Get him rolling and T.J. Smith hardly takes a breath when he talks about crime, its effect on the quality of life in Baltimore, and what he would do about it. He’s running for mayor of his hometown in April’s primary, bringing a kind of breathless urgency to a candidacy built more on name and face recognition than on experience in government.
Given recent history, however, crime-weary Baltimoreans might welcome a candidate from outside the city’s political culture. Smith brings decades of experience in law enforcement, as an officer in Anne Arundel County and as the spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department from 2015 until 2018. Mayors have to care about everything, not just crime. But, after the fifth straight year of 300-plus homicides, crime should top the list of priorities for voters.
This week, in a fast-paced conversation, Smith talked about “shrinking the pool” of repeat offenders in the city, recruiting more officers, implementing police reforms under a federal consent decree, using aerial surveillance to identify suspects, and dealing with Baltimore’s squeegee kids.
Targeting violent, repeat offenders: This is not a new strategy. In fact, Baltimore police have been focused on stemming crime in 120 “microzones” since early summer. As mayor, Smith says he would have police focus efforts on the Eastern and Western districts. But he would also have city agencies offer ex-offenders on parole or probation the help they need to keep from relapsing into criminality.
“It would be a collaborative team focused on the at-risk individual,” Smith says. “We have to use force multiplier, where all these entities are working together — police, the health department, the state’s attorney’s office, parole and probation, juvenile parole and probation, churches, social services, African-American male engagement, workforce development, the school system, all touching people at-risk. We know who they are. The data tells us. Set these people up for success and not for failure, and you continue to shrink that pool of applicants who go to the corner, pick up a gun, rob you or break into your house.”
Clearing corners: Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a blistering report documenting years of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city, including “clearing corners” without legal justification. But Smith says he frequently hears city residents complain about loitering and drug sales on street corners; he believes there’s a way for police to break up the crowds within the bounds of the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department.
“We have some great misunderstandings with the consent decree,” Smith says. “I hear too often from police officers who don’t understand the parameters they can operate within, and that’s a problem. I’d like to see the white-shirt officers, the commanders, out on the street showing the blue-shirt officers exactly how to police, post-consent decree.
“The good officers have to have support. It can’t be a full-fledged war on the police all the time. The residents want the same thing I want. I have a 7-year-old black son and I want him to be able to walk to the store at some point in his life and not be harassed by the police and I don’t want him robbed or shot on the street by someone out there possessing a gun illegally.”
Recruiting more officers: “T. J. Smith is the only candidate in this race who has worn a uniform before and walked in the shoes of an officer. The best way to recruit police is other police. The budget of the police department is extraordinary. The overtime [pay] needs to be cut. But we have to make this department much more competitive.” He’s talking about increasing salaries for officers and adding more steps, and pay grades, to the department’s ranks.
“There are 10 or 12 major police departments within a 45-minute ride from here that a good recruit is able to go to,” he says. “We have to invest in these folks who are going to spend 25 years here and who we want to move into the city.”
Smith says the city could hire recruits immediately and give them departmental jobs while they wait for their academy classes to start, or send them to a nearby county for training.
To increase the ranks and get additional officers on the street, Smith supports converting more administrative jobs to civilian positions. “If I were able, right now, to get 50 able bodies out of administrative positions, they would be going to the Eastern and Western districts,” he says. “And, as we churn out more officers, I would like to see more foot and bike patrols.”
Aerial surveillance: Smith supports using the much-debated Persistent Surveillance Systems plane to enhance police investigations of felonies. But he agrees that privacy concerns must be addressed. “It’s worthwhile to see what results can be when we’re in the middle of a [crime] epidemic like we are now,” he says. “I think we have the ability to put forth a meaningful program that captures the privacy concerns and becomes a model going forward.”
On squeegee kids at busy intersections: Smith has not formed a complete plan yet, but appreciates the urgency as the city continues to get complaints about the kids from commuters and local businesses. “I recently saw two officers parked on President Street, presumably to deter squeegee kids,” he says. “That’s not a good use of their time. This is a health and human services issue, not a policing issue. This is an African-American male engagement issue. If we know their parents are addicts, that every penny they take into the house they have to hide because it’s going to get stolen … that’s a health and human services issue. The first approach shouldn’t be a police officer.
“It cheapens our young people by saying, ‘Go dodge traffic to try and make some money.’ We are cheapening our kids by saying this is your alternative. No, no. We can come up with a more viable alternative.”