Q&A: T.J. Smith on his vision for rebuilding Baltimore communities, improving transit and more

Share the News

Credit: Curved & Co., Nikki Daskalakis

T.J. Smith outlines a grand vision for Baltimore. He even invokes the name of developer James Rouse, mastermind of the planned community Columbia, Maryland, when talking about rebuilding neighborhoods in the city with an eye toward walkability.

“We have to envision Baltimore in the same way where, as we rebuild areas of our city, we need to ensure that the opportunity is there for multiple modes of transportation, whether it be bike, foot or public transportation,” he says after singing the praises of Rouse’s vision of connectivity.

And in the communities that are being rebuilt, Smith wants to see a new pattern of development that focuses more on neighborhood needs, bringing in supermarkets, bodegas and other essential retail establishments.

“[T]he way they’ve been built in the past perpetuates the problems we’re currently dealing with,” he says during a recent phone interview with Baltimore Fishbowl.

Most Baltimoreans, of course, remember Smith as the former director of media relations for the Baltimore Police Department, from August 2015 to October 2018.

Some will remember Smith for his frank talk about the city’s violence, and the emotional journey he went through when his own brother, Dion, became a victim of it. Reflecting on why he had a connection with Baltimoreans, Smith stresses the importance of not treating murder victims like numbers.

“I tried to make every situation personal,” he says, “and I really said a lot of what people were thinking and people were feeling, which was, This is ridiculous.”

Plenty of other residents will recall scandal after scandal that rocked the BPD as Smith was one of the department’s public faces. There were the Gun Trace Task Force indictments, the death of Det. Sean Suiter and subsequent lockdown of Harlem Park, the Department of Justice report that found Baltimore officers routinely violated the rights of citizens, and the roll out of a surveillance plane in Baltimore, which only became public through an article in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Smith notes the Gun Trace Task Force was formed years before he arrived and the DOJ announced its investigation months before he took Commissioner Kevin Davis invitation to come to Baltimore. He likens the situation to Orioles manager Brandon Hyde and general Mike Elias inheriting first baseman Chris Davis’ crippling contract.

“They didn’t give it, but they have to deal with it, they have to operate within the parameters of that,” he says. “And they might take the blame as the team continues to struggle for the next couple years as they emerge out of what people believe was a bad contract.”

He later adds: “I think the vast majority of people know that I didn’t have any involvement in any of that stuff. I know my law enforcement career was done in a professional manner with dignity and pride.”

Since announcing his campaign last October, Smith has pitched himself as a political outsider who can make the necessary changes to break Baltimore’s culture of violence.

A lot of career politicians, he says in our interview, are too afraid of losing their seats.

“I’m not a politician, so I’m not in this to continuously run for office and be the next this or be the next that. It’s really to make decisions for the here and now and the decisions that no one else would be willing to do, and have proven over years they aren’t willing to do because they have political aspirations.”

During our conversation, we talked more about Smith’s career in law enforcement, his plan for addressing trauma in Baltimore, improving public transportation in the city, growing up in Park Heights and much more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Baltimore Fishbowl: After you left your job with the police department, I noticed a lot of people would post on the Facebook streams of press conferences and say, “I miss T.J.” Why do you think you had that kind of connection with people?

T.J. Smith: You know, I would get tagged in some of those posts, and it was a humbling moment. I think that people respected my honesty and my candor.

And I became part of this sad fraternity publicly when my brother passed away. But I think prior to that, people respected the fact that I didn’t just treat their child like a number. I tried to make every situation personal, and I really said a lot of what people were thinking and people were feeling, which was, This is ridiculous. We’re out here at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and two people were shot in the middle of the day, and kids are about to get out of school. Or I go back to when an 82-year-old and a 92-year-old were shot at Walbrook Junction, back in 2016, at 1:40 in the afternoon.

I made that stuff personal. Part of my responsibility was to convey the fact that we cared about what was happening and it wasn’t just business as usual. So I think people related to that.

And the way I talk is the way I talk to my friends, the way I talk to family, the way I talk to you guys. I’m not going to turn into this different individual and say, “We had two people that were shot or were wounded by gunfire yesterday in this area.” I’m not going to talk like that because that’s not me and that’s not what people understand. I think people just understood it and they appreciated the fact that I was present. So I was humbled and honored by all of that.

BFB: The flip side of that coin, of course, is that you were a very public face in the department during a number of high-profile incidents that cause public misgivings about police. There are some of the crimes carried out by the Gun Trace Task Force and the later fallout from the federal indictments, the DOJ report that found officers routinely violated the rights of citizens, the shooting death of Det. Sean Suiter and subsequent lock down of Harlem Park, and the roll out of the surveillance plane. Those caused a lot of public mistrust in the department. So why should people who don’t trust the BPD put trust in you to run the city? 

TS: You look at the DOJ findings report that came out in 2016. I’d been there for almost a year when it came out, but that investigation was going on prior to my arrival and prior to Commissioner Davis’ arrival. Same thing with the Gun Trace Task Force. As we learn more and more about it, I think everybody who has paid any attention to it knows that this goes back at least 10 years.

And the only way an organization is going to get better is different people come in with different ideas. Sometimes when the different people come in with different ideas, they’re going to have to deal with some of the mess from the past. And at times they’re going to end up doing some things and making some of their own mistakes, but they’re going to have to deal with some of the mess from the past.

It’s like the new manager for the Baltimore Orioles. They have to deal with Chris Davis’ contract. They didn’t give it, but they have to deal with it, they have to operate within the parameters of that. And they might take the blame as the team continues to struggle for the next couple years as they emerge out of what people believe was a bad contract. So it’s understandable that people look and say, Well, you were there during that time.

I think the vast majority of people know that I didn’t have any involvement in any of that stuff. I know my law enforcement career was done in a professional manner with dignity and pride. I’m proud of my service in law enforcement.

BFB: But there was some overlap there, and there were some of the other incidents that I mentioned. Is there more you could have done?

TS: I think hindsight being 20/20–I mean, the only scenario that when I say frustrates me, as far as how it publicly came out, was the surveillance plane. I mean, that ticked me off. I was upset about it. I think a narrative took hold of the reality of things, where people have this assumption that you know about every nook and cranny and everything that’s going on inside of an agency. That isn’t true, of course.

It’s no different than if we found out today that there was a squad of detectives that were working on a big case for the last year, and we found out about the big case they’re working on. A lot of people don’t know about it.

When the indictments came down for the GTTF, we didn’t find out about it until pretty much right when it occurred. It was like, Wow, all the goodwill that officers have put forth over the last couple years is going to be taken away by this.

And of course, you look at the situation with Detective Suiter. Of course, it was ripe for conspiracy with everything that had gone on in the agency. But again, I think if people took the time to really listen and understand, they would get the fact that there was no grand conspiracy to do anything adverse to hurt people. It was trying to find out exactly what happened to Detective Suiter for his family.

And when you’re finding out these things at the last minute–I had a saying when I was in the Baltimore Police Department. It was, “You can’t make this shit up.” And I know that’s not an original saying. People say this is a TV movie or a drama. Living it is a totally different world because you just can’t believe it. When you have a police officer shot is one thing. Then it’s a homicide detective, that’s another thing.

It’s like, Wow, this is unusual in and of itself. Right? And then you find out about the testimony. You cannot believe it. You just can’t believe that this is happening right now, and of course we’re about to head into the trials of the GTTF not long after that. It was just a stunning time, certainly.

BFB: When you resigned from your position, you cited mud-slinging within the department and political turmoil. What were you seeing that led to those frustrations and did those frustrations lead to this campaign?

TS: Well, I had been planning to leave the entire year of 2018. Back in January, when Commissioner De Sousa took over, I was one of the people who had my phone cut off, my access to the building revoked. And I had cleaned out my office and left. I was gone. It was City Hall that called me and asked me to come back to work. I contemplated it over the weekend and I decided to come back. I decided to come back for continuity purposes for the agency and because I’m a professional and I believe that we can actually have a professional transition, it doesn’t have to be negativity.

I thought it was the right thing for the citizens because there was a lack of continuity. So next thing you know, he was up against the ropes very early on in his tenure as commissioner. And Gary Tuggle, who was the interim, was new to the police department. Him and I had forged a very good, solid relationships, so I decided to stay longer.

I had offered him my resignation in the summer, because I was ready to go. And then when I found out he wasn’t getting the job.

Then it seemed the agency kind of-when you’re in a situation with an interim, it’s kind of like having a substitute teacher, and you know how kids start to act up when you have a substitute teacher. That’s kind of what I was feeling.

I don’t want to get into the names of some individuals, some of it was in the newspaper. But when people’s reputations started getting outside of the agency, and they were being misrepresented, in my opinion, I said this is too much. We have a substitute teacher, we have no end in sight. This will be my fourth commissioner in the calendar year. And the way it was handled earlier this year is not fair.

I actually even thought about, I was going to resign and then offer to come back after being interviewed by a new person.

But it was time for me to go, and I just made the decision. And I didn’t even know that Tuggle was going to withdraw, which he ultimately did. That ultimately expedited my departure as well. Because it’s a professionalism thing. And unfortunately, the way the city was running, there was a lack of professionalism.

There’s so many things that played a role. I can’t say that that played a pivotal role. But professionalism is something that I believe in. It’s like, We could do this much better. And continuity, you can’t just take all this institutional knowledge out because you have a commissioner change and think that that’s the way you run an organization. So I didn’t agree with that.

BFB: There were some hints at the time that you were considering public office. I think you told–

TS: Nope. They were all rumors. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have ever taken the job in Baltimore County.

In 2018 when I left, would I say I thought about is as a possibility? Yeah, maybe. To what level, I didn’t know. But there were a zillion things I was considered. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I honestly had no idea. I mean, if you even look at the election process back in 2018, where Steuart Pittman, Calvin Ball and Johnny O all won. I would say no one expected any of the three of them–Johnny O more so than Steuart and Calvin at the general election level–but all three of them were unlikely to be county executive when they first started their campaigns and even through primary day.

But when they won, that opened up opportunities for jobs; I’ve been in government. So this wasn’t even like, all right, let’s get the ball rolling on this. No, it wasn’t. And I went to work and I had the conversation with Johnny. I said, “I’ll keep you posted if that’s a reality.”

But you have to understand that was also a different time. Pugh was still the mayor. We didn’t know anything about “Healthy Holly.” And in all of my public interviews back then, I said her success is our success. And that’s what I would like to see, because if Baltimore is in a better place when people start ramping up their campaigns, I would love for her to be unbeatable, because that means we’re doing better as a city.

BFB: So the “Healthy Holly” scandal, is that what convinced you that there needed to be a change and that you could deliver it?

TS: Well, as that started, being down in Annapolis during the session and seeing that we had some gaps in leadership when there were specific bills that were up, because the mayor was out sick in March. And then you look at the prospective field and some of the stuff that you think could be done, needs to be done, it started pushing me towards it.

BFB: You mentioned your brother Dion earlier and losing him to violence. Your campaign has an ad where you did discuss that experience and elevate the experience of several mothers who have also lost loved ones to violence. How will that perspective and that experience impact how you govern if you’re elected?

TS: I think anyone in this city who has either lost someone to violence, knows someone who has lost someone to violence or knows someone who has been affected by the violence understands that we can’t continue to treat people like numbers.

I absolutely hate–I don’t use the word hate a lot, but I hate and I loathe the idea that we put a numerical value on our safety in the city. We’ve had a candidate talk about if we’re not below 200 murders.

Is it better than where we are today? Yeah. But is that some place that we should be happy with and we should be striving for? No. And the coincidental part about this, I happen to know all of these mothers outside of the campaign. I didn’t have to go try to beg some parent of a murder victim to be in a commercial with me. These are people who I’ve done stuff with prior to. And coincidentally, all of their children were double-digit number murders, and my brother was murder 173.

I didn’t plan on it being like this, but it ended up being a good reference point, because with some of these candidates that are talking about cutting the murder rate in half, under 200, let’s just use 175. There would be a parade down Pratt Street if we had 175 murders, according to some of these candidates who think that that’s a good idea. Then you think about it, that means all of our loved ones still would have been murdered.

It seems so dismissive. And again, that’s a better situation than we’ve been in. Absolutely. But if we have a mindset that X amount of murders is OK, then we’re always going to be OK with that. And we have to shift that mindset. That’s part of the problem that I see in Baltimore and that’s part of the culture that has existed for all my life.

Growing up here in the ’80s and ’90s, I heard the 300 murder thing all the time. We have to just break that culture of quantifying human beings, because people who aren’t counted in that number are the survivors–the mothers, the fathers, the children, the grandparents. They aren’t counted in that number. And we just stop as if that’s it.

These moms, we’ve been friends, some of us for a couple years. And to see how often they post pictures of their loved one. Davon Fair, for instance, his mom posts every single day a picture. I know exactly how many days it’s been since he was killed. And these are the daily reminders where again, he’s only quantified in the year 2017 when he was killed. Among the 342 others. So that sits with me.

We have to work to cut this number in half and cut that number in half and trend closer towards zero. So having a specific focus on how to get there. Part of our issue, in my opinion, it’s always law enforcement that sits on top of every single issue in Baltimore, and I think that that’s the wrong approach.

BFB: What will your administration do to help residents, businesses and nonprofits after this COVID-19 pandemic has passed?

TS: When it passes, and it will be within the next mayoral administration, because it won’t be before then. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to connect soon with the current mayor to start transitioning ASAP. The transition process is going to be more important now than ever, because we have so much that needs to continue on or so much that needs to be addressed immediately.

But setting up a COVID-19 recovery board is first and foremost–that will include owners of big businesses, that will include owners of small businesses, but also community residents and our educational system as well.

A wide scope of people that will help get our city off the ground. We actually have an opportunity, in a way, to hit the reset button and do some things differently moving forward to create the great equalizer. It’s going to take time to get there. But what are those things that we need to do, as we look at this and we truly use the word holistic? What do we need to do?

Pre-COVID-19, we had a segment of our population who were unemployed or underemployed, and we had jobs available that they just weren’t qualified for because they lacked training. So what do we do to make sure when we roll out our new economy, what that next-level economy is going to look like in post-COVID Baltimore? How are we going to do that and make sure equity is front and center?

This is going to be a multi-layered conversation that we’re going to have to have in the future as well. But as part of this advisory board, there’s another layer under that. You have the advisory board who wants to get us up and running, get us started again.

But then we have to have another subset of this group that is really going to watch what all occurred and what we recognize to be shortcomings through this. Not just from the typical government standpoint: “How could we have communicated better?” No. Why is it that 21215 has the highest and disproportionate number of cases? What can we do long term? What implementations do we need to put in place long term to eradicate this problem should it ever happen again? So that it won’t be disproportionately affected in the 21215. Why is it that we had to have people who we know are hungry in these communities and we had to go out and put more people at risk to provide food for this group of people, who we knew had food insecurities already? What are we doing to create sustainability in these communities that have been highlighted yet again?

So again, getting down into the details of the shortcomings that we’ve seen in specific communities.

The school system, my mom’s a teacher and she teaches in Northwest Baltimore in the 21215. She has around 40 children that she sees through her day. You know how many of them have logged on? Four. That’s a problem.

And again, we were ill-prepared to deal with that, and we know that these issues exist. No one, I think, was surprised by any of those numbers. But the fact that we aren’t surprised shows that we knew about it and we haven’t done anything to address it.

Every kid should have the capacity to be able to connect. Having broadband throughout the city, but specifically in our underserved communities, is again, policy issues. But something that we should be expediting to ensure the level or layer of connectivity is there for people who don’t have it.

So emerging out of COVID-19, identifying our next economy–because there is going to be a new economy that comes as a result of this–and making sure we’re getting it right this time is a primary focus. If we’re going to get all of this government money, all of these government opportunities, how are we going to make sure that it’s equal opportunity for people who live in Baltimore, and moreover not create the gap that we’re seeing now pre-COVID where there are a lot of jobs available, but the lack of training for those jobs just eliminates a group of people who would be eligible.

BFB: On the subject to those jobs, there was this whole issue that people were transfixed with before all this with the “squeegee kid” debate about window washers. And you mentioned the availability of these jobs, the lack of training. But clearly these kids are demonstrating that they’re eager to work. What would your administration do to connect people who are eager to work with well-paying jobs like the ones you’re talking about?

TS: Well, again, it’s multi-layered because you want to be connected to a well-paying job, but you have to meet the training or educational standard or whatever for that job. But ensuring that they know what the road map is. I believe in accountability, and I don’t believe in putting people in a situation where they are going to fail.

For instance, if we created an industry and dropped it in one of our most underserved, unemployed, underemployed communities, and just simply gave jobs to everyone in the community, most probably aren’t going to last beyond three months because we didn’t teach them how to work.

I believe that we have to break it down to a layer of ensuring people understand the responsibility of work and understand the responsibilities that they have with their job.

Public-private partnerships are important, and getting the return on investment from those partnerships is paramount. I’ll use an example. I made my announcement at Lafayette and Argyle. I had gone over there the day before, and lo and behold, they’re ripping up the street, there’s all kinds of loud construction work happening. I’m like, Holy crap, that’s going to be happening tomorrow when I go up to make my announcement.

So the guy who runs the job comes over and he happens to recognize me. And we’re having a conversation, and he said, “Man, if you get in City Hall, can we please have a conversation? I don’t want anything from you. I just–there’s road blocks. You see the five-to-six guys over there, pouring the cement, paving the road there?” He said if there were six of them, five of them were from outside of Baltimore. One of them was from Baltimore. He said I can go around any corner right now and there’s five guys standing on the corner and they’re telling me they want to work. I just need the partnership with the city where I will get them trained and they will have a job.

Do you know how much of a recurring theme that is throughout business, whether it’s small business, whether it’s black business, whether it’s people who have training programs? And these aren’t people who say, “Hey, I want a grant. I need a contract. I need this.” They just want to be involved, but it becomes so bureaucratic, that they go elsewhere because they still have to get the job done.

We want people to work, but the transportation issue also plays a role in that. And part of what I’ve put in my plans and I’ve talked about is trying to work with the current governor in getting some sort of local control for our transit system. So that if our analysis says the 21215, for instance, it takes an hour and 45 minutes for a person to get from the Cold Spring Metro station to Trade Point Atlantic.

I want to have a bus line that makes three stops. It’s going to start out at Cold Spring, it might stop at Mondawmin, then it might stop in Cherry Hill. And then it’s right at Trade Point Atlantic, and they’re going to get there in 45 minutes as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes. Things like that can change the dynamic of someone’s employment. And we have to really start looking at how we can best serve some of our underserved and underemployed communities.

That’s part of what I want to look at, because that plays a role. Are you going to go on the block and do what you do? Or are you going to spend two hours one way getting back and forth to work, making $12, $13 or $15 an hour?

Because those four hours you spent on the bus aren’t free. Matter of fact, they cost you.

BFB: If you were to get local control of the transit system, how would you improve and expand access? You highlighted sort of like an express route. Do you feel like it would be more of that sort of thing, express routes and more direct connections?

TS: I think express routes to employment hubs are critical. And I think just continuing to build upon the reliability of the system. There are going to be people with the long-term strategies and stomping their feet because of the Red Line. We have to work behind the scenes to try to bring some iteration of mass transit to Baltimore because we know the Red Line is not going to happen overnight and may not ever happen again. We know that. With that being the case, let’s move on to what we need to do next.

The problem with our city, the way the transit system is built–it’s not built like some other cities like New York or D.C. or Chicago, where there’s plenty of working class professionals. The system is built, sadly–the buses, especially–more for students than for people who don’t have cars because they can’t afford it. Not because they don’t want to drive, because they can’t afford it.

It seems like we’re very dismissive of the fact that we’re not doing anything to make this a more convenient thing for them. So I think if we had some local control to increase our capacity for express routes to get us to specific locations for specific things, that’s my vision of it.

And I think that we can we can do that. Obviously, rail is a great way to get places quickly, but it’s also not a realistic way to get things done in a short time frame.

BFB: Are there other steps you would take to encourage bicycling, walking and other transportation options that are not based around single-occupancy cars and SUV?

TS: I love the idea of walking. An improved transportation system will encourage a lot more of that.

Just for instance, if you look at how the bridges are built now, if you’re taking the metro from Owings Mills and you want to get to the fairgrounds, you have to go all the way down to State Center and walk over and get on the light rail to go all the way back out to Hunt Valley to go to the fair. And if you live in East Baltimore and you want to go to the fair, it’s probably easier to drive than it is to drive to the light rail and get on the train to go out to the fair.

Personally, I live close to the Falls Road/Mount Washington light rail station. And I’m also close to the Rogers Avenue Metro station. Going downtown, I hate driving in traffic, more so I hate trying to find a parking spot. I‘ll jump on the light rail or the subway easily. And I’m also one who doesn’t mind jumping on a scooter.

Making it accessible is the key. I do believe that we should have more opportunities at walking paths, that connectivity.

I know some people are going to lose their minds with me saying this. But if you look at Columbia being a planned community, one of the visions of James Rouse was connectivity. And if you look at Columbia, look at how many different walking trails they have that connect community to community, or to a shopping center or whatever. It’s built around the capacity for you to take your bike or get there on foot. And you can walk to that grocery store, or that community center or the library.

We have to envision Baltimore in the same way where, as we rebuild areas of our city, we need to ensure that the opportunity is there for multiple modes of transportation, whether it be bike, foot or public transportation.

You have to work with some of the businesses to do that. Like where Cross Street Market is, I don’t see a need for cars to be riding right next to the market where all the bars are, that should be closed off right there. That should be a place that has nothing but picnic tables in the middle of the street and a bike lane or a scooter lane, walking lane. Just use small examples like that, and then start building upon them.

I think it’s a smart concept. And D.C., in 2018, they closed U Street one day and it was a success. I think we could do things like that in Baltimore, where Pratt Street might become that for one day, and move it around and encourage more people to do it.

We have to look at this as a culture change, we’re a culture of cars. If you go to New York, people in New York are like, “A car? I don’t have a car.” The culture there isn’t of cars. So we have to work to change the culture where people feel more comfortable and understand how to do it and understand it actually can be fun and healthy.

BFB: A lot of major cities have seen population growth in recent years, but the number of people in Baltimore continues to decline. What are your main strategies for building healthy neighborhoods throughout the city and making sure that investment is not concentrated in just a few areas?

TS: It’s easy right now to say population decline is due to crime, crime, crime. Crime is a factor, but it’s not the singular factor. Because the population decline didn’t just start the last five years, it’s been happening since the ’90s. I think it’s a combination of things, and crime is, of course, a big one; public safety is a huge one. But you look at taxes, you look at schools, you look at the culture of corruption. All of these things have played a role in confidence.

But then some things like just general living, the city is not even built for people to patronize it. One of the ways that people go out and patronize is shopping. We have, yes, a lot of small businesses and shops and things like that. But we don’t have many department stores in the city of Baltimore.

The culture has been forced upon us–and this has been about 30 years–to go to the suburbs to go shop. So you have already created a city where you can’t do everything in the city. Other cities are built where you can do everything in the city. You actually go to the suburbs to get away from everything. Here you can’t do everything in the city. If you want to go shopping, you can’t go to Macy’s unless you go to the county. You can’t go to Walmart unless you go to the county.

You have to start building around some of those needs, first of all. But that’s really an aside.

It’s really building the confidence that we have a plan to get on the right direction. And we have to highlight that as we’re working. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time, as we’re working expeditiously, of course, to address the crime issues, which aren’t going to just disappear overnight. And we’re building new communities and sustainable communities and doing it in an equitable way. What that means is it’s not concentrated just around the water. When the president said that stuff last summer, and everyone went around the water taking pictures saying, “We are Baltimore.” No one went into the communities where there are boarded up homes and trees grow through them taking pictures and saying, “We are Baltimore.”

So we have to be mindful of what equity looks like. And it’s the people who are living next to these homes that are falling apart. That’s not happening down around the water, that’s happening in East Baltimore, West Baltimore. So it’s growing these communities.

The people who are ready to do business in our city, they want to do business in our city not because they want to do the right thing for the city of Baltimore–they want to do business because they want to make money. And they know that it is still a great place and a great location to do that. With that being said, we have to negotiate that way to ensure fairness so that some of that money that might be invested moves upstream. You have to be very specific and intentional.

If you look at April 11th, 2015 and the state of West Baltimore before Freddie Gray was arrested, and you look at 2020 and West Baltimore kind of looks like it’s looked since then. So with everything that went on, all the satellite trucks and everything that went on, what has really happened in West Baltimore to pull the people who live in a lot of hopelessness and a lot of despair up. What has really happened?

And this is what I’m talking about, being specific and intentional. We haven’t seen the cranes over there. We haven’t seen the development. We’ve seen more dirt holes created, but we haven’t seen more growth and sustainability.

And we have to really, really focus on that, because, look, if we don’t pull people out of poverty, we’re gonna continue to have a gap of haves and have nots, which is going to breed crime. And we’re going to continuously go back to focusing on that.

BFB: On the subject of crime, since 2015, the annual homicide rate has been consistently high. Why is your plan the best to solve the violent crime issue in the city?

TS: Well, first of all, understanding that we have to be bold and we have to recognize that there are some bad people out there who want to do bad things to people. I’m not afraid to say that. I am not for over-incarceration. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I’m for incarcerating those who want to inflict harm on other people in the city. Violent offenders have to be incarcerated, period.

I’m a candidate who has been the first one to talk about LEAD and increasing the capacity to LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, where we aren’t incarcerating drug offenders. There’s no point. You have a capsule of heroin on you, you should not be going to central booking. You should not be occupying an officer’s time or the court’s time. You should be going to treatment. And that’s what we have to continue to build upon, things like that, while we focus more on the person who’s out there running around with a gun that they’re possessing illegally and inflicting harm on the citizens of Baltimore and the people who patronize the city.

It’s also about focusing specifically on the places that are most often associated with violence. And these are the areas that I believe we need, to borrow a phrase from education, individual development plans of how we’re going to attack the problems that continuously exist in these areas. The problems that continuously exist in these areas are longstanding, and they’re beyond just law enforcement. There’s a reason people are OK hanging out here. What we need to do is focus on these businesses that we know some are complicit in the illegal activity that’s happening in the community.

One of the other things that I’ve put forth as part of my plan is the Trauma Go-Teams.

And again, I’ve spoken about that nonstop over the years, really. The trauma that’s inflicted on communities, where we’re seeing murders happen and no one’s going out and checking on the community after that–not even just a murder, a shooting. And part of the triggers of trauma are part of the customer service end that is a responsibility of the police department, the fire department, which is cleaning up the crime scene. When tape is left blowing in the wind, when latex gloves are left on the street or gauze packages are left, and even worse, when blood is left on the street, that is just a trigger for trauma. We call our kids resilient, but we don’t know when that trauma is going to manifest itself and they’re going to grow and they’re going to exert that traumatic moment in the form of, potentially, some violence or some anger. Addressing that is a huge, huge thing for me.

I’m also the only candidate who’s spoken about increasing the capacity for our fire department and EMS services to have state-of-the-art life-saving equipment when they’re out on the street, because that’s necessary as well. Because we have state-of-the-art hospitals. We need to make sure the state-of-the-art opportunities are there for first responders who perform those lifesaving efforts before they get victims to the hospital.

But also, really using data in an intelligent and meaningful way. If Joe Blow is shot, the question now becomes not simply, “Alright, who shot and killed Joe Blow?” But then that secondary level: “All right, y’all figure out who shot Joe Blow. We need to figure out who Joe Blow’s friends are who are going to shoot the person who shot Joe Blow before we find out.” That’s how retaliation happens. And that is what helps drive this murder rate that we’re having.

I use a lot of school analogies. My son’s mom, my cousins, all teachers, my aunt, I’ve been in a teacher family. So if you think about this, if you’re ever out at the mall or a store downtown or whatever, and you’re with your friends, and you see your teacher. And the teacher says, “Hey, I see you Mr. Smith.”

“Aw, man.” Now you feel like you have to act appropriate because somebody knows you’re there, and knows if you act up they can easily tell your mother. You’re caught already before you do anything.

So I take that same concept and say, when you’re knocking at the door of the people closely associated with Joe Blow, say, “Hey, we understand you’re upset. We understand that you have the ability and capacity to retaliate. We want to let you know that we know that. We want to let you know that if you have information that you want to provide that it would behoove you to do that.”

We have to step it up in a different way to ensure we’re on top such issues, because that’s how that happens. We shouldn’t allow this stuff to just go, because what we want to create is time, space and distance between the act and the perpetrator and the ability to carry out a retaliation.

BFB: You kind of answered this in an indirect way, but here’s a more direct question: The current mayor and police commissioner say that the department’s plan to curb violent crime is working. And yet the rate of homicides in 2020 is close to 2019. Do you feel the plan is working?

TS: I think that one of the hallmarks of leadership is having the humility to say we need to make adjustments, and what I put forth isn’t working as best as I planned.

And I think that it’s insulting in a way to say that this is working while we’re on a similar pace to last year, which is hard to believe. That’s very hard to say because, again, I would love to know how you quantify that working. What tells you that it’s working?

I think right now is a perfect time to really look at if it’s working or not, because with less people on the street with National Guard in the city–granted in humanitarian efforts–in the face of this pandemic, it almost seems natural that you would see a decline in violent crime. We should see certain sections that are going to decline, but the shootings and murders aren’t. That’s a problem. I have an issue with that.

I don’t know every detail of the statistics that they have that help them with such an assessment. I’m not a big fan of 120 micro-zones. Could Commissioner Harrison convince me otherwise? I suppose so. But I believe that we have some really, really hot spots, and then we have some other warm spots. And I think the focus has to be on the really, really hot spot that we know the propensity for violence is much more likely than zone number 119, you know?

Talking about the crime plan, we hear a lot about behind the walls–this part of the relationship that you have to have with Annapolis. The prison system is a state system, and I’m a firm believer in we have to have our people that are incarcerated who are going to be returning, returning with a skill set–and ideally, walking into a job when they return.

I have it on my website where a study was done that 93 percent of the time you left with a job, you didn’t return to prison. Where 70 percent of the time if you left without a job, within four months you were back in prison. So we have to use data the right way.

I believe in creating a robust city ZIP code re-entry program. Let’s go ahead and pilot a program where we’re graduating people who are coming out. If it’s their last year or two years or what have you, they’re learning something, they’re learning a trade, they’re interviewing, whatever it might be, to go into a job. And I’ve met a ton of people who have come back from being incarcerated who really credit the fact that they were able to leave prison and go into a job. That’s the turning point of why they never went back into a life of crime.

BFB: The acquisition of Legg Mason by Franklin Resources Inc., and the merger of WillScott Corp. and Mobile Mini Inc., signal the end of two corporate headquarters in the city. While that may not mean much to a lot of citizens, the city’s big companies, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board noted, populated the boards of many city arts, education and charitable enterprises, and had been leaders in the business community. Should the city be concerned by these transactions? And what will your administration do to attract the next Legg Mason and keep it?

TS: Well, you’re damn right we should be concerned. You just listed the things that are done and supported.

And you don’t want that reputation. Again, we have to be overly sensitive in Baltimore of losing things like this. It’s like the Preakness, for instance. We here in Baltimore know if we were going to lose the Preakness, which we aren’t, but if we lost the Preakness, we know we lost the Preakness because of the state of the racetrack and the fact that it needs to be rebuilt, et cetera. Nationally, people are going to think that we lost the Preakness because Baltimore is just a poorly run city with crime out of control, and they needed to get out of Baltimore.

We have to be very cognizant and mindful of the perception, and that perception that the company is leaving for any other reason but business decisions is a problem.

So working to ensure we keep those type of corporations in Baltimore is important, but a robust marketing plan of all the great opportunities Baltimore has to offer, and how these corporations can be a part of the fabric of Baltimore, is also important.

I think what happens is it’s a level of confidence that has to be instilled in our city so that people can have that confidence coming here. Talk to big business owners, crime is the number one fear. When your employees or your prospective employees and your higher ups that you might need to bring in from another city are balking at coming to Baltimore simply because of the perception of crime, then that’s a problem.

So again, addressing what we have in front of us as the big glaring issue for people is a priority. But of course, we have to leverage everything else. Putting crime aside, which is very difficult to do, right? But putting crime aside, here are the benefits of being in Baltimore. Here’s what you get for being in Baltimore. I think there’s a great way that that can be done in our city.

I was a conflict negotiator for years. I understand the art of negotiation. I understand it takes money to make money. So we have to give concessions in order to get some things. But we have to do the right thing, not to create just simply a robust downtown, but to create a robust uptown. Because what’s happening in these areas that have been neglected are part of the reason why the city has ended up with the image that it has. And now it’s an awakening for people to understand. Yeah, you keep neglecting the same communities, the entire city is going to suffer as a result. Let’s stop doing that.

BFB: And so in that scenario, what would you pitch as the benefits of coming to Baltimore and what Baltimore has to offer? And also, how would you maybe lure businesses to these areas that have been neglected?

TS: First of all, “Baltimore is a city on the comeback” is a slogan that I like and I’ve adopted because we have to acknowledge the fact that we have a problem. We can’t just simply paint a rosy picture of the city when we know we have significant problems. But we’re a city on the comeback.

So you’re really buying in low, you’re buying in before everybody jumps on board. You’re getting in early.

And this is multi-layered. What businesses are going to want to know is, OK, I’m coming here, how are we going to be safe? How are you attracting citizens to the city of Baltimore? And that’s a regional approach as well.

I feel like Baltimore hasn’t done a very good job of marketing the city to the region, number one, and to the rest of the country, number two. We don’t need to be a propaganda machine, but we also have to highlight all of the good that’s happening. The opportunity is there for so much good to come.

So having those conversations, but moreover, having a specific plan in place of what we are doing to connect parts of our city. If I’m asking you to invest in Howard Street and you’re like, “It’s nothing but vacant building here.” What’s the rest of the plan? That’s part of the conversation that we have to have. And now we’re connecting our Antique Row, our arts district, our shopping district, our business district, our tourist district. And you can walk this old strip and not be concerned about your safety and not be concerned about vacancies.

And it’s, “How are we going to get people to reinvest in uptown and some of our areas of despair?” We have to drive the TIFs and the pilots into those communities. You have to know that you’re taking the risk as a business owner, putting something in a community that has been unsafe. “So I need you to take a risk.” “What’s in it for me?” We have to be realists on that.

And we have to understand as well that everything is not for everybody. We can’t expect to get a Wegman’s in West Baltimore off the top. But can we look at Aldi and say Aldi we need you to go there. We’re going to start with a smaller super supermarket, but it’s going to provide the opportunity.

I grew up on Dolfield and Cold Spring, and when I was a little child, there was a grocery store where the post office is. But that turned into the post office, then there wasn’t a grocery store anywhere in walking except on the other side of the Metro track. There’s an Aldi there now, and every time I go over there to visit my grandmother the Aldi is busy, it’s packed.

It’s a great place to have a smaller supermarket to serve a community. So we have to look at creative ways to ensure that we are providing the vital services to communities and let that become an anchor in the community.

But we also have to be specific about what we’re allowing in these communities. There comes a moment when you have to say, “No, Betsy’s Chicken Wings and Fries, we don’t need another one of you here.” “Leroy’s Liquor Store, no, we don’t need another one of you in this community.”

We have to envision the community in the ways we want them to look and not build them the way they’ve been built in the past perpetuates the problems we’re currently dealing with.

BFB: You mentioned the Preakness. A bill to build new racetracks at Pimlico and Laurel Park recently became law. Aside from keeping the race in the city, what, if anything, should the city pushed for as this new project is being developed?

TS: There’s certainly a ton of opportunity for community space and community gatherings.

I guess we’ll go back to transportation. So one of the problems I’ve seen with Pimlico, sadly, is the transportation. The only access you get is through a bus. Again, that just goes back to some of that local control of needing maybe some specific express bus routes that get you to Pimlico for different events.

I look at Pimlico as a perfect place to have AFRAM. You’ll have a field there, a stage. It’s already set up for it, you can get a lot of people in there. It’s a great footprint to be a new home for AFRAM, which has moved around multiple times, from the Camden Yards parking lot to Druid Hill Park. With the construction going on at Druid Hill, that makes it a little bit more challenging to get people over there. I look at the new Pimlico as an opportunity to have different festivals and different community opportunities.

We also have to look at what do we want the community to look like outside of Pimlico. It can’t just be rebuilding Pimlico itself without improving the surrounding community.

You get on the other side of Northern Parkway, the liquor stores become wine and spirits stores. Down on the other side there are corner stores. So we have to improve the quality of the community. Park Heights and Belvedere avenues, it’s a shame what has happened to that corridor.

I’m an advocate of keeping the race in Baltimore. But we also have to improve our effort in the surrounding communities in the Greater Park Heights area.

BFB: You alluded to it earlier, the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising. You came into the department after that, but you’re a native and you’re someone who has repeatedly talked about how you care about the city. What lessons did you learn from the Baltimore Uprising?

TS: Well, I’m one of the people who knows that it wasn’t happened on April 12th, April 19th, April 25th or April 27th that caused it. And I think that’s a huge thing to understand. I was very emotional about this when the findings report came out, when GTTF indictments came out, I said, “This is exactly the reason for the uprising. This is exactly it.” Everything that people have alleged over the years has come to fruition. And it bubbled over in April of 2015.

The disappointing part is we treat West Baltimore like condolences. The moment that someone’s killed your house is packed with people and everybody’s calling to check on you. But as days, weeks and years go by, the calls fade, the memories fade and people go on back about their normal life. And only a few are checking in on your mental state and you’re still completely crushed by the loss of your loved one. And that’s kind of West Baltimore.

But we also can’t look at it as just West Baltimore. Go to East Baltimore, go to Southwest Baltimore, there are pockets in this city–and some are widespread pockets, I hate to use the word pockets–that have suffered the same exact thing. We’re just seconds away from the exact same thing happening in another neighborhood. And now we’re all of a sudden going to recognize that this is the problem?

What I learned from it is this has been boiling over years. But what I’m most disappointed about, and part of what has driven me to where I am today is, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” And I think the “Well, what are you going to do about it?” over the last five years has been a complete failure, and we haven’t seen the improvements that we would expect to see over the past five years.

I’m a person who’s an advocate of the consent decree. There are a lot of critics of the consent decree. Now, I do have some concern about the interpretation of it from a law enforcement perspective, of the ability to enforce the law. But I’ll say this, the reforms that are necessary to ensure people get fair and impartial investigations, is in a better situation than it was pre-consent decree. People’s complaints aren’t going to land in the abyss and completely get lost. The level of training that officers are going through today compared to five years ago is completely different and mandated and necessary. These are things that we have to continue to build upon. So some good came out of what occurred in April.

And we have to continue to reflect and not necessarily take sides as to what happened. It’s what can we do with what happened. What can we do to ensure what happened then doesn’t happen again. If you start with the hypothesis of, “Are we in a position today where April 25th, 27th, can’t happen again?” I think if anyone says yes to that question, they’re tone deaf, because I don’t know that the city has progressed enough.

So that’s where we need to be, in a place where it is not even a thing that we think would happen again. And I just don’t think we’re there yet, because I think that the community has remained neglected and we’ve seen it.

Brandon Weigel

Share the News