His Brother’s Keeper
In America’s deadliest big city, the task of announcing each new murder falls to police spokesman T. J. Smith. One year ago, he confronted a killing like no other.
It was an early Sunday evening, July 2, 2017, and T. J. Smith, the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, wanted a plate of Maryland crabs. He plunked half a bushel onto the kitchen counter of his suburban home and began pulling ingredients from his cabinets and refrigerator. He let the crabs steam until their shells turned the color of fire. But before he could eat, Smith had to run two errands. He slid a dozen crabs into a brown paper bag for his mother, collected his 5-year-old son, and hopped into his police-issued Ford Explorer.
The sun was drawing down over the Northwest Expressway, and as Smith cruised south, he felt a rare lightness of spirit. The past two days had been quiet. On Friday, he’d said goodbye to a top homicide commander with what had become their signature sign-off: “I hope you have a fantastic weekend and I don’t have to talk to you.” Unlike during most 48-hour stretches in Baltimore, this weekend there had been no murders requiring the pair to coordinate. The following morning he would begin a 10-day vacation.
He swung by his mother’s house, handed off the crabs, then headed to the home of his son’s mother, who would care for their son while Smith was away. As he turned into her driveway, his phone lit up. The police department’s paging system alerted Smith to every carjacking, stabbing, sexual assault, and other violent crime that occurred in the city. With intelligence flowing back and forth, his phone could buzz up to 100 times a day. He peered down at the screen.
Male found in a pool of blood, appears to be a gunshot wound to the head. 1400 Block of Argyle Avenue. Twenty-four-year-old male. Dionay Smith.
His insides clenched when he saw the name. How many Dionay Smiths could there be? He texted the officer handling the case. I know that name, Smith told him. The officer replied that he was standing beside the body in a West Baltimore rowhouse. The crime scene was secure, but the medical examiner was still on his way, so the body had not yet been rolled onto its back. Identification might be tough. But he would send a picture. Then the image flashed onto Smith’s phone. He could make out the light-brown skin, the pudgy frame, the tattoos.
And so, on a summer day last year, Baltimore’s police spokesman informed the city about homicide victim No. 173, his younger brother.
In America’s deadliest big city, T. J. Smith is the bearer of bad news. Amid a historic spike in violence, Baltimore’s murder rate exploded to 56 per 100,000 people in 2017. The rate of the nation’s second-most-dangerous large city, Detroit, was 40 per 100,000 people that year, according to an analysis by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. It is Smith’s job to stand at the podium and give citizens the details of each new homicide. His broad shoulders and thick frame project authority, and he takes care to dress in a manner that reflects the gravity of his task. In person, Smith has the friendly smile and thank-you-ma’am instincts of a politician in an early-primary state. His regular and punchily forthright presence on the 5 o’clock news—“The motive is foolishness, period”—has made him so well known in the Baltimore area that he sometimes leaves his house wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.
With nearly a quarter of its residents mired in poverty, Baltimore has long been plagued by violence. However, the current homicide crisis materialized only after a 25-year-old African American man, Freddie Gray, died as a result of a spinal-cord injury he suffered while in police custody in April 2015. Gray’s death sparked nationally televised riots and put Baltimore at the center of a heated debate over police tactics in predominantly black communities. Other cities—such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee—have experienced upswings in violence following similar high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct, but the reasons behind the increases remain clouded in dispute. Many in the law-enforcement community insist that police officers have been forced to disengage in the face of heightened scrutiny from activists, politicians, and the media. Some academic researchers argue instead that communities have lost faith in the police and stopped providing the tips that would lead to the arrest of criminals. It’s a debate with crucial consequences for policing policy in America.
Smith returned to Baltimore, his hometown, in the tense months following the riots, hoping to help the department rebuild its shattered relationship with the African American community, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the city’s population. Over the next two years, as residents watched him decry the impact of drugs and violent crime during his frequent press conferences, they had no idea how profoundly the city’s troubles were affecting him and his family.
“Charge It to the Game”
In the summer of 1973, Smith’s mother was a young college student working as a waitress in a Baltimore restaurant, trying to scrape together enough cash for her tuition at nearby Morgan State University. One evening, she broke a glass and sliced tendons in her hand, near her thumb. At the hospital she met a 19-year-old nursing assistant named Marlin Smith. The two exchanged phone numbers. Although the couple never married, she gave birth to a son, T.J., who would grow up as an only child. A few years after T.J. was born, the couple split.
Smith was raised by his mother in a quaint red-brick house with a shady front porch in Northwest Baltimore. The property belonged to her father, a retired post-office supervisor who recounted stories about the civil-rights demonstrations he’d marched in, read the newspaper cover to cover, and served as the ballast for the rollicking family that branched out from his 10 children. As Smith grew up, the house was perpetually crammed with aunts, uncles, and cousins. “It was literally a family raising us,” recalls Alibe Robertson, a cousin of Smith’s. “Our parents were really interchangeable.”
By then, Baltimore’s fortunes had already turned. During the buildup to World War II, the city’s bustling shipyards and whistling steel mills had attracted African Americans from the South and whites from Appalachia. But as the postwar industrial boom lost steam, the plants closed and the manufacturing base collapsed. Unemployment rose, population dropped, tax revenue plunged. Poverty was most crippling in the sections of the city with high concentrations of African Americans. In 1968, riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. helped precipitate a white-flight response that only worsened Baltimore’s negative trends.
Perched on a tree-lined street, Smith’s grandfather’s house offered a middle-class refuge for Smith and his cousins. Everyone pitched in to ensure that Smith never drifted into trouble. Each day after school, Smith’s grandfather would summon him to his knee and have him explain what he’d learned in class. His mother, who’d become a Baltimore-public-school teacher after graduating from college, made sure he finished his homework, and she forbade him from spending time on the street corners where the “troublemakers” gathered. “I see 30-year-old men hanging on [those] corners,” she told him. “That is not going to be your life.”
Smith’s relationship with his father grew more distant over time. When Smith was a boy, Marlin had been a regular presence in his life; he would swing by the house on weekends to play catch, and he took Smith on a two-week road trip to Disney World. Marlin taught his son how to fish and bowl, and how “not to use the word can’t,” Smith says. But as Marlin began using drugs, that changed. “My father’s had substance-abuse issues for a very, very long time,” Smith says. (According to Marlin, he’s now been clean for more than a decade.)
In 1996, after graduating from high school, Smith landed a part-time job as a security guard at a Baltimore-area Target while he attended a local community college. He was eventually promoted to a senior role overseeing all store-theft investigations in Maryland and Northern Virginia. He enjoyed the work, and he was good at it. Law enforcement seemed like the right career move, and in 1999 he joined the police department in the Baltimore suburb of Anne Arundel County.
For his first assignment, he volunteered to patrol Meade Village and Pioneer City, a pair of low-income housing complexes that at the time accounted for an outsize share of the county’s crime. These poor, predominantly African American communities reminded Smith of troubled neighborhoods in Baltimore; many veteran cops considered them an undesirable posting. Smith worked in a unit that emphasized getting out into the neighborhoods and building relationships with the residents. It was part of a generational shift in American law enforcement away from in-your-face tactics and toward a “community policing” approach—a change that John Roman, a criminologist with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, says is one of the reasons behind the roughly 50 percent drop in crime that the country witnessed from 1991 to 2014.
“He would get to know the woman who was out every Wednesday watering her lawn. He knew her name. He knew what kind of flowers she had in her garden,” says Lee Williams, an Anne Arundel County police officer who worked with Smith. “He knew the store owners. He knew the kids as they were coming up. He had candy in his car. He had stickers. The kids would run up, and he would pass out stickers, and he’d say, ‘What are your grades like? Let me see your report card.’ ”
Smith spoke at community meetings, ate burgers at neighborhood cookouts, and collected gifts for holiday celebrations. “I look at policing like teachers look at teaching,” he says. “My mom has been a teacher for more than 30 years. And I remember in the evenings it wasn’t always just me and her doing stuff; it was her doing charts for school.”
At the same time, Smith had old-fashioned views on right and wrong. Residents watched him chase drug dealers across parking lots and tackle suspects on front lawns. “One of T.J.’s favorite phrases was ‘Charge it to the game,’ ” Williams says. “ ‘If you are in the lifestyle of selling drugs and carrying a gun, I am in the lifestyle of trying to catch you.’ ” But he also might turn up in court to tell a judge that a particular defendant showed potential and deserved a lenient sentence.
During the 10 years he worked in the housing complexes, Smith locked up many of the same characters again and again. One evening, Smith arrested a man in his mid-20s whom he’d detained several times before. After booking him on drug charges, Smith gave the man a ride home, and as they drove the man unleashed a torrent of insults on Smith. Startled by the ugliness of the remarks, Smith turned to the man.
“Does anybody love you?” Smith asked.
The man broke down in sobs.
In that moment, Smith could see the reservoir of pain beneath the swagger of a hardened criminal. “He didn’t have a mother,” Smith says, “didn’t have a father.” It was a hurt Smith came to recognize in many of those he arrested.
On another occasion, Smith was on patrol with Maurice Price, a community-safety director, when they ran into a teenager who had been loitering on the same corner, wearing the same street clothes, for several days.
“Do you have a tie in your closet?” Price asked.
“No,” the teenager said.
“Why not?” Smith replied.
“Because I’m not going anywhere.”
Smith and Price began collecting old neckties from their colleagues and invited the neighborhood’s young men to a meeting at the community center. When the teenagers arrived, Smith and Price passed out the neckwear and demonstrated how to tie a Windsor knot. Although anti-police sentiment kept some would-be participants away, the gathering soon evolved into a weekly program called Ties. At subsequent meetings, Smith and Price showed the young men how to write résumés, complete employment applications, and comport themselves during job interviews.
While some of the teenagers couldn’t escape the drugs and the crime, others went on to lead productive lives, and Smith felt good about that. Occasionally, though, he worried about all the time he devoted to the young men of Meade Village and Pioneer City. After all, Smith had another troubled adolescent in his life—one who was back in Baltimore.
“The Same Cloth”
Around 2001, as Smith was beginning his law-enforcement career, his father gave him some big news. Smith’s half brother and half sister, then 9 and 10 years old, were coming to live with their father. Smith was stunned. Until then, he had known almost nothing about these two children. Marlin had mentioned them only in passing and had never introduced them.
In the 1980s, Marlin had been working as a handler for the K-9 unit in the Maryland prison system. While there, he’d met a fellow corrections officer, a white woman, and they’d had two children together. Dionay, a boy, and Koreah, a girl, had been raised by their mother in East Baltimore. But now, according to Marlin, she had determined that she could no longer properly care for them.
Baltimore had deteriorated further since Smith’s childhood. An epidemic of crack cocaine had aggravated a still-unfolding heroin crisis. In the most desperate sections of the city, addicts lined up at intersections to buy drugs, and street gangs battled for control of the trade. Baltimore recorded more than 300 murders a year from 1990 to 1999. In a frantic attempt to reduce the violence, the city adopted a “zero tolerance” policing strategy that, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, encouraged officers to make large numbers of stops, searches, and arrests, even for small-time infractions like loitering. Police targeted poor, predominantly African American neighborhoods where drugs were most entrenched, and their skull-cracking tactics—and outright abuses—created a bitter rift between the department and the citizens its officers were sworn to protect.
The thinking went, “If you raid more drug houses, if you arrest more drug dealers—more, more, more equals better,” says Fred Bealefeld, who started as a Baltimore cop in 1981 and served as police commissioner from 2007 to 2012. But the strategy had a price; more was not necessarily better: “It de-emphasized the compassion, the understanding, the listening—the skills that good police need.”
One of these troubled communities, in West Baltimore, was where Smith’s new siblings came to live. Smith was excited to meet them. His sister, Koreah, was a rail-thin sports nut who liked to shoot hoops with the boys. Their younger brother, Dionay, was gentle and soft-hearted. He preferred to stay inside with his Pokémon cards and video games. Neighborhood kids made fun of his short, pudgy frame; they nicknamed him “Andy” on account of his resemblance to Andy Milonakis, the chubby star of the eponymous MTV sketch-comedy show. The children’s light skin came as a surprise to Smith. But he was immediately taken by Koreah’s smile and Dionay’s laugh.
And he felt it was his responsibility to give them the guidance that West Baltimore wouldn’t. He took them out to eat at restaurants, and he invited them to his house in the suburbs for popcorn and scary movies. He sat them down for talks about doing their homework and staying away from troublemakers. Once, the three piled into a Megabus and traveled to New York City for a weekend of sightseeing.
“We come from the same cloth,” he told his new siblings. “I know that you’re in an environment that is not conducive to, you know, everyday life. But understand that it’s possible to do more than just this.”
The truth is, Smith’s brother and sister were facing hardships far greater than even he understood. About a year after moving in with Marlin, Koreah saw her first dead body: the bloated remains of a middle-aged drug addict, slumped in the entrance of the vacant house next door. Around the same time, Marlin, who had been injured in 1991 during a prison-inmate attack, fell into a depression and relapsed into a cycle of on-and-off drug use that lasted several years. Koreah remembers one winter when the house got so cold that she and Dionay would sometimes sleep together, shivering in a single bed, with their pet rottweiler, Max, at the far end of the mattress to keep their feet warm. Food was the most urgent priority, according to Koreah. Now and then, a neighbor might offer a meal. On other occasions, the children would wait until Marlin slipped into a stupor and lift cash from his pockets.
Although Koreah says Marlin did the best he could and remained a good father even during his periods of struggle, she and Dionay eventually found new ways to earn money. As they entered their early teens, they began working as lookouts for local drug dealers, making $30 a day by loitering on the street and hollering “Time out!” when they spotted a cop car. Before long, they were selling crack and heroin themselves (though not using it), and getting a cut of the proceeds from their supplier. “We weren’t really thinking about the dangers,” Koreah recalls. “I was just thinking about eating.” After a successful “trap,” as they called drug selling, she and Dionay would buy a sandwich for dinner, and then maybe sneak into a vacant house to smoke pot and drink vodka with friends.
Only Koreah and Dionay’s closest friends knew that their big brother was a cop. The pair did all they could to keep their side business a secret from Marlin and Smith. They hid their cash and made sure to always trap a couple of blocks away from home. But as Koreah and Dionay got older, their secret proved difficult to keep.
One evening, Smith was in a supermarket just outside the city when his cellphone buzzed. It was a Baltimore police officer; Dionay had been found in possession of crack cocaine. He was still a juvenile, and it was only a small amount, the officer told Smith, so the consequences would be minor. When the cop put Dionay on the phone, Smith was apoplectic. “Next time, if there is a next time, don’t call me,” Smith told him. “ ’Cause big brother’s not gonna bail you out.”
Over time, the problems in Smith’s new family became more visible to him. He remembers visiting one of the houses where they were living, which was in a neighborhood with ties to the Bloods gang. “Boarded-up homes, the house basically in disrepair, falling apart,” Smith says. “Almost a sense of hopelessness at times, because the environment that they were in was depressing.” But he wasn’t always sure how, or whether, to help. One minute, Smith might receive a call from Dionay saying there was nothing to eat in the house, so he would agree to buy some groceries. The next minute, he’d be hearing from Marlin, who didn’t appreciate his swooping in to save the day, insisting that there was food in the fridge. Sometimes, when Smith gave Dionay money for food, he would later find his brother wearing new tennis shoes or sporting a fresh tattoo.
Smith visited the family whenever he could, driving with Dionay to Koreah’s basketball games, covering cellphone bills, refereeing conflicts, attending school events. His brother, he says, “wasn’t a street type,” although “he would want to play that role sometimes.” But Dionay, still a teenager, often tuned out his big brother. What the hell did Smith know? He’d grown up in a comfortable home with a mother and a father figure—his stepfather, who had been in his life since he was two and a half—and he now lived with the rich folks out in the suburbs. “You don’t understand,” Dionay would insist.
Following that first phone call to Smith from the Baltimore police, Dionay was arrested for drug possession and attempted distribution in 2010 and again in 2011; in each case, prosecutors either dismissed or declined to pursue the charges. In May 2011, he was found guilty of possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana. The judge suspended his 18-month sentence, and Dionay spent only a couple of weeks behind bars. Initially, Smith hoped that incarceration would straighten him out. But the charges only got more serious—in one instance, in August 2011, first-degree rape, assault, kidnapping, and a number of other counts in a case involving a 16-year-old girl. The variable accounts of the incident are convoluted, conflicting, and ugly, and in the end prosecutors decided not to pursue the case. Dionay insisted to Smith that he hadn’t done what the police report claimed, and Smith believed him. But he was furious at his brother for having put himself in the situation. “You can’t always be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Smith said. “‘Eventually, this stuff will catch up with you.”
Smith was frustrated by his brother’s decisions and feeling his own guilt. He spent his days in Meade Village and Pioneer City trying to help strangers improve their lives, and he worried that, because of his work obligations and modest salary, he wasn’t doing enough for Dionay. Still, he wasn’t ready to give up. He put Dionay through an informal version of his Ties program, and Dionay found work landscaping and collecting garbage through an employment program at the Penn North Community Resource Center. Then a friend got him a job at a Cricket Wireless store. The news thrilled Smith. He took Dionay to Burlington Coat Factory and bought him a blue sport coat, khaki pants, and brown shoes. He was optimistic that, at long last, Dionay had turned a corner.
On April 27, 2015, Smith returned home early to change out of his police uniform. Later that evening, he would attend the annual gala for a local nonprofit that had recently awarded him a $5,000 scholarship, which he would apply toward the online master’s degree in strategic communications he was pursuing through Washington State University. By then, he had left Meade Village and Pioneer City, and was serving as the spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department. As Smith put on his navy-blue suit and straightened his tie, he glanced at the TV. That’s when he saw the images from Baltimore: young African American men in the streets throwing rocks at cops and smashing a police cruiser’s windows. Flames engulfing a police van. Dark smoke pluming from a CVS at a downtown intersection, as cops with blue helmets and plastic shields assembled nearby.
Although the riots had been triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, the roots of the unrest ran much deeper. The 2016 DOJ report found that, from January 2010 to May 2015, the Baltimore Police Department had carried out a sweeping campaign of abuse against the city’s black community. During this time, police made several hundred thousand pedestrian stops annually in this city of just 620,000 residents. Police targeted African Americans for particular scrutiny, stopping black residents three times as often as they stopped white residents. In fact, Baltimore police officers made 44 percent of their stops in just two predominantly African American districts, which contained only 11 percent of the city’s population. Less than 4 percent of all stops during this period resulted in a citation or an arrest. And prosecutors scrapped more than 11,000 charges for lack of probable cause or other insufficiencies.
Baltimore police officers deployed belligerent tactics and ignored constitutional rights, according to the DOJ report. They forced one woman to strip off her clothes and submit to an anal-cavity search on the side of the road after she had been pulled over for driving a car with a missing headlight. Investigators found that police higher-ups sometimes ordered officers to arrest “all the black hoodies” in a given neighborhood. Once, while DOJ investigators were present, a Baltimore police sergeant told an officer to question and disperse a group of young African American men who were standing on a street corner. The officer responded that he didn’t have a legitimate reason to do that. “Then make something up,” the sergeant replied.
The years leading up to Freddie Gray’s death had been a period of receding crime in Baltimore. Murders had dropped by 40 percent from 1993 to 2014. After the 2015 riots, however, violence surged. From April 20 to July 12, shootings jumped by 140 percent, and homicides increased by 92 percent, even after controlling for seasonal variations and removing the week of the unrest after Freddie Gray’s death from the calculations—according to research by Stephen L. Morgan, a sociologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University. Even more troubling, Baltimore’s violent-crime rates never returned to pre-unrest levels. Spikes in crime tend to subside eventually—what was happening in Baltimore?
Two leading theories have emerged. David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, maintains that homicide and gun violence in America are concentrated in minority communities with long histories of being subjected to racism, oppression, neglect, and abuse at the hands of the police and the criminal-justice system. But even in places where these factors are present—Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit, for example—only a tiny slice of the population is at high risk for either victimization or offending. Overwhelmingly, both victims and offenders are involved in gangs, drug crews, and the like. Kennedy says that these groups typically represent 0.5 percent of the population, but they are involved in half to three-quarters of all homicides. “When the country’s gotten safer, it’s because there are either fewer of those groups, or they’re less active,” Kennedy explains. “When it gets more dangerous, it’s because there are more of those groups, or they’re more active.”
In the wake of Gray’s death and the decades of abuse it symbolized, Kennedy says, members of Baltimore’s outraged black community likely stopped communicating with the police, creating what’s known as a police-legitimacy crisis. Fewer tips from the community make it harder for the police to locate criminals, giving the most active street “impact players” more room to operate and increasing the possibility that people will seek justice on their own. At the same time, police very likely backed off, at least to some extent.
The riots, Kennedy believes, both emboldened and frightened Baltimore’s high-risk groups. Feeling suddenly even more vulnerable, they made sure to take their guns with them when they left home and behaved both more aggressively and defensively. “People have more cause to show that they’re not to be messed with,” Kennedy says, “which means there are going to be more shootings.” Individual murders led to revenge killings, the upswing in violence fed on itself and grew, and the cycle intensified. Moreover, the looting of 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics dumped about 315,000 new doses of drugs onto the streets, which, according to Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, may have fueled additional conflict.
The other prominent theory has more to do with changes in police behavior. Kevin Davis, who at the time of the riots was Baltimore’s deputy police commissioner and then became the department’s chief, says that the police rank and file were angry and demoralized by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision, announced less than a month after the riots, to file criminal charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest and death. Amid the increased scrutiny, officers became less proactive. “It’s an anxiety or a reluctance or a hesitation to approach people who aren’t necessarily overtly engaged in a crime—I don’t think that ever went away—but I think people whose behavior is suspicious,” Davis says. “So that group over there, if I normally would get out and say ‘Hey, guys, what’s happening? Who are you? Where do you live? What are you doing here?,’ maybe because all these other things are going on, I’m like, You know what? I’ll wait for someone to call me to go down there. ” Davis also pointed out that the department is short-staffed: It had 500 fewer officers as of April 2017 than it had five years prior.
Although the downward trajectory of arrests had begun years earlier, the number of arrests in Baltimore plunged 47 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to data reported in The Baltimore Sun. While some attribute the decline to a 2014 Maryland state law that decriminalized possession of modest quantities of marijuana, Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an associate professor at John Jay College, says the size of the drop indicates that police pulled back dramatically following the unrest. “In the past, a lot of the arrests did not come from 911 calls. They came from—dare I say—policing. And that involves getting in people’s shit a bit,” he says. “The parts that aren’t constitutional, I won’t defend, but absolutely it can be done legally and constitutionally, and that’s simply not being done anymore because of fears.”
This theory is similar to what’s known as the “Ferguson effect,” the preferred explanation of law-and-order conservatives for the increases in crime that some cities experienced following the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown. The theory remains taboo in some academic circles because it has been used to malign African Americans and protesters for voicing valid concerns about police abuse. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has embraced elements of the theory, and some worry that it will be used as a pretext to bring about a return of the heavy-handed policing tactics of the 1960s and ’70s. Still, Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who has researched the Ferguson effect, says that serious academics shouldn’t dismiss the possible influence of “de-policing” because of its political inconvenience. “At least in the cases of Baltimore and Chicago, we saw a correspondence between some pullback by the police and an impact in homicide and perhaps other violent crime,” he says. But, “in subsequent research on 50 large U.S. cities, I have found no significant relationship between rising homicide and falling arrest rates. Baltimore and Chicago may have been isolated cases.”
Rosenfeld and some other criminologists don’t view the solution to the crime spike as being a binary choice. Mark Kleiman, a crime-policy analyst at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, cites Baltimore as “one of the clearest cases where a catastrophic breakdown in police–community relations combines with a sheer decrease in police activity to produce a vacuum in crime control. This can be spun as somehow being the fault of community activists who criticize the police, or of prosecutors or the Justice Department scaring the police out of doing their job. But the bottom line is that police misconduct plus community rage leads to more unsolved homicides, and more unsolved homicides lead to more homicides.”
“Get T.J. Up Here”
A few days after the Freddie Gray riots, Smith stood outside the charred CVS in downtown Baltimore. He had come to make sure that the county officers who had responded to the unrest had the resources they needed. As he walked past protesters and TV-news crews, Smith struggled to make sense of it all. There had been at least 285 businesses damaged, 250 arrests, 150 vehicle fires, 60 burned structures, and 20 injured police officers. Smith’s hometown was in crisis. And he wanted to help.
He would soon get his chance. Two months into the post-riot crime wave, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired the police chief and installed Kevin Davis in his place. Before Baltimore, Davis had recently run the police department in Anne Arundel County, where he’d worked closely with Smith. From his new position, Davis faced the overwhelming task of implementing sweeping reforms, including rewriting use-of-force policies, imposing new restrictions on how and when officers can engage with suspects, and providing additional training on how to interact with protesters, youth, and people with mental illness. These reforms were later mandated by a consent-decree agreement—a blueprint for changes to law-enforcement practices filed in federal court—with the DOJ. But on a more fundamental level, he had to rebuild the devastated relationship between the police and the African American community.
Davis pledged that his department would treat residents with the dignity they deserved. “It’s not an enforcement relationship,” he said during a news conference. “It’s a service relationship.” But to convince the still-traumatized city that he was serious about change, he needed to find the right public face for his effort—someone who appreciated the balance between vigorous policing and respect for citizens. “The first thing I knew I had to do,” Davis says, “was get T.J. up here.”
On February 22, 2016, Smith arrived at a West Baltimore intersection not far from where he’d grown up to address the TV cameras and reporters gathered along a stretch of yellow police tape. Up the street, a fireman removed the hose from his truck to wash blood off the pavement. In the early afternoon of that bright, mild day, an 82-year-old man and his 90-year-old sister had been crossing a busy street when they were shot and wounded by stray bullets. “Really, there’s not any words to describe how ridiculous this is,” Smith told the reporters. “And realistically, you know, those of us who know this city, bad guys do bad things, and people that get themselves involved in the game know the risks that come with that. But at the same time, there are rules of engagement. And elderly people are off-limits.” He went on, “We’re talking 1 o’clock in the afternoon … So the bad guy, you should do the manly thing, for once, and turn yourself in.”
It had been only six months since Smith had taken over as the head of the Baltimore Police Department’s media-relations office, but he’d already emerged as an unusual figure in his field. While police spokespeople in other cities preferred just-the-facts restraint, Smith used candid language to express his disgust, as if he were just an ordinary citizen angry about the news.
May 27: A 41-year-old elementary-school aide is shot and killed while getting in her car in North Baltimore. “This is the woman you want as your neighbor, the woman you want in your community,” Smith said. “And some coward guns her down at 7:30 in the morning.”
June 7: A 47-year-old father is shot and wounded by his son while inside a West Baltimore church during a postfuneral meal in honor of the father’s other son, who had been shot and killed weeks earlier. “I really can’t even describe how unnecessary and senseless this situation is,” Smith said. “There’s still food on the table inside.”
June 25: A 23-year-old rapper is shot to death in Northeast Baltimore after attending a charity basketball game to help end violence. “The eerie irony that should just absolutely tick all of us off, collectively, is that he was leaving a peace rally,” Smith said. “This revolving door of death is something that’s despicable.”
Smith worked closely with the organization Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United to bring media attention to cold cases. He teamed up with the popular local radio host Clarence Mitchell IV to create BPD Case Files, a program that explores a different unsolved murder each episode by interviewing one of the victim’s family members. Smith hoped that the show would shake loose fresh clues for investigators, but he also wanted the public to understand that the grieving process doesn’t end when the news cycle moves on. Meanwhile, the violence continued—2016 was the second-deadliest year in Baltimore’s history, on a per capita basis, behind only 2015.
An Ex-Con Returns
On a cold day in early 2017, Dionay rode the train into downtown Baltimore and met Smith outside police headquarters. Beside the imposing gray-cement building, Smith handed over cash that he’d promised his brother to help him get by, and Dionay thanked him. But the two had something else to discuss: Dionay had stumbled again. Two years earlier, the general manager of the Cricket Wireless store had accused Dionay of forging credit-card receipts and stealing more than $7,000 in cash from the register. Dionay had lost his job, and the police had charged him with theft. Now, because he hadn’t responded to a court summons, the police had a warrant out for his arrest.
Dionay was petrified that the charge would upend his recent progress. After losing the Cricket Wireless job, he had gone back to the Penn North Community Resource Center for substance-abuse treatment. Upon completion, he’d been hired to work at the organization’s Kids Safe Zone, an after-school resource center created in the wake of the 2015 riots that offered elementary- and high-school students a healthy place to do homework and spend time. Dionay mentored children who were struggling to navigate the same pitfalls of drugs and crime that he’d grown up facing. He knew a little more about children now: Dionay was already a father of three.
When Dionay started explaining how the arrest warrant had come about, Smith wasn’t having it. “I’m not interested in the excuses,” he told his brother. “What’s done is done. Now you have to deal with it.” On April 14, 2017, Dionay appeared before a judge in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City wearing the blue sport coat and khaki pants Smith had bought him. According to Smith, Dionay had already worked out a restitution agreement with his former manager, and at the conclusion of the hearing, prosecutors decided not to pursue the charges.
Smith remained concerned. Through his experiences in at-risk communities, he had found that while fatherhood can expedite the maturation process for some young men, it can lead others back to the streets. “When they find something that they can nurture, they want to give them that love that they lacked,” he says. “But they also want to provide them those things that they lacked too—which is a deadly combination, because that can put you out there on the wrong path.”
And an old friend had resurfaced in Dionay’s life. Terrell Gibson, a 21-year-old convicted drug dealer who’d grown up with Dionay in West Baltimore, had been released from prison the previous December after having served 18 months for a stabbing on a public bus. As children, Dionay and Koreah used to stick up for Gibson when the bigger kids in the neighborhood had picked on him. Now that Gibson was out on probation, Dionay wanted to help him get back on his feet, according to Erica McCloud, Dionay’s close friend and a former substance-abuse counselor at Penn North. McCloud says she and Dionay suggested that Gibson enroll in a housing program at Penn North, one that would involve random drug testing. Gibson refused.
McCloud was unsettled by Gibson—she wouldn’t bring her daughter around him. She was even more troubled about what the ex-con’s presence meant for Dionay. One day in the summer of 2017, McCloud stopped by Dionay’s apartment earlier than expected and made an ominous discovery. She says that Dionay’s bed was covered in pills, which he was putting into vials. He admitted to her that he’d invested his paycheck in drugs. And although she can’t be 100 percent sure, she came to believe that he had partnered with Gibson. A week and a half later, Dionay was dead.
No End in Sight
Three days after his brother’s killing, Smith was at home when he received a call from Commissioner Davis. Reporters had been reaching out to the department for comment on Dionay’s death; the commissioner hadn’t said anything so far, and he asked for Smith’s input about how to handle the inquiries. Smith had already announced the news in a Facebook post—“A coward with a gun, entered my brother’s apartment and shot and killed him”—but he felt it was important to address the people of Baltimore face-to-face. “I’ll be in in an hour,” Smith responded.
Instead of wearing his usual jacket and tie, he arrived at police headquarters in shorts and a polo shirt. After receiving hugs from his colleagues, he changed into a pair of jeans and took a seat at a table in the conference room where the media had gathered. Unlike the many dozens of press conferences he’d organized during his two years in the job, this one wouldn’t be live-streamed on the department’s website. Today, Smith wasn’t the spokesman for Baltimore’s beleaguered police force. He was the brother of a murdered man.
“I hope that people can connect and relate and more importantly do everything they can to stop the violence. Nothing that I’m saying is any different than I say with any other person who’s fallen as a victim of crime,” Smith told the reporters through occasional tears. He went on, “As I often say, the day of the funeral doesn’t end it for families. This goes on forever. There are children now without a father.”
Shortly after the murder, police used security-camera footage to identify and arrest Terrell Gibson for Dionay’s killing. Commissioner Davis told reporters that investigators were working to determine the motive. The case is scheduled for trial in September. The public defender representing Gibson would not comment on the case.
When Smith returned to work, he found piles of condolence letters in his office. He heard from Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the former Baltimore Ravens hall-of-fame linebacker Ray Lewis, police chiefs from all over the country, reporters in Baltimore and Washington, and everyday citizens. “I got letters from prison,” he says. Once, while Smith was grocery shopping, the employee stocking the frozen-food section pulled him aside and handed him a sympathy card.
Meanwhile, the news cycle only got worse. Commissioner Davis was fired in January, as Mayor Catherine Pugh grew impatient with the police department’s response to the murder crisis. The city recorded its 100th murder of the year in May; while that’s a slower pace of killings than in 2017, according to The Baltimore Sun, it’s faster than the pace of each of the prior 10 years. Although the department has implemented some reforms—for instance, introducing body cameras and overhauling its use-of-force protocols—the chief monitor for the city’s consent decree said at a hearing in April that the police were still a “long, long way” from complying fully with the agreement.
As for Smith, his failed struggle to lead Dionay off the streets exposed for him the boundaries of any individual’s influence against the awesome power of poverty and social dysfunction. And he knows that the influence of the police department is limited, too. The problem is simply bigger than that. “In order to change the city,” Smith says, “you have to change the city.”