By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
T.J.Smith, the primary face of the beleaguered Baltimore Police Department (BPD) since he joined it in 2015, recently announced his resignation after three of the most tumultuous years in BPD history. But, instead of going quietly, he sat down with the AFRO and shared his perspective on the status of the troubled agency, 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 this is so far beyond policing,” Smith told the AFRO.
His decision to leave was in part prompted by the recent turmoil that has led to a series of high-profile, controversial departures. Most recently the resignation of Col. Perry Stanfield, who was barred 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 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 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.”
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.”
Meanwhile, the fallout over the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF )scandal continued recently, as police officials told the Baltimore City Council seven more police officers were under internal investigation for ties to the former specialized unit.
The GTTF was a group of eight officers who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to robbing residents, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime pay. But like many other scandals engulfing the embattled department, lack of details as to who is under scrutiny and why is fueling frustration among key council members.
“It shows how much work has to be done to fix this,” Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee told THE AFRO.
“To learn some of the stuff we learned yesterday about the investigation of nine cases into the Gun Trace Task Force and seven still open,” Scott said.
“That’s why the level of the frustration is so high.”
Among Scott’s other concerns are escalating overtime costs, officer allocation, and general lack of transparency with the council.
But because the department is legally classified as a state agency, Scott says the council’s hands are tied.
“These are the kind of the things we are pressing the department about, but we don’t have the authority to do anything but press,” he said.
“We have no power to change it.”