Former police spokesman T.J. Smith promises change as Baltimore mayor that he says establishment can’t deliver

Former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith is running for mayor, arguing his local roots, career as a police officer and years of communicating local government policy to the public have prepared him to take the helm of Maryland’s largest city.

Smith, a 42-year-old Democrat, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that he is “not a politically ambitious person,” but decided to quit his job as press secretary to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. after nine months because he believes his hometown is overdue for change the political establishment can’t deliver.


“If we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to keep getting the same results,” Smith said Monday. “But if we know we can do better and we should do better, we have to make bold decisions.”

Smith said he doesn’t have “some magic wand” to solve the city’s problems, but can motivate people and give them confidence in Baltimore’s future by “making decisions, being a leader, being the face of crisis, having command presence.”


Smith has been hinting at a run for months.

The degree to which his candidacy will shape the April 28 Democratic primary — which likely will determine the mayor for the next four years in deep blue Baltimore — is unclear. Smith lacks the political experience of the two major Democratic candidates in the race: Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Council President Brandon Scott. He has directed communications offices and served in an advisory role to top executives, but never led a major agency or held elected office.

“If we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to keep getting the same results.”

—  T.J. Smith, candidate for mayor

However, Smith enjoys significant name recognition from having served as the police department’s spokesman during one of the deadliest half-decades in city history. He often showed up at crime scenes to deride the criminals responsible as “cowards,” commiserate with victims and implore the public to provide tips.

After Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 from injuries suffered in police custody and the subsequent unrest and rioting, Anne Arundel County Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis was tapped to lead the city force. Davis quickly brought Smith over from the county department as a top adviser and spokesman. In Anne Arundel, Smith had been a sworn officer who worked his way up to lieutenant.

In Baltimore, Smith became one of the most recognizable voices in the department on a range of issues, from the trials of the officers in the Gray case, to the U.S. Justice Department’s findings that the department practiced unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, to a subsequent federal consent decree mandating sweeping reforms. Smith also spoke for the agency as the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force was exposed, and addressed stubbornly high levels of violence in recent years — with each year since 2015 ending with more than 300 homicides.

He resigned in October 2018, citing "mudslinging” within the department and “political turmoil” all around it. At the time, the department was searching for a new permanent commissioner after Davis’ replacement, Darryl De Sousa, was charged with failing to file taxes.

Some advocates for police accountability in the city considered Smith an apologist for the department, someone who helped spin questionable policies and downplay its responsibility for abuses by officers. They say he cannot be separated from the department’s scandals in recent years.

Smith called those claims “ridiculous," and said he has never tried to justify police corruption and never will.


“When bad cops did bad things, we were the first to expose it," he said.

Smith is banking on the attitude of his “Think Different” campaign slogan as appealing to voters tired of repeated scandals in city government and the ongoing violence.

“We are at a pivotal moment in our city, and I know that I’m the best person right now to make the bold decisions — do things differently than we’ve ever done them — to actually see some meaningful progress, so we don’t have to look back and say, ‘Well, here we are again,’ ” he said.

Young’s office did not respond Monday to a request for comment on Smith’s candidacy.

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Scott said he welcomed Smith to the race while remaining focused “on showing Baltimore a better way forward where we can cure gun violence, reform city government, invest in our youth and create equitable outcomes for all Baltimoreans.”

The filing deadline for the primary is Jan. 24.


Smith, a separated father of a 7-year-old son, moved in March from Owings Mills into an apartment in Mount Washington. On Monday, his son’s train set looped across the floor. Nearby was a framed copy of The Atlantic magazine article titled “His Brother’s Keeper,” waiting to be hung on the wall. It was about Smith’s role as police spokesman in Baltimore before and after his 24-year-old brother Dion’s fatal shooting in 2017.

His brother’s death pushed Smith into a role he never wanted: that of a homicide victim’s loved one, whose job it was to tell the city about all of its other homicide victims. Smith’s handling of that situation endeared him to some residents who have experienced similar loss and trauma. Smith officially announced his campaign Tuesday alongside the parents of several city homicide victims who he came to know through his struggle and work.

Smith, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore, has two master’s degrees, one in management and leadership from Johns Hopkins University and another in strategic communications, from Washington State University.

He said he soon will begin rolling out platform positions and other campaign plans on his website. Crime will be his No. 1 focus, because it is Baltimore’s No. 1 focus, he said.

But he stressed reducing crime depends on many factors, some having nothing to do with police, such as reducing recidivism through programs for returning felons, better preparing young people for the workforce, addressing childhood trauma, and bringing economic development into neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore that haven’t seen a construction crane in decades.