Michael Harrison had already told Baltimore he didn’t want to be the city’s top cop.
He’d met in October with Baltimore officials as they searched for a new leader for their city’s beleaguered department, but ultimately rebuffed their request that he apply.
But city officials, including the mayor, called again last Saturday. This time they weren’t asking him to apply — they offered him the job outright.
“It’s one thing to be looking for a job, it’s another thing to be sought out and recruited,” said Harrison, who is currently the police superintendent in New Orleans. “That made me do some soul searching.”
Earlier this week Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) announced that Harrison had accepted her offer to become the city’s fourth commissioner in just 12 months, thrusting him, if approved by the city council, into what may be the most challenging job in American policing.
Harrison, 49, will arrive nearly four years after the massive protests and violent riots that followed the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody. The turmoil led to a federal investigation documenting systemic civil rights violations by officers. Though homicides fell last year, the department continues to combat a high rate of violent crime while trying to reform how officers do their jobs.
“We’ve walked this walk before,” said Harrison, who helped implement a federal consent decree in New Orleans similar to the one underway in Baltimore. “It will be about creating a culture, and communicating it internally and externally, about what is expected and what the consequences will be for not meeting those expectations.”
Relationships between police and prosecutors remain strained after the decision to charge the six officers involved in Gray’s death. All six were acquitted or had the charges dropped.
Meanwhile, the department has endured tragedy, including the shooting death of a homicide detective that may have been suicide or murder, and scandal — the arrests of eight members of the department’s elite gun squad who were convicted of racketeering and extortion for robbing drug dealers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It’s a daunting task, but I think my approach is not to tackle the mountain by starting at the top,” Harrison said. “You start right where you are, one day at a time . . . fixing the things we can address right away.”
Harrison has spent his entire 27-year career with the New Orleans Police Department, rising from patrol officer to, in 2014, police superintendent.
When he arrives in Baltimore next month, Harrison said he’ll evaluate command staff and the internal affairs unit to make sure they’re properly staffed, and review departmental policies to prioritize transparency. He’ll also conduct a citywide listening tour with residents.
“The thing that stands out to me about Michael is that he is really a community engagement type of person, you get that from the moment you have a conversation with him,” Pugh said in an interview. “His knowledge of the consent decree process and his ability to move it forward, to be, is all of the ingredients necessary for success.”
Harrison will be the fourth chief to serve under Pugh since she took office in December 2016.
In January 2018 she fired commissioner Kevin Davis, saying she’d grown “impatient” with the department’s failure to get its homicide rate under control. His replacement, Darryl D. De Sousa, resigned after just four months when he was charged with failing to file federal tax returns. He later pleaded guilty.
Next came Gary Tuggle, a former federal drug agent who agreed to serve as interim commissioner but told city officials he didn’t want the permanent gig — prompting a chaotic, at-times secretive national search.
Pugh eventually settled on Joel Fitzgerald, the chief in Fort Worth. But after a furor over his résumé, which the mayor initially declined to make public, and clear signs that he might not have the votes to be confirmed by the city council, Fitzgerald withdrew, citing his son’s treatment for brain cancer.
“This was quite a process,” acknowledged Pugh, who said she expects Harrison to win council approval. His immediate priorities, she said, will be crime reduction, community engagement and the consent decree.
“I want our commissioner to take full control of the police department,” Pugh said. “I want him to feel comfortable making changes that need to be made.”
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who chairs the public safety committee, said the city needs a police commissioner “who is a proven crime fighter who can simultaneously reform and restructure the department.”
The councilman, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore during some of its deadliest years in the late 1980s, said Harrison will need to make many changes simultaneously to avoid falling behind. “It is essential for the future of this city,” he said.
Scott said the city has “gotten a bad rap” for “running people out of town” who are not from the city. He said officers and residents “will give anybody a chance as long as that person is fair and cares about Baltimore.”
But Cameron E. Miles, who for two decades has run a youth outreach program called Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood, said he wished the mayor could have promoted from within, noting that Harrison now faces the challenge of having to learn the basics of an adopted city.
But he said he would give Harrison a chance as long as the new commissioner listens, and includes the city’s young people in the conversation.
“It’s a great city. I don’t want it to go down the drain,” said Miles, who said it’s important that the new commissioner hit the ground running. “We can’t wait another two years.”