T.J. SMITH - TAKE ON AMERICA
Outgoing Baltimore Police Department Chief Spokesman T.J. Smith lost his brother in 2017 to a shooting in Baltimore. He was among the panelists on OZY’s Take On America.
As I reflect over the years and on my time in post-riot Baltimore as the police department’s chief spokesperson, I fully recognize the problems that exist in Charm City aren’t simply “post-riot” problems. They are longstanding, systemic problems that require an aggressive strategic plan.
I made the determination to vacate my position as the public voice and face of the Baltimore police department last week. Many were surprised by my announcement, but those closest to me were not at all. I’ve been very outspoken about the ills that plague our community. But I’ve been in a role where I cannot deliver my personal opinion. Now I feel liberated with the opportunity to be able to publicly articulate some of my own feelings and, more importantly, some of my proposed solutions.
Flooding an underserved community with law enforcement only serves to further exacerbate the already strained police and community relationships.
I was fortunate to be a participant in OZY’s Take On America in Baltimore last week. Some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve had over the years were repeated by the 100 Black men in the audience. Some topics that reverberated included constitutional policing, less policing, opportunity and education.
We listened to people talk about the longstanding disproportionate struggles they continue to face. Much of it I agreed with. And in “Any City, USA,” we should focus on our most impoverished communities and work to transform them. But we can’t transform them by simply flooding money and programs in with no oversight or accountability. The investment should include a significant focus on schools and education, community beautification projects, the demolition of dilapidated housing, reinvestment in affordable housing with first right of refusal to those who currently reside in the community and in good standing, green space, accessibility to public transportation and accessibility to fresh foods.
While capitalism is the American way, we must limit the number of unhealthy options in impoverished communities. Imagine a community that has better access to a library, fitness center, community center, grocery store and good schools compared to one in which every other home is boarded up, trash lines the streets and the four corners of the intersection consist of a phone store, carry-out, liquor store and a mini-mart that also sells drug baggies and acts as a safe haven for drug dealers. It’s not impossible to fix, but it requires a focused investment, courage, oversight and follow-up.
We can’t expect a law enforcement solution alone to solve these catastrophic, systematic socioeconomic failures. Flooding an underserved community with law enforcement only serves to further exacerbate the already strained police and community relationships. The only way we can effectively “pull back” from the law-enforcement-only approach is to transform the communities from the historic failures that put them in that situation in the first place.
Too many children in the communities described above have much easier access to blunts, beers, quarter waters, chicken boxes, Doritos, sweet tea, soda and more than they do to a fitness center, a salad or even an apple. We then take these same young people who are, in essence, under the influence, and we send them to school expecting them to sit still and learn. It’s a recipe for failure, and it’s targeted to specific geographies that are — you guessed it — plagued with violence.
We must be brave, willing, creative and unapologetic to change our city. Murderers, gang members, drug dealers and the like are too comfortable; the patterns must be disrupted to remove their level of security. But we must also look at the root causes of them getting involved in the illegal activity to begin with. For too long, we’ve applied bandages. Now, the communities are infected from never getting treatment for the serious injuries that have been inflicted. We must treat the problem and not the symptoms. Baltimore, like many other urban centers, has not seen murders “move.” We’ve simply seen more murders in the areas where we have become accustomed to seeing them. Sadly, as many of the men articulated on Take On America, we are numb to their cries, and we think a temporary overpolicing strategy to suppress a surge in violence is the answer. That strategy, which repeats itself, has been a proven failure and only serves to spread the infection rather than cure it.
Our investment must be unbalanced. There must be aggressive multifaceted plans in place for communities to succeed. This will not be easy, but we must start, and we cannot sit and wait for someone to do it for us. We must do it, collectively, one community at a time. And most importantly, we must listen to the people in these communities and not rely strictly on government officials to make decisions that they think are in the best interest of our communities.
My goal, moving forward, is to use my voice, influence and platform to help actually change my city. Because to change the city, you have to change the city. For more from T.J. Smith, follow him on social media (@TJSmithMedia) as he offers suggestions and courses of action in the coming months. T.J. Smith, OZY Author Contact T.J. Smith