T.J. Smith, the voice of the post-Freddie Gray Baltimore Police Department, resigns

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Chief spokesman T.J. Smith and Maj. Chris Jones, head of homicide, announces charges against a 14-year-old in the murder and rape of an elderly woman.

In an announcement that shocked more than a few in the city today, just one day after the news broke that Baltimore will soon be seeing its fourth police commissioner in 2018 alone, Baltimore Police Department chief spokesman T.J. Smith said he has resigned.

Smith, who took the helm of BPD’s media relations department in August 2015, penned an open letter to the city that began: “It’s time. Goodbye for now and thank you for letting me be me.”

In the 2,261-word note, the longtime cop and Baltimore native laid out a broad vision for how to fix the city, touching on everything from violence and economic disinvestment in neighborhoods to lacking school facilities for youth, corruption among police and prisoner re-entry and mental health.

He nodded to his own experience losing his younger brother to Baltimore criminal underbelly last year. He thanked his bosses, including Mayor Catherine Pugh, her predecessor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, former Police Commissioners Kevin Davis and Darryl De Sousa and current interim (and outgoing) Commissioner Gary Tuggle, as well as his media relations team. He pointed to cities like New York and Washington D.C. that have managed to reduce their murder rates over the last two decades without simply pushing the killings into the suburbs.

He also invoked the 1996 Baltimore club track by Diamond K and Big Ria, “Hey You Knuckleheads,” that calls out to suffering neighborhoods, which Smith used to demonstrate that those same locales are still in poor shape 22 years later.

“We can’t expect a law enforcement solution alone to solve these catastrophic, systematic socio-economic failures,” he wrote. “Too many children in the communities described above have much easier access to blunts, beers, huggies, chicken boxes, Doritos, sweet tea, soda, and more than they do to a fitness center, a salad, or an apple. We then take these same young people who are in essence, under the influence, and send them into schools expecting them to sit still and learn.”

“It’s a recipe for failure,” he continued, “and it’s targeted to specific geographies that are, you guessed it, plagued with violence.”

You can read the whole note here on his personal website.

It’s worth noting in all of this reflection on the city’s problems that during his tenure, the department Smith was charged with representing faced scandal after scandal. That stretched from the trials of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death in police custody to the fallout of the Gun Trace Task Force, whose officers robbed, threatened and extorted Baltimoreans, defrauded taxpayers and sold drugs and guns; to the dissemination of an allegedly false narrative around Det. Sean Suiter’s death that led to a days-long lockdown of Harlem Park, and to the secret spy plane that police neglected to declare was watching us until a Bloomberg story about it broke, among others.

Many today were shocked to see the man representing BPD everywhere from crime scenes to community events and pressers go. Some were glowing about his time here, while others deemed his departure a necessity for a suffering department that Tuggle himself said needs “five to seven years” to fix.

Some members of BPD’s media relations team were apparently unaware of his planned departure. When Baltimore Fishbowl called the office, one staffer expressed surprise and put us on hold; another staffer who picked up said she had just learned of Smith’s resignation online.

Asked if Pugh had any comment on Smith’s resignation, mayor’s office spokesman James Bentley said in an email that she doesn’t plan to issue any statement, but “Mayor Pugh wishes him well.”

In a separate note, Smith addressed local media, thanking them for their sensitive coverage of certain events—including his brother’s murder and the horrific 2016 bus crash on Frederick Avenue—and, for TV stations, doing “wall to wall coverage of Detective Sean Suiter’s funeral.” He also challenged outlets to be more diverse to reflect the city’s makeup.

“My hope for the future of Baltimore journalism is that you continue to hold public officials accountable and that you continue to tell well-balanced, unbiased stories for the residents of the Baltimore metro area and the world,” Smith writes, “because the world is watching.”

Smith began his career in law enforcement as an officer with the Anne Arundel County Police Department in 1999, and worked there for 15 years, becoming director of media relations in 2012. He wound up following Davis, who previously led the Anne Arundel County department and was tapped to replace Anthony Batts by Rawlings-Blake after the uprising following Freddie Gray’s death. ACPD put him “on loan” with two other employees to BPD.

Smith didn’t describe any definite future plans in his farewell note, but wrote that “consulting, teaching, media stuff, and maybe, just maybe a book and politics!” are all options on the table.

According to a release from police spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert, the department is appointing Matt Jablow, BPD’s chief of strategic communications (and once upon a time a reporter and anchor for WBAL-TV), as Smith’s replacement, under the title of chief of public information.

Ethan McLeod
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