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T. J. Smith greets supporters in West Baltimore on the 1400 block of Argyle Avenue after announcing his candidacy for mayor. He said he chose that location because his brother was killed there.
T. J. Smith greets supporters in West Baltimore on the 1400 block of Argyle Avenue after announcing his candidacy for mayor. He said he chose that location because his brother was killed there. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

It is difficult to think of a statement by a Baltimore mayor that could be more obtuse: “I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand. How can you fault leadership? This has been five years of 300-plus murders. I don’t see it as a lack of leadership.”

That was Jack Young during his press conference last week. With city violence reaching its annual crescendo, the mayor seemed to be saying: “Don’t blame me, and don’t look to me for answers.” It’s as if he considers the high rate of violence a naturally occurring phenomenon, like a drought, beyond human control.

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The comment seemed to be a raw defensive reaction to the suggestion that the crime crisis reflects a lack of leadership in City Hall, where Young has been ensconced for 23 years, first in the City Council and, since this spring, as mayor. And now he’s asking Baltimoreans to keep him in office by voting for him in the Democratic primary in April.

But Young just rendered his election to the top job much tougher, if not impossible. Crime will be the main campaign issue as long as Baltimore remains, per capita, one of the most violent cities in the country. It touches almost every facet of life here. That’s why Young’s comment seemed so obtuse, and the effort by an aide to repair the damage with wiser prose a few hours later is not what people will remember.

The comment “hurts,” says T.J. Smith, the former Anne Arundel County police lieutenant and Baltimore Police Department spokesman who announced in late October his candidacy for mayor.

“I had a number of moms who lost their children at my announcement with me. [Young’s words] hurt more than [angered] people," Smith said. "We’re not sitting here telling you that you’re causing the problem. We know you’re not going to solve the problem overnight. ... But when you can be dismissive in comments like that, it makes people feel like you don’t really understand what we’re dealing with.”

Smith is the most likely of unlikely candidates. He’s a 42-year-old Baltimore native with a law enforcement background, who has never held elected office — “I’m not a politician,” he says — but is well known from his time as the public face of the police department. He is the brother of a murder victim, making Smith a member of what he calls the “sad fraternity” of Baltimoreans directly affected by the violence of the last five years.

This is another in a series of columns on mayoral candidates and their approaches to crime. City Council President Brandon Scott has agreed to an interview later this month, and I have requested time with Mayor Young.

Because of his background, I was interested in first getting T.J. Smith’s observations and thoughts about the city’s current predicament. (His ideas for curtailing crime will be in my next column.)

Why has the violence gone on at such a high rate for five years?

“It’s a combination of things. We had a riot in April 2015, and we have watched the murder rate escalate since May 1, 2015. Obviously, we have to point to the distrust between the community and police; you see what happened with the Gun Trace Task Force. The police department has gone woefully understaffed over the last several years … and there has been a perception problem of officers not engaging the way they once did for fear of potentially being prosecuted for something.

“I pay close attention to the fact that a third of all the murders have taken place in five square miles of this city — basically, two and a half miles in the Western District and two and a half in the eastern part of the city. … We know where it’s occurring, and we know who’s doing it. The data tells us that 85% of murder victims and murder suspects have been arrested 10 to 12 times. It’s a finite group of people who are affecting the lives of so many others.

Are gangs a major problem?

“The clear and present danger facing Baltimore is people who are illegally possessing guns. If it were gangs, we would be better able to address this because they have a hierarchy and you’re not going to kill at will. This is much less a gang problem than an accessibility-to-guns problem.

If elected, would you keep Commissioner Michael Harrison? He has said that transforming the department and stemming the violence is going to take time, that it took him seven to eight years in New Orleans.

“We have to make sure we have the right leadership in City Hall before we discuss who the police commissioner is going to be. I think Commissioner Harrison’s heart is in the right place. I think anyone who meets him will know he cares and has a big heart. I don’t think you’re ever going to agree with somebody 100% of the time. I think we really need to focus strategically, in the [two areas] that are really problematic. I would certainly like to see a little bit more intensity. I do like the commissioner. But I didn’t like hearing seven to eight years. No, no, no. We’re going to do everything we can today to make it better than yesterday.”

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Coming Friday: Smith’s plans for targeting repeat offenders, recruiting more police officers and dealing with Baltimore’s squeegee kids. On Sunday: More about mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah’s crime-reduction plan.

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