BALTIMORE (AP) — A day after her first choice withdrew his candidacy, Baltimore’s mayor on Tuesday picked New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison as her nominee to lead the city’s troubled force and become a key player in making sure reforms finally take root.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said Harrison has already declared his intention to retire from the New Orleans Police Department and come to Baltimore. She said the veteran police leader has delivered “clear, compelling and consistent results in reducing violent crime” while leading a city under a federal consent decree similar to Baltimore’s.
Harrison would be Baltimore’s fourth police commissioner during Pugh’s roughly two-year administration.
“He will bring not only significant and relevant experience to addressing the challenges of Baltimore, but the insight and sensitivity needed to re-establish essential trust and confidence of citizens in their police officers,” Pugh said Tuesday.
Harrison would certainly recognize the tough terrain in Baltimore, which has recently led all big American cities in violent crime statistics and where gritty realities have helped make it the setting for hard-boiled crime shows over decades. Since 2014, he’s led a depleted department working to beef up manpower and reverse decades of scandal that included the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
New Orleans remains under a federal consent decree entered into in 2012 after agreeing to a host of changes in policies governing hiring, training, discipline, procedures for use of violence and other elements of police work. New Orleans saw its lowest homicide rate in decades last year under Harrison, who was already a 24-year police veteran in New Orleans and a district commander when he became the top cop in 2014.
If his hiring is authorized by Baltimore’s City Council in coming weeks, Harrison would face a slew of formidable challenges. He’d have to reduce one of the highest homicide rates of any large U.S. city, rebuild trust between officers and deeply skeptical residents, and win the confidence of a demoralized department racked by corruption scandals and feuding factions.
That’s all while making sure sweeping reforms are embedded in Baltimore, where U.S. Justice Department investigators found the police force routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens for years. Baltimore and the Justice Department entered into a court-backed consent decree in January 2017.
Peter Scharf, a Louisiana State University professor of public health who specializes in violent crime, described the selection of Harrison as Baltimore’s gain. He described Harrison as a seasoned and approachable leader who has stabilized the scandal-prone New Orleans police department and worked hard to build trust.
“His strengths are that he can build trust in the most challenged areas of the city, the most high crime areas. Second thing is he’s kind of a cop’s cop and has had success bridging divides across the police department,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Scharf said the biggest unknown is whether Harrison’s skillset in New Orleans can be easily translated to Baltimore as an outsider. “He will need leaders within the ranks ready to welcome him. So it’s an open question if he can outreach to people who have some pretty broad venue in the department and help guide him,” he said.
The leadership of the Baltimore’s police union didn’t immediately provide any comment about Harrison’s selection. On Monday, the union said they hoped Pugh would “look to someone with the proper experience, and documented success, that will it will take to lead” the Baltimore force.
New Orleans Council President Jason Williams described Harrison as a “wonderful man” who ushered the Louisiana city through an “extremely precarious time” with the ongoing court-backed reform process.
“Consent decrees are typically met with disdain from top to bottom. Chief Harrison instead embraced it, leading the NOPD to become the national standard bearer of police reform and increasing public safety at the same time,” Williams said in a statement.
In a clear intention to show that authorities will handle this Baltimore nomination with more finesse, Harrison said in City Hall’s statement that he looks forward to coming to the mid-Atlantic city in coming weeks “to engage broadly with residents.” He’s expected to participate in various meetings with community leaders, neighborhood associations and citizens prior to his formal nomination.
“My first priority will be to drive meaningful cultural change within the department such that not only is there a renewed sense of purpose and mission among those sworn to protect and serve, but that citizens’ trust is restored to a new level that enables true collaboration and confidence,” Harrison said in the statement.
The nomination process for Pugh’s first choice, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, was rocky from the start and her administration was widely criticized for a months-long lack of transparency and public outreach.
When Pugh in mid-November said Fitzgerald was her pick to be the city’s next police leader — the fourth one during her roughly two-year administration — critics in Baltimore and Forth Worth almost immediately cast doubt on his record and questioned whether he was a true police reformer.
Fitzgerald abruptly withdrew his candidacy Monday to stay in Fort Worth and devote his immediate attention to one of his sons, who is facing a second brain surgery this week. His withdrawal came days after Pugh’s office announced he would not be able to travel to Baltimore for highly-anticipated public hearings into his nomination because of a family medical emergency.
He was already facing skepticism about his record from various City Council members and community leaders. On Saturday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for Baltimore to withdraw the nomination for Fitzgerald, the first African-American police chief in Fort Worth, following questions about whether his resume embellished his role launching a body camera program there and took credit for the force’s ramped-up reporting on racial profiling despite a state law requiring those measures.