I Got a Monster is a documentary that feels like a bad-cops thriller. The new documentary by first-time director Kevin Abrams tells a cracking story of the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force, which twisted its mission of seizing illegal guns to instead plant drugs and guns while ripping off suspects who turned out to be innocent.
It play like a classic street crime rise-and-fall story, but one where everything is flipped: the cops are the crooks and the accused are the ones calling for justice.
“It is such a dirty cop story, and there’s so many thriller elements to it,” Abrams says on the latest MovieMaker podcast, which you can check out on Apple, wherever you get your podcasts, or right here:
I Got a Monster aims for journalistic rigor, but enlists the tools of crime dramas to drive recreate real-life drama and atmospherics.
“We strap the camera to the front of cars, we drive down streets at 75 miles per hour — to give it those action elements,” Abrams explains. “We use our drones in a more visceral action film way to try to create a little bit of that pacing, so that you could feel like you’re getting pulled into that story as well as having your heart hopefully touched by what the victims are going through.”
But I Got a Monster isn’t one of the many true-crime documentaries that use tricks of the trade to prop up sloppy insinuations. Abrams left out elements of the case that require speculation, focusing on matters that have been resolved in court.
What Happened to Wayne Jenkins
Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the former leader of the Gun Trace Task Force, is now serving a 25-year-sentence after pleading guilty to charges including racketeering, robbery and falsifying records.
More than a dozen officers have been convicted in the scandal since 2017, Baltimore has paid out more than $20 million in settlements, and hundreds of cases have been thrown out because of doubts about officers’ testimony. (This all may sound familiar if you saw last year’s HBO David Simon series We Run This city, in which Jon Bernthal plays Wayne Jenkins.)
I Got a Monster lays out how the corrupted members of the Gun Trace Task Force would stop Baltimore citizens who seemed to have cash on hand, plant drugs or guns to justify the stop, and then raid their homes in search of loot. In at least one case they filmed a staged bust in which they pretended to discover a safe they had already partially plundered.
What ‘I Got a Monster’ Means
The film’s title refers to a “monster” seizure by the officers, who often targeted people with criminal records because they knew judges and juries would believe cops over convicts.
“Part of the unfortunate dynamic within the story is that a lot of this got ignored because the people that were victims, were sometimes ‘bad guys’ — they were previously convicted of selling drugs. They were previously convicted of possession of firearms,” says Abrams.
“They knew if they targeted people with criminal paths, they would be more likely to get away with the stuff that they were doing, because there was precedent. I wanted to humanize them.”
I Got a Monster came to be through a friendship between Abrams and Baynard Woods, who was co-authoring a book also called I Got a Monster with fellow journalist Brandon Soderberg. The authors believed their story could also work as a documentary, so the three men worked together.
They received substantial help from Ivan Bates, a defense attorney who quickly realized Jenkins was up to no good, and helped bring him down. In a twist you couldn’t write, Bates was recently sworn in as the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, a job in which he has pledged to get illegal guns off the street. Legitimately.
The film quickly pulls you into an undercutting of the typical good guys and bad guys crime narrative: Jenkins was once known as a hero cop who rescued fellow officers during the 2015 Baltimore riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
But an errant snatch of information on a federal wiretap — yes, in the hometown of Simon’s The Wire — led investigators to discover the secret machinations of Jenkins and his crew, and that some of the suspects they had arrested seemed to be victims of a setup.
It all could have been discovered much sooner, Abrams says, if anyone had listened to their side of the story from the beginning.
“We wanted to lay out a story talking about the players involved, and then really give the space to the victims to finally be heard,” he says on the podcast. “because that is part of the subtext of what happened. “This happened because nobody listened to them.”
(Also: We mention in the podcast an interview with an ex-police officer in which he estimates that just 1,000 cops total in the United States are bad. Here is that very interesting interview.)
I Got a Monster is in Baltimore theaters and available on VOD Friday.
Main image: Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in I Got a Monster