T.J. Smith has been the voice and face of Baltimore police during some of the city’s most murderous years. As the department’s chief spokesman, he routinely appears on television to talk to a crime-weary city about the “bad guys” and the “cowards” shooting up the streets.
He speaks plainly, his phrases interlaced with anger and exasperation as he assures residents that the police force shares in their sadness and outrage, even as the agency seems powerless to stop the killings.
Now, Smith, who grew up in Baltimore, has to talk about his own brother’s violent death. Dionay Smith, 24, was fatally shot Sunday in his apartment on Argyle Avenue in West Baltimore, a street two miles northwest of the Inner Harbor, lined with new housing on one side and condemned, boarded rowhouses on the other. It was the city’s 173rd homicide this year, pushing Baltimore to among the most violent nationwide in per capita homicides. Three others were killed over the next 48 hours.
Smith saw his brother’s name in an internal text moments after the shooting, a moment he later described as “surreal.” He sped to his father’s house to break the news to his family before it hit social media. It was a task he had performed with strangers all too often over more than 18 years as a police officer, first in suburban Anne Arundel County.
“But now,” Smith wrote, “it was personal.” In a Facebook post, Smith didn’t shy away from his trademark straightforward style: “A coward with a gun entered my brother’s apartment and shot and killed him.”
On Wednesday, Smith said he wanted to make sure that “nothing I say about my brother’s murder is different than what I say about anybody else’s.” He said he shuns the guarded speech of government prose because “people want to feel raw emotion. They don’t want a sanitized version of events. . . . So a coward with a gun is what he is.”
Smith said his brother had three children and two jobs and helped youths in a troubled neighborhood. Court records show a few arrests, some drug-related, but no convictions, and his brother said they are indicative of youthful challenges he had outgrown. Smith said he thinks his brother was targeted by someone he knew and had tried to help with his “soft heart.” On Facebook, Smith said he wants to “channel the negative into positive and pray for the soul of the person responsible for this. He ruined his life for something small and petty, no doubt.”
Smith joined the department four months after Freddie Gray died in police custody in April 2015 and riots ravaged parts of the city. Crime was increasing, federal authorities were finding that officers routinely abused people’s rights and a chasm widened between residents and protectors. He followed the newly hired police commissioner, Kevin Davis, whom he had grown close to in Anne Arundel, where Davis had been chief and Smith had served as spokesman. Baltimore had always been home — his wife and mother are both schoolteachers; his grandparents worked at the main post office. He graduated from a Baltimore high school.
“I knew I had to get someone who could genuinely serve as the daily face of public safety in Baltimore,” Davis said. “I needed someone who was direct and genuine and straightforward and empathetic who can connect with victims, victims’ families, the community at large and cops. T.J. is that guy.”
While the city continues to focus on repeat offenders and those who carry guns, Smith’s work communicating with residents has been important to restore trust, Davis said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat things, and the community doesn’t want things sugarcoated.”
In a profile last year in the Afro newspaper, Smith discussed the challenges of being black and talking so often about lost black lives. “I want it to be conveyed when I speak that it hurts every time we get a report on another young, black male killed in the city,” Smith told the newspaper. “I get offended because this is my city.”
Whether behind a podium or at a breaking crime scene, Smith, impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, has never shirked from saying what he feels. Of a man who twice robbed the same store clerk: “It only helps the city of Baltimore to have someone like this occupying jail cells.” About a man who shot a 90-year-old woman who scolded him for throwing chicken bones on the street: “Another disgusting act of stupidity.” And when a woman was fatally shot moments after calling police over a stolen bicycle seat, Smith personalized the victim as a “mother of eight who was taken away from her children.”
The shooting of Smith’s brother comes three months after the 22-year-old son of a police officer gunned down in 2007 was fatally shot in an alley and weeks after the stepson of a prominent defense attorney was fatally shot outside a gas station.
Brandon Scott, a Baltimore City Council member from Northwest who grew up during the 1990s, when homicides topped 300 a year for a decade, said Smith now joins “far too many families in Baltimore whose lives have been turned upside down by the trauma of homicide.”
Scott, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the killings of members of the Brown and Smith families show the widespread impact of violence. “You can’t wait until it’s your brother to act,” he said. “You can’t wait until it’s your son or your cousin. Far too many people do that. . . . If anyone is walking around Baltimore thinking, ‘It can’t happen to me,’ they’re living in a fantasy land.”
Since Smith became chief spokesman for Baltimore police in August 2015, he has talked to the public or overseen the dissemination of information on more than 600 homicides. “I am the bearer of bad news in Baltimore,” he said in an interview.
He spoke publicly on Wednesday, saying it was his most difficult moment in front of the cameras. He shed his customary suit for a short-sleeve shirt, chose a conference room desk over the official police podium and broke his typical sober demeanor to allow for tears.
“I want people to understand we’re all in this,” Smith said later. “I’m not quitting. I’m not giving up on my city.”