Baltimore police chief spokesman T.J. Smith, a consistent face for the department, resigns

T.J. Smith, the Baltimore Police Department’s chief spokesman and most consistent public face since 2015, whose local roots and empathetic outrage over city violence often endeared him to a public distrustful of the agency as a whole, has resigned, he confirmed Wednesday.

Smith cited an unstable environment — with “mudslinging” within the department and “political turmoil” all around it — as the driving force behind his decision.

“There’s a lot of work left to be done in Baltimore, but I have a good name and a good reputation, and with everything that’s gone on, and with some of the nasty mudslinging that’s taken place, I just don’t want to continue being a part of it,” he said.

Smith mentioned an argument last week between a high-ranking commander, Col. Perry Standfield, and Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle’s chief of staff, Jim Gillis, wherein Standfield slammed a chair into a wall. The incident became public after Standfield quit under threat of being fired, and Smith said “misinformation” about the incident was spread — including by local political leaders he did not name — in a way that bothered him and made him feel like he could be unjustly sullied himself if he stayed in the department any longer.

“To see other hands get involved in that, when it wasn’t necessary, with rumors and accusations — it’s wrong,” Smith said. “Those of us who are doing our best to work hard for this city and work hard for this agency always seem to be thrust within this political turmoil.

“I don’t think it would be fair for someone like me to get any of that mess on me,” he said.

Smith’s departure, effective immediately, comes as Mayor Catherine Pugh prepares to name a new police commissioner by the end of this month — the fourth since Smith joined the department. Tuggle had been considered a candidate but withdrew his application for the permanent job this week.

Smith, 41, said the new commissioner should “not be attached to some team or network of people” he or she doesn’t know and should have the freedom to create a command staff from scratch — another reason he’s stepping aside.

“If they hear I’m a valuable part of the Baltimore community, and I know I am, and they want to have a conversation with me, we certainly can do that.”

Pugh on Wednesday wished Smith well, but otherwise declined to comment on his departure.

Tuggle said “there are challenges with the Police Department and everyone knows that.” Asked about Smith’s concerns about the incident involving Standfield and local politicians’ involvement, Tuggle said “there were rumors that certain members of the city council wanted [Standfield] back,” but that he had felt no pressure to rehire him.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, thanked Smith for his service. “The guy worked hard every day, and we know that he was just as impacted as everybody else by the violence,” Scott said — an allusion to the shooting death in July 2017 of Smith’s younger brother, Dion. He said Standfield’s handling was not a council issue, and that he had not tried to intervene.

The department said Wednesday that Smith’s duties will fall to Matt Jablow, a former WBAL-TV reporter and police spokesman who returned to serve as the department’s chief of strategic communications earlier this year.

Smith’s departure bookends a dramatic chapter in the department’s history that began with former Commissioner Kevin Davis’ appointment in the summer of 2015 — after Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent unrest and rioting.

Davis, a former Anne Arundel County police chief, hired Smith, then a spokesman for that department, as one of his first moves as Baltimore’s top cop, and under an unusual arrangement.

For Smith’s first year, he took a leave of absence from the Anne Arundel County police force, and was paid by the city. After that, Anne Arundel agreed to pay $91,570 of Smith’s annual salary (with the city paying an additional $45,000) in exchange for the city assigning two of its narcotics detectives to the county’s heroin task force. The arrangement was criticized by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the police union, but other officials said Smith was worth it.

Smith’s contract was most recently extended through December by the Board of Estimates last month.

Smith — a Baltimore native and frank talker with a firm grasp of the local culture and its colloquialisms — was out front for the department during the next three years, a period that saw more than 1,000 homicides and 2,000 shootings. He showed up at scenes of violence across the city, often castigating those responsible as “cowards” and begging area residents for tips.

Most of the victims whose murders he marked were black men like him. The death of his brother Dion, which Smith confronted publicly and with great vulnerability, further humanized him in the eyes of the community — and imbued his subsequent messages of empathy for other victims’ families with legitimacy.

Smith also helped shape the department’s response to violence — and to a host of other high-profile issues and events, including the unsuccessful prosecution of several officers in Gray’s death; the indictments and convictions of members of the rogue Gun Trace Task Force; and a Justice Department investigation and subsequent consent decree mandating sweeping reforms.

He often extolled the virtue of rank-and-file officers who halted crime as it happened or confronted a dangerous criminal on the street, and at times defended the department — occasionally drawing the ire of activists who thought him an apologist for the department’s failures. In one example from 2016, Smith defended the department’s failure to disclose its use of a surveillance plane, insisting it was “not a secret spy program” despite its collecting and storing more than 100 hours of footage of city neighborhoods without the knowledge of the public or any elected officials, including the mayor.

But Smith also expressed outrage on behalf of the department at times when its members were accused of abuses or other misconduct.

Under Davis, Smith played a particularly prominent role. Davis trusted Smith and his sense for how to publicly respond to crises. Smith, in turn, had an almost intrinsic understanding of where Davis stood on a host of issues, and could speak extemporaneously on those issues in a way that not only dovetailed with his boss’s positions, but put them in language that Baltimore residents could understand and appreciate.

“He was beyond a media relations chief to me — he was a close adviser on anything and everything, and I relied heavily on his opinion,” Davis said. “He’s developed not only into the face and voice of the BPD, but the conscience of the BPD.”

Smith wasn’t afraid to parry with reporters during marathon news conferences, and modernized the department’s communications office, streaming news conferences on social media. And, with Davis, he began a policy of sharing body-camera footage from every police-involved shooting.

Toward the end of 2017, as record homicides continued unabated, Smith and Davis collectively took criticism, along with Pugh, for failing to better convey the department’s plan for confronting the violence. And in January, as historic rates of killings continued into a third year, Pugh fired Davis and appointed Darryl De Sousa, a longtime commander in the department and a Davis deputy, in his place. De Sousa later resigned amid federal tax charges in May, and Tuggle was put in charge on an interim basis.

Smith was never as in sync with De Sousa or Tuggle as he was with Davis, though he has had a good relationship with both men. But he also acknowledged offering his resignation twice before — once the day Davis was fired, and once this summer, after Tuggle took over.

Both times, he said, he was convinced to stay.

“Through all of the foolishness and some of the unprofessional activities that took place,” he said, “I was here for the city of Baltimore.”

He thinks he can still help Baltimore, but in some new capacity, he said. He does not have a new job lined up and does not plan to return to Anne Arundel County, he said.

Davis called Smith’s resignation “a huge blow” to Baltimore, and said city leaders “should be sprinting after T.J. and begging him to stay on board.”

“T.J. is a familiar face. He’s a trusted leader. And to lose someone like him is a blow,” Davis said. “I don’t envy the person who’s going to be tasked with stepping into TJ’s shoes. I think it’s an impossible task.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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