It’s been a historically violent year for Baltimore, where 206 people have been killed through August 1, putting the city on pace to set a new record for homicides. That’s also meant a busy year for T.J. Smith, the chief of media relations for the Baltimore Police Department, whose position means frequently addressing the public and the press about the latest loss suffered by a Baltimore family.
On July 2, Smith suddenly found that the grieving family was his, and that his private mourning was a national story. His younger brother, Dionay Smith, had been fatally shot.
Chief Smith spoke with The Trace’s Kerry Shaw about his sibling’s death, the outpouring of support that followed, and the frustrations of a city desperate to break its deadly cycles.
It was a Sunday night. I was steaming crabs when I got an alert on my phone about a homicide.
I’m alerted to everything that goes on in the city — non-fatal shootings, homicides, suspected homicides, car accidents, you name it.
When I saw the name, I immediately thought “that’s my brother,” because there aren’t a lot of Dionays out there. Certainly not a lot of Dionay Smiths in the area where it had occurred.
But at first, I was in denial. I called his cell phone, thinking he’d answer.
I was like: “This is going to be another Dionay. It’s going to be a crazy coincidence because this is not going to be my brother.”
Smith sent pictures of his brother to the detectives on the scene and told them he was going to call Dionay’s cell, to see if the phone in front of the officers rang. Smith called again, and waited again for the phone to pick up. Again, no answer. The officers on the scene confirmed his worst fear.
What we now know is that it was around 6:30 p.m. and he was getting ready to go to work. It appears that someone known to him went into his home, and a dispute or argument took place. It appears that person shot and killed him. Dion was pronounced dead on the scene.
I don’t know the other man’s name. I don’t care to know his name. I looked at his picture once, I don’t care to know anything about him. I know he has a family, and all I can do is pray for their strength as they endure the consequences of their loved one’s decision. At the right time, I can certainly pray for his soul.
Smith knew that some members of the local media had been tipped to the news of his brother’s death. Concerned that his personal tragedy could become a media spectacle because of his role with the the police, Smith decided to “control the narrative,” as he puts it. He spoke about the shooting in a press conference just days after his brother’s death as well as in a moving post on Facebook, where he wrote about Dion’s life and
passing, referencing what number Dion’s death represented for the city’s homicide count this year: “To many, he will be #173, but to me and my family, he’s Dion, a brother, a son, a father, a friend, a nephew, and a kind soul.” The post was covered by CNN and shared more than 600 times.
Nothing can prepare you for this. My job did not make it any easier. It’s not normal to see your loved one’s life end like that. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is sit in a funeral home and write a check for my brother’s funeral.
It was also tough to be part of the news. I didn’t want this to turn into “T.J. Smith’s brother.” Dion Smith was killed, who happens to be the brother of T.J. Smith. I also have some guilt because I don’t want my brother to get more attention because of who I am. But if I can use our tragedy to resonate with people and this can affect violence, then that’s what I’m going to do. I felt it necessary to speak about it publicly because I’m a somewhat familiar face here in Baltimore.
I try to be all big and bad, but the outpouring of love and respect from people has been unbelievable.
Not just here in Baltimore — across the country, even. I’ve gotten thousands of messages, emails and texts. I’ve gotten letters of condolence from a correctional facility, from prison groups. I got flowers in the mail. People actually sent me money, which I’ll use to get something for Dion’s kids, or certainly some formal thank you to our homicide detectives who were able to close this case in a few short days. Citizens have written to tell me they’ve never met me but they feel like they know me, they appreciate me, and are praying for my family. Those things matter.
You want to be able to say thank you to all of these different people who reached out. It’s going to take longer than I want because I’m back to work. I’m going to handle that appropriately. But it is a bit overwhelming because it’s a lot.
In a city where a young black man dies by gun nearly every day, officials are increasingly anxious to corral the problem. Last week, the city council explored a controversial bill to create a mandatory one-year sentence for persons caught with an illegal handgun. Ultimately, the measure that passed only applies to those charged with their second illegal-possession offense.
We’re seeing a lack of consequences for those caught carrying a gun, which seems to empower them to do it again. In Maryland, you’re going to sit in jail longer for having 20 bags of crack in your pocket, as opposed to having a gun in your waistband.
Say you have two guys standing on the corner. One of them is waiting with a gun for some guy to come up to the store so he can blow his brains out. The other guy on the corner has 20 bags of crack in his pocket because he’s selling drugs to get his child some diapers and food. If we intercept both of them, the guy with the gun will probably be out of jail within 24 hours. If he is convicted, it’s going to be a misdemeanor. He’s likely going to get a suspended sentence, meaning he can get out and easily obtain another gun and make sure he completes the job.
The other guy — who was selling drugs to get some diapers and food — is going to sit in jail for a significant period of time. He is going to be charged with a felony for possessing that amount of crack cocaine, and he’s likely going to be convicted of that felony.
Days before he buried his younger brother, Smith celebrated his 40th birthday — a surreal experience as his enduring grief mixed with the support and well-wishes of friends.
It’s very, very, very tough. Dion’s obituary is still in my car. It’s a lot, but I’m a believer in God. They say God don’t give you anything you can’t handle. Lord knows my shoulders have been strengthened over time. It’s been tough, but I’m going to keep fighting.
One of the questions that’s been asked of me is: Am I angry? I think what people want to get at is, am I angry at the city? I’m angry at the man who shot my brother — the person who made the dumb decision, the stupidest decision of his life over something that will prove to be trivial, and now he’s behind bars.
The overwhelming majority of crimes that we’re seeing aren’t people fighting for their life. They’re shooting someone over a beef. I want people to understand the gravity of their decision-making — that they’re making a decision that’s going to affect them the rest of their life.
[Photo: Screenshot, WUSA9]