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Fact vs Fiction: We Own This City episode 1 —were Baltimore police officers making fewer arrests after the death of Freddie Gray?

Jon Bernthal in We Own This City
Jon Bernthal in We Own This City (Image credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

The premiere episode of We Own This City depicted an incredible level of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department in 2017. However, given this is a television show, we had to ask ourselves what was actually fiction and what was fabricated for dramatic purposes. For example, did Baltimore police officers really ease up on making arrests after Freddie Gray? Also, was Detective Daniel Hersl as corrupt as the audience was led to believe? 

Here’s what we’ve determined was fact and fiction for We Own This City episode 1. 

Were Baltimore police officers making fewer arrests after the death of Freddie Gray?  

Darrell Britt-Gibson and McKinley Belcher III in We Own This City

Darrell Britt-Gibson and McKinley Belcher III in We Own This City (Image credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

In the first episode, its reiterated a number of times that after the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent prosecution of the officers involved, many Baltimore cops backed off policing in some capacity. Despite the influx of crime in the city, according to the HBO series, the number of arrests steadily decreased. 

One scene in particular that sticks out is the one in which when Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, meets with Judge Moore (James Lewis). As she is trying to find out more about city police and possible civil rights violations, they discuss the numerous complaints made against officer Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles). When she inquired why Hersl could still patrol the streets, the judge stated:

"Simply put, Hersl and guys like him, they get out of their cars and they make arrests. That’s more than you can say about too many police in this city that are collecting a paycheck." 

So were Baltimore police officers not making as many arrests after Freddie Gray? Did they back off in policing duties?

This is a fact. 

As reported by USA Today (opens in new tab), from 2014 to 2017 Baltimore dispatch records show the number of suspected narcotics offenses officers reported dropped by 30%, the number of people cops reported seeing with outstanding warrants decreased by 50% and instances in which the police approached someone for questioning declined by 70%. These statistics are in direct contrast with the rising crime in the area. By 2018, Baltimore, which has long been referred to as Charm City, was declared to be "the nation's most dangerous big city (opens in new tab)."

Commenting on the state of policing in 2018, the then-interim police commissioner of Baltimore Gary Tuggle told USA Today, "In all candor, officers are not as aggressive as they once were pre-2015. It’s just that fact." 

He went on to blame the disparity between policing tactics and crime statistics on a shortage of patrol officers and the 2016 Justice Department investigation that found Baltimore city cops regularly violated residents' constitutional rights. The latter created new limits on how officers could carry out what they considered to be routine parts of their jobs. 

Was detective Daniel Hersl policing the streets of Baltimore in spite of all the filed complaints?  

Josh Charles as Daniel Hersl

Josh Charles as Daniel Hersl in We Own This City (Image credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Judge Moore also told Steeler that Hersl had as many as 50 complaints filed against him. Even with that many complaints, the detective was not restricted in his policing duties because his superiors valued his policing statistics.

This is mostly true. 

According to The Baltimore Sun (opens in new tab), before Hersl was charged and convicted of federal racketeering charges, he had an infamous reputation in Baltimore for his brutality and misconduct as an officer. Just looking at 2014, he was the subject of at least 12 internal affairs cases. Furthermore, his disciplinary file contained more than 10 years of complaints of brutality and discourtesy. 

Despite his reputation and the several complaints made against him, the former detective was allowed to continue to patrol the streets. There was a consensus made by US Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich and his team that Hersl was never reprimanded in a real way because he made a high number of arrests and seized a lot of firearms. 

In 2015, Hersl reportedly attempted to get away from his duties of patrolling the city streets, but he was denied because he was seen as a "top producer."

The reason we say this is "mostly true" is because we weren’t able to pinpoint the total number of complaints in his disciplinary file. 

Did Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ask the Department of Justice to investigate the Baltimore police department?  

The city of Baltimore at night

(Image credit: The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images)

At the time of the events shown in We Own This City, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Paige Carter) was mayor of Baltimore. In the premiere episode, it was revealed that Mayor Rawlings-Blake fired the police commissioner of the city in light of the Freddie Gray incident, and she also asked the Department of Justice to investigate the local police department. Did she really do this? 

Yes. 

Prior to the events shown in the first episode, Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Batts on July 8, 2015, as shared in the New York Post (opens in new tab). During that time, Baltimore was only a couple of months removed from the death of Freddie Gray and the police department was embroiled in scandal and losing the public relations battle. The former mayor stated at a press conference, "This was not an easy decision but it is one that is in the best interest of Baltimore. The people of Baltimore deserve better and we’re going to get better." 

Additionally, according to The Hill (opens in new tab),  Mayor Rawlings-Blake asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether the Baltimore police department had a pattern of practicing racial discrimination.  

After the federal agency conducted its investigation on the matter, the Department of Justice (opens in new tab) stated on its website: 

"The Justice Department announced today that it found reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws. BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression."

This all happened prior to the events shown in the first episode, which again start in February 2017. This makes the Gun Trace Task Force's actions in the show even more surprising considering the federal government just wrapped an investigation into the department less than a year prior. 

We Own This City airs on HBO and HBO Max platforms on Mondays at 9 pm ET/PT.

Terrell Smith has a diverse writing background having penned material for a wide array of clients including the federal government and Bravo television personalities.  When he’s not writing as Terrell, he’s writing under his pseudonym Tavion Scott, creating scripts for his audio drama podcasts. Terrell is a huge fan of great storytelling when it comes to television and film. Some of his favorite shows include The CrownWandaVision, Abbot Elementary and Godfather of HarlemAnd a fun fact is he's completely dialed into the TLC 90 Day Fiancé universe.