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Pugh scores a surprising turnaround on police commissioner

Mayor Catherine Pugh surprised me, the governor of Maryland and just about every Baltimorean on Tuesday with her quick turnaround on getting a new police commissioner in place. She went from floundering to a flourish in less than 24 hours. Pugh looked downright decisive — like Ravens coach John Harbaugh going from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson at midseason.

On Monday came news that Fort Worth police chief Joel Fitzgerald had bowed out of the running for the job. Given how long Pugh already had taken to find a new commissioner — the previous guy, Darryl De Sousa, stepped out of the job last May — Fitzgerald’s withdrawal was another groan-inducing delay that a city with 300-plus-homicides-four-years-running could not afford.

But what happens? We wake up Tuesday to see New Orleans police superintendent Michael Harrison’s name at the top of the depth chart. Pugh, with the help of City Solicitor Andre Davis, had talked Harrison into taking the job over the weekend, even before Fitzgerald officially dropped out. Harrison was the man who had been recommended to Pugh in the first place, but, just a few months ago, seemed committed to New Orleans.

Whatever made him change his mind — the persuasive talents of Davis, the call to public service in a city that needs inspired law enforcement leadership, a better salary after a long career in The Big Easy — Harrison appears committed to taking the Baltimore job. And, with so many here and there praising him, this looks like a badly needed win for Baltimore and, if the vetting goes right, for Pugh.

Pardon my second Ravens metaphor, but the recruitment of Harrison brought to mind what outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome said after the Ravens’ successful NFL draft of players last spring: “It was masterful. ... It was unbelievable.”

Pugh deserves credit for bringing in a solid candidate and putting him before the community before officially nominating him. She certainly topped my suggestion.

In a column on Monday, after Fitzgerald withdrew his candidacy, I suggested that Pugh convince the interim commissioner, Gary Tuggle, to take the job. I was not alone in that. Several Baltimoreans contacted me to say they wondered why Tuggle had not been given consideration — he had taken himself out of the running last fall — and whether he could be persuaded to change his mind.

Then came the Harrison announcement.

I assume Gov. Larry Hogan was surprised by it, too, because look what he was up to on Tuesday: A full-brass press conference announcing a renewed crackdown on violent crime in the city with a “strike force” of 200 officers and more prosecution of offenders in federal court.

Hogan called the level of violence in the city “completely unacceptable,” though he could have said that during any of the last four years. He has obviously become impatient — as have some legislative leaders in Annapolis, including Senate President Mike Miller — with the pace of change and improvements during the Pugh administration. Hogan’s grumbles about the amount and rate of crime echo what I hear all over the city. On Tuesday, he looked like he was stepping in and stepping up to do what he thinks the Pugh administration ought to be doing to stem violent crime. The headline could have been: “Hogan goes over Pugh, announces anti-crime fight in city.”

But the criticism implied in his action — that Pugh had moved too slowly on getting new police leadership in place — was blunted by the mayor’s announcement about Harrison a few hours earlier.

And Hogan’s crack about the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department — that there’s been too much emphasis on police practices reform and not enough on crime reduction — comes right out of the suburban barbecue playbook. When Hogan says something like that, as when he hails the virtues of demolishing vacant houses — another complicated issue — he sounds like the guy flipping hamburgers in the backyard, making judgments about the city from a distance.

Note to the governor: Thank you for your push to help the city fight crime. It is greatly appreciated. But keep in mind that the consent decree is in place for good reason — did you catch any of our stories about the Gun Trace Task Force, by any chance? — and it is necessary. It makes things complicated. It’s one of the reasons Pugh went after Harrison; the New Orleans Police Department has been operating under such a consent decree for several years.

One more Ravens metaphor (I’m allowed up to three per column): Pugh’s pick of Harrison is under review. Good. But here’s hoping the ruling on the field stands and Baltimore finally gets the new police commissioner it badly needs.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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