Sonja Sohn of 'The Wire' on her new HBO documentary about Baltimore police
ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:
"The Slow Hustle" is the title of a new HBO documentary out now. It begins with dramatic real-life body-cam footage filmed just after a shooting in the Harlem Park neighborhood of Baltimore.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SLOW HUSTLE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got one officer down. I got one officer down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Screaming).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my god. I need a unit medic right now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Screaming).
FLORIDO: The officer shot that day in 2017 was Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter. His death set off a massive manhunt for the killer, and Suiter gets a hero's funeral. But then things get messy when it's reported that Suiter was killed just a day before he was supposed to testify in a case against several fellow officers accused of corruption. That revelation leads to speculation that maybe Suiter's killing was an inside job meant to keep him quiet, or that maybe he took his own life. And the rumors start to tear Baltimore apart.
Sonja Sohn directed "The Slow Hustle." She's also an actor. You may know her for her role as a Baltimore police detective in the hit series "The Wire." When we spoke recently, I asked what drew her to Detective Suiter's case.
SONJA SOHN: I think the one thing that I had to zero in on or hone in on was the fact that there - that this was a Black man who appeared to be murdered, whose murder was unsolved and quite possibly could have been at the hands of law enforcement. And that case right there has a connection to many other cases that were in the public eye at the time. And so being able to make that connection, I think, to those other cases was in the back of my mind. But at the same time, this was a police officer. He was law enforcement. So there was something different. And there was all of this corruption that he was around.
FLORIDO: Your film really does document the Baltimore Police Department's long history of corruption. Many residents in the city, especially in Black communities, just don't trust the police. So rumors and speculation ran rampant about what really happened to Officer Suiter, not just among residents, but also among politicians, among journalists. Nobody knew. You were filming as this was all playing out in real time. How did you, as a filmmaker, you know, distinguish between fact and rumor?
SOHN: Well, you know, that's a really good question because, yes, there was a lot floating through the air. And I used the investigative journalists and their journalistic ethics and expertise first and foremost as, I guess, the first sort of filter and sieve through the facts. And I felt that the rumors, you know, also have some validity because there is a history of corruption, though rumors, you know, can't always be proven. And that's where D. Watkins comes in to play - someone who's lived on sort of both sides of the track and having, you know, been, you know, a critical, you know, just a social critic and delving into those topics and bringing that perspective. So that's sort of like the sieve through which the rumors come through.
FLORIDO: D. Watkins - that's one of the journalists who covers this case as it's playing out and who you feature in the film. What do you think, Sonia, the mystery of Sean Suiter's death and the fallout say about Baltimore and the public's relationship with the police as a whole?
SOHN: First and foremost, it speaks to the lack of trust that the people of the city have in law enforcement not only in Baltimore, but across the country. You know, I think we're already, across the country, not trusting our law enforcement. And we're all not feeling protected nor served. And so it's clear to me this is another way to look at the question of how we're going to restructure a - how we're going to create another structure for protection and safety because right now, I'm not convinced that "defunding the police," quote, unquote, is really the thing because that's supporting social structures that support the people. Funding social structures that support the people is just a given. That should be happening anyway.
I believe that this film substantiates further in a different way how broken the structure of law enforcement is. And so I really hope we're talking about not recreating, you know, revamping the system, but I think it's really about creating a new structure for public safety and in a time where Americans across the board are - to some degree, are triggered by law enforcement. And I think that's quite a journey that we're all on here, you know, in this country.
FLORIDO: That was Sonja Sohn. She is the director of the new HBO documentary called "The Slow Hustle." Sonja, thank you for joining us.
SOHN: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.