BALTIMORE (CBS News/AP) — As the homicide rate in Baltimore continues to soar, police spokesman T.J. Smith has spent more time than ever behind the podium, answering questions for reporters about the violent crime surge in a city plagued with pervasive problems.
At each news conference, Smith pleads with the public to put down their guns, to pick up the phone and call Crime Stoppers with a tip, to keep an eye on their teenage children, and to do whatever they can to help stop the relentless bloodshed on this city’s streets.
But Smith’s latest dispatch was something different: it was personal.
His younger brother, Dionay Smith, 24, was found dead inside an apartment on Sunday from a gunshot wound. He is the city’s 173rd homicide victim so far this year; there have been three more killings since, bringing the total to 176.
“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,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday night.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve notified the public of many tragedies, mostly death, specifically homicide, related,” Smith wrote. “I’ve been on crime scenes, I’ve heard the wails of family members when they discover it’s their loved one who is deceased. … On Sunday evening, one of the names that came to me was way too familiar.”
Baltimore has been in the throes of a crime surge for more than two years, and the homicide rate this year is again on track to break records. From January to June, the city saw 170 homicides – just two fewer killings than the same time period in 1993, when the city had about 100,000 more residents than it does today. A close second for the bloodiest year was 2015, which recorded 344 homicides, with a population of just 622,000.
The violence in Baltimore began to dramatically spike following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose neck was broken in the back of a police transport wagon. Gray’s death inspired protests, rioting and a weeklong citywide curfew, and prompted then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fire the sitting police commissioner, Anthony Batts. Six officers were charged in connection with his death; but after more than a year of legal proceedings, half of the officers were acquitted, and the remaining cases dropped.
Some residents blamed the uptick in homicides and violent crimes on police for taking a hands-off approach to fighting crime. Others pointed a finger at a flood of pilfered prescription drugs that entered the black market after pharmacies were looted during the riots.
Since then, the bloodshed has yet to slow, and Commissioner Kevin Davis has rolled out several crime fighting strategies to combat the bloodshed. Two years ago he established “the War Room,” a collaborative effort between local law enforcement and federal investigators to track repeat offenders, and draw connections between violent crimes. In May, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives deployed a new ballistics van that enables detectives to test fire weapons and rapidly analyze bullets and shell casings recovered from crime scenes in Baltimore for a week. And last month, after six people were shot in a 24-hour period, Davis extended officers’ shifts to 12 hours, and deployed all officers to street patrol.
Smith isn’t the first city official to be personally impacted by violence. In 2015, City Council President Jack Young’s nephew was fatally shot.
The Baltimore Police Department released a statement extending its condolences “and prayers to Chief T.J. Smith following the loss of his beloved brother, Dionay.”
Police released security footage showing two men in the hallway of Dionay Smith’s apartment. They are asking the public to help them identify one of the men, who is considered a suspect.
Smith joined the Baltimore Police Department shortly after Davis was appointed commissioner. Smith and Davis had previously worked together at the Anne Arundel Police Department. A Baltimore native, Smith grew up on the city’s West Side, an area disproportionately affected by poverty, drugs and violence.
Though Smith is no stranger to handling homicides, he said he found himself in denial after learning of his brother’s slaying.
“My brother, known as Dion, is the only person I’ve ever known with the name Dionay. Like many families who have been in that position, I was in denial,” Smith wrote. “I immediately contacted investigators to learn more about the Dionay who was found deceased from a gunshot wound. I also did what is instinctual; I called his cellphone several times. Of course, there was no answer.”
Smith said his brother was a “good kid” who worked two jobs and volunteered at a local after-school center in the heart of Sandtown-Winchester, the same neighborhood where Gray was arrested.
“Now this might sound a little cliche, but it is true – my brother was a good kid. He wasn’t ‘about that life.”