“I Got a Monster”- A scary start [MOVIE REVIEW]
The “Los Angeles Times” has chronicled the subversive presence of deputy gangs within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. A problem for many years, the last sheriff vowed to rid the department of them and instead embraced them like an unpopular kid being welcomed into a clique. He was defeated by Robert Luna who, also, campaigned on a platform of ridding the county of these illegal and terrifying groups, deputies who run roughshod over the civil liberties of the citizens they are supposed to protect and serve and who terrorize deputies who don’t share their “views,” making life in a station all the more difficult.
“I Got a Monster,” a terrifyingly true and expertly filmed story of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department, was a collaboration between filmmaker Kevin Abrams and writers Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg who were in the process of writing the non-fiction thriller called I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. The book told the story of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) that shielded a group of out of control, violent and larcenous police officers who arrested primarily marginal people within their district, often on trumped up or imaginary charges in order to extract money, drugs, or favors. Failure to comply would result in jail because, after all, who is the judge going to believe? A petty criminal or a police officer duty bound to keep the peace?
“The Wire,” David Simon’s ode to Baltimore, was a complex portrait of a downtrodden Baltimore between 2002 and 2008, covering all aspects of city life starting with the relationship between drug dealers and the police. Although you might have taken issue with the actions of some of the cops, not all of whom played by the book, the portrayals of the fictional BPD pales in comparison to the state of this unit, the GTTF, in violence, corruption, and cynicism. Granted, “I Got a Monster” profiles only one small part of the Baltimore police, but these so-called “rogue” officers ran rampant over more than a decade.
The leader, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, racked up an unbelievable number of arrests and convictions. This success rate was never challenged by higher ups who had access to the long list of abuses filed with the Internal Affairs Department, a file that was unavailable to anyone, including defense attorneys who brought suits against him.
Baltimore, like many other large U.S. cities, was wracked with anti-police protests and demonstrations after police killings, especially after the death of Freddie Gray, a young man who died from spinal injuries while being transported in a police van. Instead of treading more carefully, Jenkins’ unit used the unrest as an excuse to increase their illegal activities and maximize their arrests.
Jenkins was already an out-of-control cop before he was assigned to lead the GTTF, in essence giving him a license to beat, maim, and extort. He surrounded himself with a small cadre of officers known to him who would not only turn a blind eye but would participate fully in shake downs and thefts. Even while the complaints continued to add up, Jenkins’ cohort would use the information they obtained in illegal search and seizures to rob the so-called perps at their homes. Masked and armed, they would enter the homes of people they had stopped earlier and rob them of drugs and money, knowing full well that these small-time criminals couldn’t report the thefts without implicating themselves.
This situation went on for years and Jenkins and the GTTF became more and more reckless until they ran up against the proverbial honest man, Ivan Bates, a defense attorney willing to face the wall of intimidation placed in his path. He’s Baltimore through and through and hated what he was seeing. But knowing that the police were out of control and proving it are two different things entirely. Two different, and very brave, victims of Jenkins’ vigilante arrests decided to appeal their indictments and enlisted Bates as their attorney. Listening to the similarities in their stories, Bates began to look for patterns. Denied access to back arrest records, he would have to show a pattern on his own by tracking down others who had been arrested by Jenkins. But most of the people Bates found to support his case were people who had other criminal convictions. Not exactly pillars of society and this, in fact, was why Jenkins and his band of not-so-merry men were able to carry on for as long as they did. The mayor, the police department as a whole, the DA, the good people of Baltimore didn’t care about the civil liberties of the undercard. Today it may be the illegal search and railroading of a lowlife; but tomorrow it might be you.
Even with the ensuing bad publicity, the city fathers of Baltimore stood by their man as Jenkins knew they would. Like previous internal investigations, all sealed, this one would meet the same fate and Jenkins would prevail. Throughout his tenure he was awarded medals and promotions. His arrest record was second to none. Bates realized that this would have to go to an outside source of investigation and that is how the FBI became involved.
The sheer audacity of the GTTF and the uphill battle faced by Ivan Bates makes a darn good story, made better by the entry of the FBI who instantly recognized what the city of Baltimore refused to see.
There are no spoilers here. The title of this excellent documentary reveals the ending. But it’s not the ending that is as critical as the leg work it took to get there. This is a slam bang thriller that will leave you breathless as you hear the evidence and experience the difficulties of the few good men. Like “The Wire,” only someone who still loves Baltimore and wants it to return to a long past glory would work so hard for a positive resolution. I hope the same for the L.A. Sheriff’s department; that instead of striking fear, it will embrace safety for all, including the marginal.
Opening March 10 on VOD.