of tragedy and scandal, but also the incongruities of what we’re doing with policy. That’s become a theme in American life. A lot more people are more aware of that than they were 20 years ago.
Pelecanos: People are definitely more aware, but they might see it through [their own] prisms. When we were doing The Wire, there weren’t these cable news networks where you went to get the news that you agreed with. Which is a dangerous thing. It’s not healthy for the country.
When telling stories about problems within disenfranchised communities, there’s always a risk of being exploitative. How do you avoid that?
Simon: When I was made a police reporter for a newspaper in Baltimore, in a city that was 60% Black, and told, “You’re covering crime,” I simply got very interested in doing it as well as I can. To do that you had to attend to the reality. We’ve thought about that throughout our careers. I know I have. In the end, the work stands for itself and for its own purposes, and it’s delivered in such a way that everyone is carefully humanized.
Pelecanos: The aim is to show people respect.
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