Baltimore's new police chief eager to transform department
Baltimore's new police Chief Michael Harrison said he plans to methodically improve the image of a department
BALTIMORE — The man tapped to mend Baltimore's fractured police force and reach out to disenfranchised neighborhoods where residents have a strong distrust of law enforcement says he's ready to take on the challenge.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, in a phone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, said he's eager to help transform a dispirited department distrusted by many of the people it is charged to protect. His last working day in Louisiana will be Jan. 18. He's slated to start as Baltimore's acting commissioner next month.
"The officers will feel better about themselves when they see the citizens feel better about us," said the 49-year-old New Orleans native who was chosen by Baltimore's mayor to lead the police department after her first nominee withdrew his candidacy.
Harrison certainly faces a daunting to-do list in Baltimore, which has recently led all big U.S. cities in violent crime statistics and has been riddled with corruption. But the police leader with a proven track record and a reputation for being fair and inclusive said he plans to methodically improve the image of a department often mired in scandal or paralyzed by lethargy.
He said identifying people who have the capacity to lead while holding the department accountable at every level — from patrol officers to top command staff — will be crucial to improving the country's eighth-largest municipal force.
"Strict accountability to ourselves and strict accountability to the community is paramount," he said, adding that he intends for the department to pour energy into improving good relationships and repairing broken ones.
Harrison, who has helped New Orleans' formerly scandal-plagued force implement ongoing reforms since becoming superintendent in 2014, would be the fourth police commissioner of Pugh's roughly 2-year-old administration.
The two cities with blue-collar roots share roughly equivalent racial and income demographics and there are quite a few similarities between where the New Orleans police department once was and where the Baltimore force finds itself these days.
Recurring scandals involving corruption or questionable use of force had plagued the New Orleans police department for decades. A 2011 report by the U.S. Justice Department painted a picture of a department in which officers often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests, and engaged in racial profiling. Poor recruiting, ignorance or disregard of unclear policies and inconsistent discipline all were cited as reasons for the dysfunction.
The city's consent decree was agreed upon in 2012. Harrison, then 45, took over about two years later.
Rafael Goyaneche, head of the independent Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog organization in New Orleans, said reforms begun under his predecessor accelerated under Harrison, to the point where New Orleans is now approaching full compliance with the consent decree.
"The fact that Baltimore would recognize and make an effort to hire him is not really a surprise," Goyaneche said.
Harrison is an affable and low-key career police officer who served in the Louisiana Air National Guard as a young man. He had a 56 percent approval rating in a University of New Orleans poll of voters earlier this year. A report last year by court-appointed monitors of the consent decree said 79 percent of officers responding to a survey in 2016 "strongly agreed or agreed with the superintendent's leadership."
Harrison will certainly arrive in crime-weary Baltimore amid high expectations. City Council member Eric Costello said the nomination is the most critical personnel decision Pugh will make.
"It is imperative that we move forward with an extreme sense of urgency. I applaud Mayor Pugh for putting forward an individual who is both clearly qualified and wants to be the next BPD commissioner," he said.
Baltimore officials will have Harrison meet with community leaders, neighborhood associations and citizens prior to his formal nomination. That collaborative approach is a smart move, according to Katie Zafft, a University of Maryland criminologist.
"Doing this collaboratively sets a foundation of transparency and trust that the city really needs right now," Zaaft said of the selection process.
Harrison's crime-fighting record is impressive. Last year, he helped drive down New Orleans' homicide rate to its lowest level since 1971. Rapes, burglaries and shootings also declined.
Whether he can help reduce violent crime while convincing those Baltimoreans accustomed to unconstitutional policing practices that law enforcers are on their side is an open question. But Harrison, who is also an ordained preacher, sounds optimistic.
"This (job offer) was a blessing that came to me and an opportunity to ... help another city do what our team was able to do here," he said from New Orleans.