BALTIMORE – T.J. Smith is the face of Baltimore police: He's the spokesman pleading with the public at news conferences to put down their guns, call in a tip or keep an eye on wily teenagers.
His pleas to end the relentless bloodshed in this city turned personal when his younger brother became one of Baltimore's latest homicide victims.
Dionay Smith, 24, was found dead inside his apartment Sunday from a gunshot wound. He was the city's 173rd homicide victim this year; there have been three more killings since.
"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 Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, Smith called a news conference at police headquarters to speak about his brother, whom he'd texted with just last week: their children — Dionay's twins and T.J.'s son — share the same birthday, and they'd exchanged well wishes. T.J. had taught Dionay how to tie a neck tie; he bought him his first suit to wear to job interviews.
"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," Smith wrote.
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 violence on police, accusing them of 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, Commissioner Kevin Davis has rolled out several crime-fighting strategies. Two years ago he established "the War Room," a collaborative effort between local law enforcement and federal investigators to draw connections between violent crimes. 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.
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.
When asked if he knew what might have caused his brother's murder, T.J. Smith said only that his brother was kind and generous, and that someone likely took advantage of his kindness. Records show that Dionay Smith was convicted of drug possession in 2011.
T.J. Smith said his brother worked two jobs and volunteered at an after-school center in Sandtown-Winchester, one of the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Although Smith is no stranger to handling homicides, he said he found himself in denial after learning of his brother's slaying.
"When I saw his name come across, I just knew," Smith said, speaking through tears Wednesday, "but like any family member you're in denial. I remember when I called I was hoping he'd answer, because what I was doing, even just the fear that it was him, I was going to wherever he was to hug him. And I didn't get a chance to do that."