Afro: This Is So Far Beyond Policing

A police department already embroiled in controversy suffered another blow Oct. 10, with the resignation of its primary spokesman T.J. Smith.

Smith joined the department in 2015 with the arrival of former police commissioner Kevin Davis and was the primary face of an agency that has been rocked by a series of scandals and is currently under a federal consent decree.

But Smith is not going quietly. Instead, he shared with AFRO his perspective on the status of the troubled department, and more broadly, how the city’s strategy for fighting crime has over-emphasized policing.

“These communities have been plagued by the same social ills for far too long.  I know this, and most people know is this so far beyond policing,” Smith told the AFRO.

His decision to leave was in part prompted by the recent turmoil hat has led to a series of high-profile, controversial departures.  Most recently the resignation of Col. Perry Stanfield, who was tossed from police headquarters after being accused of throwing a chair during a meeting.

“It just seemed so many people who have left the agency did not get to leave on their own terms without some sort of tarnishing, which I didn’t think that was fair,” Smith said.

The lack of stability fueled by a succession of four police commissioners and the battle to pick a new top cop was also a distraction that contributed to his sense of unease.

“I’m just a guy about the work. I don’t want to get tied up in pointless rumors and innuendo for people’s political gain.  And we’re about to select the next commissioner and there are people who are politicking for the job, I just didn’t want to be a part of it,” he said.

But, Smith also believes that the police department itself has been tasked with battling crime that has complex roots in social ills beyond the purview of law enforcement.

“Policing is necessary, but to make that the focal point of a city like Baltimore is in my opinion an epic failure and a recipe for failure,” Smith said.

For Smith, the intractable poverty that plagues the city’s most violent neighborhoods drives crime.  And the ongoing neglect of those neighborhoods and the emphasis of policing to fix them does nothing to address the underlying malaise which fuels the violence.

“We can look at a murder map from years ago and the murders haven’t moved. The communities that experienced violence in 1998 are the same today,” he said.

“Mt. Washington was fine in 1998 and it’s fine in 2018,” Smith said of the prosperous North Baltimore community.

As an example, Smith cited Gilmor Homes, the city housing project where Freddie Gray was arrested, noting that little has changed in a neighborhood that was a focal point of the uprising after Gray died in police custody.

“There was a lot of conversation in 2015 about the community where Freddie Gray lived. You tell me what has changed in Gilmor homes? The cameras are gone but nothing has changed,” Smith said.

And Smith was not immune to the violence which plagued the city.  In 2017 his brother, 24-year-old Dionay Smith was murdered.  Police later charged Terrell Gibson with murder, assault and reckless endangerment in connection with his death.

As for the future of the police the department, Smith says the key is stability at the top.

“I think we’re in transition, and when you’re in transition that makes it a little difficult,”Smith said.

“It’s time to allow a new person to have a clean slate to right the ship.”

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OZY: Policing Alone Can't Fix Baltimore

By T.J. Smith

As I reflect over the years and on my time in post-riot Baltimore as the police department’s chief spokesperson, I fully recognize the problems that exist in Charm City aren’t simply “post-riot” problems. They are longstanding, systemic problems that require an aggressive strategic plan.

I made the determination to vacate my position as the public voice and face of the Baltimore police department in October. Many were surprised by my announcement, but those closest to me were not at all. I’ve been very outspoken about the ills that plague our community. But I’ve been in a role where I cannot deliver my personal opinion. Now I feel liberated with the opportunity to be able to publicly articulate some of my own feelings and, more importantly, some of my proposed solutions.

I was fortunate to be a participant in OZY’s Take On America in Baltimore. Some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve had over the years were repeated by the 100 Black men in the audience. Some topics that reverberated included constitutional policing, less policing, opportunity and education.

We listened to people talk about the longstanding disproportionate struggles they continue to face. Much of it I agreed with. And in “Any City, USA,” we should focus on our most impoverished communities and work to transform them. But we can’t transform them by simply flooding money and programs in with no oversight or accountability. The investment should include a significant focus on schools and education, community beautification projects, the demolition of dilapidated housing, reinvestment in affordable housing with first right of refusal to those who currently reside in the community and in good standing, green space, accessibility to public transportation and accessibility to fresh foods.

While capitalism is the American way, we must limit the number of unhealthy options in impoverished communities. Imagine a community that has better access to a library, fitness center, community center, grocery store and good schools compared to one in which every other home is boarded up, trash lines the streets and the four corners of the intersection consist of a phone store, carry-out, liquor store and a mini-mart that also sells drug baggies and acts as a safe haven for drug dealers. It’s not impossible to fix, but it requires a focused investment, courage, oversight and follow-up.

We can’t expect a law enforcement solution alone to solve these catastrophic, systematic socioeconomic failures. Flooding an underserved community with law enforcement only serves to further exacerbate the already strained police and community relationships. The only way we can effectively “pull back” from the law-enforcement-only approach is to transform the communities from the historic failures that put them in that situation in the first place.

Too many children in the communities described above have much easier access to blunts, beers, quarter waters, chicken boxes, Doritos, sweet tea, soda and more than they do to a fitness center, a salad or even an apple. We then take these same young people who are, in essence, under the influence, and we send them to school expecting them to sit still and learn. It’s a recipe for failure, and it’s targeted to specific geographies that are — you guessed it — plagued with violence.

We must be brave, willing, creative and unapologetic to change our city. Murderers, gang members, drug dealers and the like are too comfortable; the patterns must be disrupted to remove their level of security. But we must also look at the root causes of them getting involved in the illegal activity to begin with. For too long, we’ve applied bandages. Now, the communities are infected from never getting treatment for the serious injuries that have been inflicted. We must treat the problem and not the symptoms. Baltimore, like many other urban centers, has not seen murders “move.” We’ve simply seen more murders in the areas where we have become accustomed to seeing them. Sadly, as many of the men articulated on Take On America, we are numb to their cries, and we think a temporary overpolicing strategy to suppress a surge in violence is the answer. That strategy, which repeats itself, has been a proven failure and only serves to spread the infection rather than cure it.

Our investment must be unbalanced. There must be aggressive multifaceted plans in place for communities to succeed. This will not be easy, but we must start, and we cannot sit and wait for someone to do it for us. We must do it, collectively, one community at a time. And most importantly, we must listen to the people in these communities and not rely strictly on government officials to make decisions that they think are in the best interest of our communities.

My goal, moving forward, is to use my voice, influence and platform to help actually change my city. Because to change the city, you have to change the city.

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The Atlantic: His Brother's Keeper

It was an early Sunday evening, July 2, 2017, and T. J. Smith, the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, wanted a plate of Maryland crabs. He plunked half a bushel onto the kitchen counter of his suburban home and began pulling ingredients from his cabinets and refrigerator. He let the crabs steam until their shells turned the color of fire. But before he could eat, Smith had to run two errands. He slid a dozen crabs into a brown paper bag for his mother, collected his 5-year-old son, and hopped into his police-issued Ford Explorer.

The sun was drawing down over the Northwest Expressway, and as Smith cruised south, he felt a rare lightness of spirit. The past two days had been quiet. On Friday, he’d said goodbye to a top homicide commander with what had become their signature sign-off: “I hope you have a fantastic weekend and I don’t have to talk to you.” Unlike during most 48-hour stretches in Baltimore, this weekend there had been no murders requiring the pair to coordinate. The following morning he would begin a 10-day vacation.

His insides clenched when he saw the name. The latest homicide victim was his younger brother.

He swung by his mother’s house, handed off the crabs, then headed to the home of his son’s mother, who would care for their son while Smith was away. As he turned into her driveway, his phone lit up. The police department’s paging system alerted Smith to every carjacking, stabbing, sexual assault, and other violent crime that occurred in the city. With intelligence flowing back and forth, his phone could buzz up to 100 times a day. He peered down at the screen.

Male found in a pool of blood, appears to be a gunshot wound to the head. 1400 Block of Argyle Avenue. Twenty-four-year-old male. Dionay Smith.

His insides clenched when he saw the name. How many Dionay Smiths could there be? He texted the officer handling the case. I know that name, Smith told him. The officer replied that he was standing beside the body in a West Baltimore rowhouse. The crime scene was secure, but the medical examiner was still on his way, so the body had not yet been rolled onto its back. Identification might be tough. But he would send a picture. Then the image flashed onto Smith’s phone. He could make out the light-brown skin, the pudgy frame, the tattoos.

And so, on a summer day last year, Baltimore’s police spokesman informed the city about homicide victim No. 173, his younger brother.

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