There will come a point, less than a minute into this column, when you will probably say to yourself, or to anyone sitting nearby: “It’s hopeless.”
Understand, before I present the relevant history, that it’s not my intent to take you to hopeless and just leave you there. The last thing Baltimore needs — the last thing any soul who still cares about this city needs — is an outbreak of hopelessness, though clearly some of us have already succumbed to that condition, and with good reason.
Here’s the history I came across while preparing today’s column: In July 2007, with homicides surging, the Baltimore police commissioner resigned. The mayor at the time was Sheila Dixon — this was a couple of years before her indictment — and, with the city’s Democratic primary two months away, she gave the boot to Leonard Hamm, a homegrown career cop with a commanding presence. He had been police commissioner since 2004, but the eighth — eighth! — in as many years. The rising homicide count ended his run.
Here’s what The Sun reported at the time: “Last year, Baltimore recorded 276 homicides, making it the second-deadliest large city in the country, behind Detroit. This year, the city's homicide numbers have worsened significantly. Since May 1, the city has averaged a homicide a day.”
We also reported this: More than 80% of the homicide victims had criminal records.
If that sounds familiar, there’s a reason: A more recent analysis found that nearly 90% of the city’s homicide victims had criminal records.
So not much has changed. That’s what makes you want to say to yourself, or to anyone sitting nearby: “It’s hopeless.”
And, of course, “it” is not one problem, but the many that have been allowed to take root (poverty, disinvestment, limited or failed education, a corrections system that doesn’t correct), or that we created (the war on drugs, mass incarceration) or that we ignored (the needs of ex-offenders coming home from prison, terrible relations between police and citizens in some city neighborhoods).
We have missed countless opportunities to change the social conditions that we know lead to criminality, relying instead on police to clean up the mess that results.
And here we are, still afflicted.
There’s been so much violence — 300-plus homicides each of the last five years and 56 homicides so far in 2020 — that it gets poured into the civic psyche. Watching from a distance, there’s hardly a shock anymore. The violence is a series of tragedies that unfolds daily in distant corners of the sprawling city, dots on a map, numbers on a screen.
But then suddenly a video appears, and what seemed like dots and numbers gets very human: “My name is Krenne [pronounced Kren-ay] Simmons. My name is Sharonda Rhodes. My name is Toya Sykes-Coates . . . .”
Three women in a dark space, sitting on chairs, holding framed photographs of their children: “My son Davon. My baby Markell Scott. My daughter Kaylyn.”
And telling what happened: “Was shot to death. Was shot six times. Was murdered.”
And then this: “He was Number 69. Number 66. She was Number 44.”
It’s a video produced for the mayoral campaign of T.J. Smith, a Baltimore native and former Anne Arundel County police officer who served as city police spokesman from 2015, the time of the Freddie Gray unrest, until 2018.
And one other thing: His 24-year-old brother, Dionay Smith, was shot to death in July 2017 in West Baltimore.
“He was Murder 173, but he’s more than just a number,” Smith says in the video. “Other candidates can talk about it, but we feel it in a different way. I’m not a politician. I’m a career public servant. And now it’s time I serve my brother’s legacy and the thousands of others killed on our city streets.
“We need to think different. We need to want more. We need to do more. We can be more.”
It’s a powerful video that gives voice to the aching soul of the city.
“Making that video was the toughest day of the campaign,” Smith says. He knew the mothers from his time as police spokesman and in the time since. They joined him for the recordings at a downtown studio. Kaitlin Newman of Launch 2020 and Tim Szczesniak of Syndicate Row Media helped produce the video. It can be found on YouTube. It has not yet appeared on Baltimore television.
People who know Smith from his many TV appearances saw more than a talking head reciting facts about a crime. He voiced real outrage at the killings, and his empathy for the families of victims seemed genuine, even more so after his brother’s death.
He shows up at vigils for victims of homicides. When I spoke to him this week, Smith had just come from a funeral home where mourners gathered for 37-year-old Floyd Huntley, shot to death on February 28 in East Baltimore.
There are several credible Democrats who want to be Baltimore’s next mayor. The primary election is April 28.
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Some people have told me they don’t understand why T.J. Smith is among the candidates. But why not? He’s motivated by a call to public service that seems to be in his blood, going back to his days as a county cop, and by a strong personal desire to see an end to the city’s endless funeral procession. You don’t run for mayor of Baltimore if you think it’s hopeless.