fb-pixel Skip to main content

In Tyre Nichols tragedy, echoes of HBO’s ‘We Own This City’

Jon Bernthal (right) portrays Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, the head of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, in "We Own This City."Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Media coverage of the Tyre Nichols story keeps reminding me of the HBO miniseries “We Own This City” from last April. Both expose the twisted culture that can develop among cops in the special police units that have been created in a number of big American cities.

The five officers who are accused of killing Nichols were members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. Created to focus on high-crime neighborhoods, the unit had allegedly used excessive force in a number of situations before this month. Established in 2021, it was disbanded after Nichols’s death.


“We Own This City” is based on the true story of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, which was set up in 2007 to get violent criminals off the streets. The scripted six-episode show is true to the approach usually taken by its creators, David Simon and George Pelecanos of “The Wire,” in that it takes an unblinking, almost docu-dramatic look at just how corrupt the GTTF became. It was a reign of terror, as the officers planted weapons, stole drugs and cash that they confiscated, and pulled over and beat people with no probable cause.

Ultimately, the GTTF was investigated and members were busted for racketeering, extortion, robbery, and other crimes. It was disbanded in 2017.

The show stars Jon Bernthal as Wayne Jenkins, a sergeant who is shown bullying his more reticent colleagues into illegal behavior. He embodies the all-powerful top-dog feeling that develops in some of these cops, as they openly disregard the law and any moral compass they once might have had. After the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody, aware they were under scrutiny for civil rights violations, the GTTF cops didn’t slow down a bit, remaining as brazen as ever.


Watching “We Own This City” is a bracing experience, as you might expect. It’s as vivid a take on depraved cops as you will find on TV.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.