We Own This City: David Simon, George Pelecanos Interview

TSome of the most well-known names are behind The WireWe are back again, with an additional story that examines the inner workings of Baltimore’s police force. David Simon and George Pelecanos, who worked together on the acclaimed 2002–2008 HBO drama, have teamed up for the new HBO Max miniseries This City is OursThe Baltimore Police Department has a real-life gun-tracing unit.

This is an adaptation of an old Baltimore article. 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. The Gun Trace Task Force, an eight-member group formed in 2017, to remove firearms from streets. Six officers pleaded guilty and two more were convicted. For the involved, sentences ranged between seven and 25 years.

Simon is himself a former SunReporter who worked for the police over ten years, before moving into television. Pelecanos, also known for crime novels, helped him and Pelecanos to tell the story. This City Is OursThe producers tried to be as true as possible. They used the real names of officers and filmed where the actual events occurred. TIME interviewed the producers to discuss creating the series, how they work together and the impact of real-world challenges on the TV landscape.

TIME: Can you recall when the Gun Trace Task Force Investigation was first reported to you? Was that your initial reaction to the Gun Trace Task Force investigation?

Simon: I was reading it in real time in Justin’s coverage. Justin called me to tell him that this ought to be a book. This book deserves more was the initial reason I engaged with it. [attention] than it’s getting. This was a small series of localized articles that were published 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. This was an opportunity for us to speak about America’s current policing system and discuss how corruption is possible under the watchful eyes of our department.

This documentary feels more like a document than a drama on TV. This is intentional.

Simon:You sometimes have to admit that you don’t always get the right drama. Sometimes, you need to admit that this would make a better story if it was presented in this manner. 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:This level of detail was 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. The same thing happened when we did The DeuceNew 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, a Baltimore native, was the perfect choice for the role of Daniel Hersl. He is my opinion the most violent GTTF officer. Josh would ad-lib the Orioles lineup of 2011—that wasn’t scripted. He just knew. Jon Bernthal came to the set with all his personal information [about the case]. It was evident that everyone had a deep commitment to the cause. The actors were all very curious and asked many questions. The actors were very serious.

What would your work dynamic look like as long-term collaborators?

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. Because we know each other so well, it is easy to see what the other wants.

Simon:George and I are able to convey our concern over an upcoming scene with just one sentence. 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.

This is perhaps the peak time for TV dramas that are based on truth. Is there something about this format you believe appeals most to viewers?

Pelecanos:People love to see successful and wealthy people being taken down. That’s why a show like Law & OrderIt is very 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. Shows that show the reality are more compelling, I believe.

How can you imagine this program to be a hit with the audience, given all of today’s debate about policing and criminal justice?

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. It was actually a joke that we gave to a character. 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]They might not have been guilty at the time they were stopped but they were guilty. 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 exist 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:Since then, one thing has happened The Wire Smartphones. It really did make a big 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]Without the iPhone footage, you would never have been convicted.

Simon:As a reporter for police, the quality of an arresting officer’s report was crucial. There was no cellphone in the 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. The country accepted the idea of drug prohibition as a way to make neighborhoods safer. The drug war must be stopped. The only way to stop the drug war is for police to return to its original purpose, that is to protect cities and their inhabitants.

Are viewers now more aware of these issues than when they first saw you on 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. This is something that people know a lot more about than 20 years ago.

Pelecanos:While people may be more conscious, it is possible for them to not see it. [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. This is dangerous. It’s not healthy for the country.

When telling stories about problems within disenfranchised communities, there’s always a risk of being exploitative. How can this be avoided?

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. It was necessary to accept the truth in order to achieve that. We’ve thought about that throughout our careers. Yes, I’ve thought about it throughout my career. 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:It is important to demonstrate respect.

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