Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh on Tuesday named New Orleans police superintendent Michael Harrison as her latest pick to lead the city’s beleaguered Police Department, saying his experience in reducing violence and introducing federally mandated policing reforms in The Big Easy would help him tackle similar challenges here.
Pugh said Harrison has “achieved clear, compelling and consistent results” in reducing violence while deploying “proactive and effective policing strategies that reflect 21st century, constitutional policing,” and would bring the “insight and sensitivity needed to reestablish essential trust and confidence of citizens in their police officers.”
Pugh’s announcement came one day after her previous pick for commissioner withdrew from consideration to become the city’s top cop and helped blunt rising tensions around the lack of permanent leadership in the department amid steady street violence.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who met Harrison during a Baltimore Metropolitan Council trip to New Orleans in November, said Harrison’s selection represented a “new day” in Baltimore.
“This is the commissioner that Baltimore needs and Baltimore deserves,” Ferguson said. “Chief Harrison is a proven leader.”
Harrison, 49, said he was humbled by the mayor’s trust in him. He also stressed the need for strong leadership throughout the department, not just at the top, in order to change its culture and reduce crime.
“It is going to be about selecting the right team of people who have the will for reform and the capacity for reform,” Harrison said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “It’s about being transparent and being accountable, both internally and externally to the community.”
Harrison has informed New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell of his retirement from the New Orleans force, where he has spent all of his policing career, and will start as acting commissioner in Baltimore in a couple of weeks, according to Pugh’s office.
In contrast to the process by which Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald had been put forward for the position, Harrison will not be nominated to the City Council until after community meetings are held, likely next month, her office said.
Fitzgerald withdrew from consideration on Monday in the wake of a medical emergency involving his son. A key criticism of his selection had been that it was conducted largely in secret, without community input.
The Baltimore Sun reported a month ago that Harrison was chosen as the top candidate among six finalists for the commissioner position by a panel of advisers to Pugh at a police executive conference in Orlando in October.
However, Harrison said at the time that he had not applied for the position and had asked not to be considered for the position because of his “commitment to achieving our goals at NOPD; which include reducing crime, improving community relations, and achieving substantial compliance with our federal consent decree.”
City Solicitor Andre Davis said he had reached out to Harrison on behalf of the mayor on Saturday — the same day as a City Council hearing on Fitzgerald’s nomination — to ask him to reconsider, after the city administration first learned of Fitzgerald’s son’s health issues.
“I went into a mode right away upon hearing that last week, that we needed to be ready for whatever might come about,” Davis said. “Obviously we were praying for [Fitzgerald’s] son, but we needed to be ready to move on if Joel's family position was one that would not permit him to continue to pursue the position in Baltimore.”
He said Harrison has “done a fabulous job down in New Orleans,” and Baltimore is “lucky to have him.”
Harrison, a New Orleans native who has spent the past 27 years rising through the ranks in the New Orleans Police Department, said a conversation he had with Davis on Saturday ended up being “a life-changing phone call.”
“This is one of the most consequential weekends of my life,” he said. “It took a lot of thinking, but my whole career has been preparing for this moment.”
Harrison has yet to be subjected to a detailed background investigation, but Davis said city officials “feel very confident he’s the right person for Baltimore.”
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Young was preparing to review the nomination as was done with Fitzgerald — where Young and other members of the council went to Fort Worth to talk with community members.
“We’ll rev up and kick our system into gear again and do what we did last time,” Lester Davis said. “He’ll get a full vetting, and we’ll go from there.”
Young also sent Pugh a letter Tuesday requesting a list of documents related to Harrison, including his resume, application materials he submitted, a list of any civil or criminal cases to which he is party, and confirmation that he has filed tax returns. The previous permanent commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned after being federally charged with not filing tax returns. Current Acting Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who replaced De Sousa, has said he does not want the job permanently.
Young’s letter also posed other questions to Harrison about his positions on a range of issues, including community-based policing practices, institutional racism, officer training and violence reduction.
Solicitor Davis said the administration would be “happy to respond” to the council's request.
City Councilman Eric Costello said he applauded Pugh “for putting forward an individual who is both clearly qualified and wants to be” the next commissioner, and that it is “imperative that we move forward with an extreme sense of urgency.”
Councilman John Bullock said he was surprised by the speed with which the mayor acted, but encouraged by her choice, saying Harrison has a “great reputation.”
Gov. Larry Hogan called the announcement of Harrison “very encouraging news” — saying he had been frustrated with the lack of a permanent commissioner in recent months and has heard good things about Harrison.
Some community and public safety activists called for public forums prior to any City Council confirmation of Harrison’s appointment, but were cautiously optimistic about it. Harrison's familiarity with consent decrees is a welcome qualification, said Ashiah Parker, interim director at No Boundaries Coalition in central west Baltimore.
“We would want someone who is homegrown who knows the challenges,” Parker said. “But with the challenges within the department, it’s hard to think we could find someone that has not contributed to that culture. I’m in the middle. … If the mayor can submit a candidate open to community input, we’re open to that possibility.”
Harrison joined the New Orleans police in 1991 and quickly rose through the ranks. The New Orleans agency entered into a federal consent decree mandating reforms with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012, after federal investigators found unconstitutional policing in the agency. Harrison was appointed superintendent by New Orleans then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2014. The agency is now in the late stages of its consent decree.
The Baltimore Police Department entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2017, after another Justice investigation found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the agency. It has instituted some reforms but is not expected to be released from the reform mandate any time soon.
New Orleans has seen declines in homicides under Harrison in recent years, and saw its lowest number of homicides in decades last year. Still, it remains one of the most violent big cities in the country, per capita. Baltimore topped the country in 2017 as the deadliest big city.
In July 2017, a survey conducted by the New Orleans consent decree monitoring team found that almost 80 percent of the 281 officers who were questioned in the survey said Harrison was “leading the department in the right direction.”
Judy Reese, president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana, said New Orleans was “losing a jewel” with Harrison’s departure, while Baltimore was gaining “an honorable family man who cares about the advancement of our communities.”
“I have worked with Chief Harrison to reduce violent crime and increase investments in young people who others discard,” Reese said. “I have witnessed him spend time with young men to not only give tough love, but to offer sincere help and support.”