New Orleans police chief chosen as new Baltimore commissioner

After the initial pick for Baltimore commissioner withdrew, Mayor Catherine Pugh has chosen another candidate

Ian Duncan
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE —  Talking to a hastily assembled group of reporters at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum to announce her replacement choice to be the next police commissioner, Mayor Catherine Pugh defended the way she picked a leader for the department.

“Please take some notes,” the mayor instructed the media on Tuesday, “so you can understand what the process was, because people seem to think this was an entirely closed process, and it was not.”

New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison, left (Photo/ New Orleans Police Department)
New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison, left (Photo/ New Orleans Police Department)

Pugh named Fort Worth, Texas, police chief Joel Fitzgerald in November to be commissioner. He withdrew from the nomination Monday after his son was diagnosed with a serious illness.

Pugh quickly named New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison on Tuesday to replace him, then sought to address concerns expressed by City Council members, advocacy groups and citizens over how she arrived at the choice of Fitzgerald. Such critics said they had not had enough opportunity for input, time with Fitzgerald or information about his background. At a City Hall hearing Saturday on his nomination, machine operator William Washington urged the council to reset the process of finding a commissioner.

“Start a process where public input plays a role so the community has buy in, has a stake,” Washington said.

Pugh said Tuesday, as she had previously told The Baltimore Sun, that she asked the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum for advice on finding a candidate after her previous choice resigned in May.

That month, Pugh traveled to a conference organized by PERF and began meeting with potential candidates and advisors. She previously said she also consulted the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“I am not an expert in policing, so I thought it was important to get the advice of police chiefs around the nation,” Pugh said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said many cities are challenged with trying to find qualified candidates who might not want to risk leaving their current jobs, while at the same time providing transparency and community input during a search process.

“It’s difficult balancing act,” Wexler said. Of Fitzgerald’s selection and vetting, he said, “you had a backlash where the public feel they hadn’t been informed.”

While Pugh sought advice from policing experts around the country, she did not share it or other information about her process up front, and a list of candidates for the job was closely guarded.

The mayor ultimately agreed in December to describe the path she took to the Sun after sources familiar with it shared key details. By then, Pugh’s announcement of Fitzgerald had had several weeks of a bumpy rollout.

After a seven-month period before Pugh named Fitzgerald, she took just 24 hours before she announced Harrison as her new nominee.

And, despite Pugh’s defense of the process to pick Fitzgerald, that wasn’t the only difference.

The mayor’s office said it would make more effort to get community buy-in ahead of a confirmation vote on Harrison by the City Council, including holding off on formally nominating Harrison until next month, following a series of community meetings in which he would have a chance to get to know Baltimore better.

Pugh’s office also immediately released a version of Harrison’s resume — a document Fitzgerald had initially opted to withhold from the public.

The secrecy surrounding Fitzgerald’s selection and his decision to remain in Fort Worth until winning confirmation damaged his chances of getting the Baltimore job. He faced opposition from council members who sought access to more information about his background and wanted their constituents to have an opportunity to meet him before they voted.

At the council hearing Saturday, members of the public assailed the still largely unknown Fitzgerald, with only one person standing up to praise him. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights organization, issued a letter during the hearing calling for Pugh to withdraw Fitzgerald.

“City residents can and should offer valuable insight on what they are looking for in a commissioner,” the group wrote. “Unfortunately, Mayor Pugh did not present a list of finalists to the public.”

After the hearing, key council members said it didn’t appear Fitzgerald had enough votes to get a favorable committee recommendation.

With his son’s medical problems, Fitzgerald was unable to come to Baltimore to offer his rebuttal to the public’s criticism.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who stood next to Pugh as she spoke Tuesday at the museum, said later that the focus on the route to naming Fitzgerald had been misplaced.

“The process was, it’s the mayor’s choice to nominate somebody,” he said.

Still, Young’s office issued a letter calling for extensive background information on Harrison to be shared with council members. City Solicitor Andre Davis said council members would be satisfied with what is turned over.


©2019 The Baltimore Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved.