WYPR Mayoral Interviews: T.J. Smith
T.J. Smith grew up in Northwest Baltimore. He spent two decades in law enforcement, first as a police officer in Anne Arundel County, then later as spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department. He left the department in 2018 and became press secretary for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
This is Smith’s first run for political office. He came in fifth in the latest WYPR, Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore poll.
Speaking with On the Record host Sheilah Kast in May, he asserted that Baltimore needs a non-politician in leadership.
“I feel like many of the failures that we’ve seen have been because of politicians doing political things. I don’t have a desire to be anything more than the mayor of Baltimore. I’ve been a public servant, that’s what I am.”
Excerpts from the interview
What is your planfor economic recovery?
This is the time to borrow against our bonds that we've built up and use that to stimulate our economy and most importantly, get people back to work, or at least have people in a place that they can be sustainable.
What’s weird about the situation is a lot of what myself and other candidates are going to talk about are things that are going to need to start happening now. So it's incumbent upon the current administration to really start thinking outside the box and it can be handed off to the next mayor which, obviously, I'm hoping it's going to be me.
We have to look at job creation and how we're going to create new jobs in the city of Baltimore, because there are going to be jobs that just disappear and aren't going to have an opportunity to come back, certainly not in short order.
How will your administration support individuals struggling to find work or pay their bills?
One of the things that I want to do is continue to advocate for our federal government to
start a robust service jobs program--Americorps--something along the lines of that. This is going to be a very sustained, long process of recovery. I don't know that everyone has really come to grips with the fact that even when we get to a point where we are reopening a bit and we're getting back to some sense of normalcy, it's not going to be the normal that we had on February 1 of 2020, it’s going to be a different normal.
As we look at the necessity for more contact tracing, masks, PPE, excetera--who's creating this stuff, who is the brain trust behind this? We should be looking right now at how we get some people who are going to have to go into new careers, the opportunities to get on the front lines of this and be creative.
One thing that the city government I don't believe it's done very well--from the auditing documentation as we’ve seen with some of the waste, fraud and abuse from out of the Inspector General's Office--is make sure we're documenting everything that's happening right now as we seek reimbursements from the state government and from the federal government in order to fill our coffers with any money that we can get.
How would you approach the potential need for increased mental health services?
Throughout this pandemic, one of the things that I've done is take to my social media pages and I’ve talked about specifically, “How are you?” and some people were saying “I'm having a hard time” so increasing our capacity to ensure that we’re addressing that is part of what my recovery plan would be, where we have the task force, not just on the economy, but on emerging out of this pandemic and mental health is part of that just like education is part of that.
As we emerge out of this, we have to have a task force on the economy and reopening, but that task force will include people that are economists, that are health experts, that are small business owners, that are regular business owners that might not be small businesses, and of course, education and mental health. They’re critical for the overall health of the city because we can end up having another problem, which I would call trauma, and it’s going to be the survival of the fittest.
This issue, we know is going to reduce opportunity for people, we know is going to test their mental strength, so we need to certainly make sure that we are multi-faceted in our approach as we emerge out of this pandemic.
How would you stop repeat violent offenders from committing additional crimes?
You have to invest in long-term solutions, with that being said, we can't let people just kill each other until the long-term solutions kick in. We have to hold people accountable. We know who they are. We know the areas that this violence is occurring in. Why is it continuously allowed to happen in those same areas? Part of it, of course, is a law enforcement and a prosecutorial approach, but it's also how you as a government put an individual development plan on these areas that are consistently having these problems.
Where the violence is occurring and where the violence has always occurred is not a shock to anyone. It's no different than when we look at where the spike in cases for COVID-19 are in the city of Baltimore. It's not a big surprise and then you can go down the list and you talk about the health disparities, you talk about the education gap, it is all tied together.
We have a chance and opportunity to reset and really look at the framework of our city and say “look, every time there's something that happens in this city--whether it's a riot, whether it's a health pandemic, whether it's crime--it’s segregated to specific communities where it’s disproportionately impacting them.” What is our plan to ensure that the next event that occurs doesn’t continuously disproportionately impact the same group of people?
Your crime plan describes a strategy to get illegal guns off the street. Tell us how.
It’s not necessarily the gun that’s illegal, it’s the person who possesses it, but the guns are certainly entering illegally. We have to manage gun trafficking cases like we have historically managed drug trafficking cases. Last year the Baltimore Police seized 1,900 guns off the streets of Baltimore, that’s a big number. But we also experienced our most violent year ever per capita in the city of Baltimore. So, the seizure of the guns from the individuals on the streets doesn’t exactly equate to a safer city.
We have to work our way up because these guns are coming in somewhere, whether it’s off the highway, whether it’s off the Port of Baltimore, or off the train, or off the bus, there are gun smugglers that are supplying the streets with these guns and we have to interrupt that.
We also have to get out of our own way. The fact that a first-time offender who has possession with intent to distribute narcotics, heroin or cocaine or whatever, is going to be held more accountable than a first time offender with a gun is a problem. The clear and present danger is the gun in Baltimore and we have to handle it that way. It is a misdemeanor to illegally possess a handgun and we've watched people time and time again get arrested over and over and over for a gun and this is a person that’s not afraid to use it.
We don't have a problem in Baltimore with people legally possessing a gun, we have a problem in Baltimore with people illegally possessing a gun and we have to advocate for strengthening the penalties for those people who are illegally possessing a handgun because that is the clear and present danger that killed over 325 people last year and roughly about a hundred people this year already.
The Baltimore Police Department is short hundreds of officers. Why did you become a police officer and how would you work to improve recruitment?
One, I possess the intangible in this race that no one else does and that's a person who's actually worn the uniform. And the best recruiters of police officers are police officers. So I think in general my presence is going to increase our capacity to recruit police officers.
Oddly enough, with this economic downturn that we are experiencing, we're going to see a boost in recruitment. I witnessed this the first time back in 2008, 2009 with the recession, there were a lot of people who had clean backgrounds who might not have necessarily wanted to go into law enforcement but they're the people that can get hired and get hired rapidly.
They're going to be learning this new way of policing to uphold people's individual rights--as we always should do anyway--so going out there and really looking at this economy that we're going to be going forward with, the service industry is always going to need people: police, fire, hospital, EMTs, etcetera, those professions are always going to exist.
We have to also have a level of respect for our law enforcement where there's certain things that don't need to come outside of the walls of City Hall and the police department. We can't have elected officials that consistently call the entire agency corrupt.
We have to make sure our public safety has the equipment that they need, has the resources that they need, has the benefits that they need. In this Baltimore-Washington market, there's so many police departments that serve big populations and we can't really have rival benefits. We have to have better benefits than them because we should make this a world class police department and the way to do that is to respect the job that they do, no different than what we should be doing for our students in city schools. It should be a world-class educational system and it's going to take time to get there because it's been neglected for so many years.
Your crime plan includes asking the state to expand funding for programs in prisons, talk about that.
The overall goal of crime reduction and sustainable crime reduction is of course to have an impact now, but really make crime not an option for the next group of people. So impacting education, impacting young people with an opportunity to work once they're at an age to work, that's going to limit the pool of people who choose crime as a life.
We look at people behind the walls, we know this is a finite group of people who were behind the walls for a reason. But we also know from studies--93% of those who leave prison with a job, do not return to prison. We also know that 70% of people who leave prison without a job, return to prison within four months. So we should be putting some resources into them.
The state handles the correctional institution, but Baltimore has a disproportionate amount of people who are representative as part of that, and people are going to be coming right back into the communities that they left. We have to put people to work and there are opportunities that could be done behind the walls.
One of the things that I put forth is the squeegee bridge program. I adopted this program from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They actually did it for homeless people. Indianapolis, Indiana ultimately adopted the same program and they did it for reentry. In Baltimore I'm doing it for the squeegee situation that we seem to not be able to get a grip on. That could be an extension of a reentry program as well, where you put people to work and you bridge them into other opportunities. When I say put people to work, this would be a program where you’re putting them to work cleaning up the city because we certainly have that need significantly in the city of Baltimore.
There’s money already identified for this program, but I also want to establish a relationship--and I have a great relationship with the governor, thankfully he’s touted my crime plan as being the best of all the candidates--I want to have a relationship with the governor enough that we can invest specifically for returning Baltimore citizens. We have to do that and if they can have opportunities behind the walls to learn trades and to get gainfully employed, and they come out with a job, they are 93% less likely to reoffend.
The transcript of this interview was condensed for the web. Listen to the entire conversation below.
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