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“To protect and to serve”—the police motto that originated in 1963 in California and was subsequently adopted by precincts around the United States—is twisted too often in modern America. Over $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing.
In March 2017, seven Baltimore police officers were indicted on corruption charges by the federal government. Despite complaints from citizens and defense attorneys, their behavior went unchecked for over a decade. Baltimore is still recovering from the effects of what has become known as the Gun Trace Task Force Scandal. GTTF became a breeding ground for people coming onto the force and getting paired with cops who teach them bad habits, and lack of accountability. In this case, they took advantage of victims, robbing and framing the same people they were sworn in to protect.
Based on the nonfiction book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad by Baynard Woods and co-author Brandon Soderberg, this documentary goes deep into the story of the GTTF through the eyes of a dedicated defense attorney, Ivan Bates. Bates represented victims of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins’ uncontrollable, questionable tactics that resulted in mental terror and imprisonment of Baltimore citizens who were literally just minding their business. “No one’s helping. No one’s there. No one’s listening. How could the system fail this badly for this long? The signs were there, we just didn’t pay attention,” Bates states during his opening court statement.
“I Got a Monster” feels like a documentary combination of “The Untouchables” meets “The Wire.” However, it's the sincerity of Ivan Bates’ testimony for the court that begins and ends this film, which swells your heart with hope. Bates’ account of being pulled over and harassed until an officer clocks his badge, making him just another Black man, or the explanation of police departments being an extension of slave catchers, makes this all too real [as noted in “The 1619 Project” and “The 13th” as well] and impossible to ignore.
Maybe Freddie Gray would still be alive today if officers like Sgt. Wayne Jenkins had been properly trained, supervised, and held accountable. “It’s scary to think that Jenkins and the GTTF had such latitude and resources to go after people,” says director Kevin Casanova Abrams.
After years of effort and sting operations, Jenkins and the other members of GTTF were all sentenced to federal prison, and Baltimore city has paid more than 15 million in settlements related to their misconduct. The federal investigation into the Baltimore police department is ongoing.
In a strange twist of fate, in one of the film's closing images, Wayne Jenkins’ wife phones Ivan Bates requesting that he represent her husband. “It was flattering, but what Jenkins did was wrong, and I would never represent him,” said Bates.
It was not lost on me that the legendary Norman Lear is one of the many producers. Lear has never taken a backseat to controversy with his television projects, so it is no surprise that he continuously puts his money where his mouth is, spotlighting systemic racism in the most egregious sense within our nation's police departments—specifically Baltimore PD. This will not be the first time a crooked cop will be caught and called out, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Director Abrams excels artistically while unveiling the sordid details of this doc from every single vantage point with no holds barred. “I Got a Monster” is a glaringly honest recount of one city and its participants that will live in your spirit and psyche long after the credits roll. Hopefully, more than that, it will light a fire in your belly to be on the right side of justice instead of uplifting the wrong arm of the law in the name of “law and order” and an overwhelming sense to control others.
Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.