A month into Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s tenure atop one of the country’s most challenged law enforcement agencies, he’s reshaping it — looking nationally for candidates and turning a critical eye to command staff.
“I’m here for the long haul,” Harrison said, to reform the department “and to make Baltimore the safe city it was always supposed to be.”
Harrison said he’s seeking outside candidates to fill leadership positions key to bringing change to the beleaguered department, which has suffered excessive leadership turnover and a corruption scandal. And he must meet constant reform deadlines under a U.S. Justice Department consent decree.
Four commanders have left in recent weeks. Harrison has brought in two former colleagues from New Orleans, the department he served for 28 years before coming to Baltimore this year.
Michael Harrison, Baltimore's first permanent police commissioner in 10 months, has received unanimous support from City Council. That means he's also launched on a complex mission: drive down historically high rates of violent crime while reforming a dysfunctional department.
“Right now, I am in the middle of making command and executive level assessments to determine the will and capacity, and what works well and what doesn’t work well, who we have and what their capacities are,” he said.
Harrison is interviewing the existing command staff of nearly 40, including colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors, to decide how to “appropriately and effectively conduct the reorganization that makes the department effective.”
He’s enlisted the help of Sheryl Goldstein, vice president of the Abell Foundation, to analyze the department’s structure. Goldstein, who has held posts with the Police Executive Research Forum, previously served as director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice under Mayors Sheila Dixon and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, working closely with then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
Harrison came to Baltimore after the department had been without a permanent leader since last May and as homicides have continued to surpass 300 each year since 2015.
“We just have to show we are on track to becoming a model department.”
Commissioner Michael Harrison
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Harrison’s contract allows him to build an executive team — naming a chief of staff and as many as eight other senior commanders, though bringing talent to Baltimore might not be as easy as in other cities. He would be introducing officers to a department struggling with rampant crime, distrust, turnover, corruption and the demands of the consent decree. But he hopes to entice candidates with a vision of what the BPD could become and their role in turning it around.
“We just have to show we are on track to becoming a model department,” he said.
Political and union leaders express support for importing new commanders — so long as there’s opportunity for those in the department to develop.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he believes a blended staff of local and outside leaders is the best approach for the city.
“It’s about having the right people, and that’s going to need to be a mixture. That’s going to be people with a new, fresh eye with proven past success, but you are also going to need homegrown people … so Baltimore can continue to improve and invest in its own,” Scott said. “I think the commissioner is capable. I just hope that we get the right people.”
Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said some in the current command staff aren’t qualified — and they’ve been promoted because of who they know.
“I think bringing in people from the outside — a few — is probably reasonable,” he said.
But Mancuso said many lower-ranking officers who could be capable leaders have avoided taking steps toward promotions because of the “toxic environment that exists at our command level.”
“We always joke that they eat their young at the command level, instead of focusing on the job at hand,” Mancuso said.
At least three jobs — chief financial officer, chief technology officer and police academy academic director — have been listed with national law enforcement groups. The postings on the Police Executive Research Forum website seek candidates who will be “forward-thinking, strategic and innovative including leveraging information technology to help achieve continuous improvement.”
“We are assisting Commissioner Harrison in his search to identify a strong team to support his work,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum, which helped city leaders bring Harrison to Baltimore.
“We strongly believe that the work in Baltimore needs a strong team,” Wexler said.
Wexler said the challenge is “identifying people who have the technical skills and want to make a difference. I have seen this before in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where [chiefs] Chuck Ramsey and Bill Bratton assembled great teams to tackle what had been deep-seated problems.”
Harrison has already brought on two officials from the New Orleans Police Department to join him in Baltimore. Daniel Murphy, who previously oversaw the New Orleans department’s compliance with its consent decree, is now doing the same work in Baltimore. Murphy accepted a five-year agreement with an annual salary of $195,000. He started Monday.
“When Commissioner Harrison asked me to join him in Baltimore, I really felt called to come here and help this city and this department,” Murphy said. “I felt this was my greatest opportunity to help this community and help push police reform forward nationally as well. It was an immediate gut decision of ‘I have to go do this.’ ”
Eric Melancon, Harrison’s deputy chief of staff in New Orleans, will serve as Harrison’s chief of staff here. He’s to start next week and agreed to a three-year contract, earning $165,000.
After months of turnover at the Baltimore Police Department, recently appointed Commissioner Michael Harrison expressed his commitment to implementing reforms at a quarterly consent decree hearing. But much of the discussion was dominated by political turmoil involving Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Harrison said he wants to create an environment within the department that “makes people want to stay here,” and even become a department that exports top talent to other agencies in the future.
But the city has long suffered from inconsistent leadership.
The Department has had 12 police commissioners since 1989 — including five leaders since 2012, with some, such as Darryl De Sousa, lasting just months. De Sousa resigned in May after he was charged with failing to file his income taxes. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Gary Tuggle served as interim commissioner after that. Tuggle, a former top-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration official, was brought into the department by De Sousa. He left Baltimore Police after Harrison came to Baltimore.
Three other officers De Sousa brought in have left since Harrison started: David Cali, another former DEA official, was the head of the Baltimore Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility; Andre Bonaparte, a former deputy commissioner, had returned and was deputy Commissioner of Operations; Robert Smith served as chief of special operations.
Historically, commissioners — especially those who come from outside the department — have recruited externally.
Former Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who had previously served in Oakland and Long Beach, Calif. before coming to Baltimore in 2012, filled two key command positions from outside the city and later brought on former Anne Arundel County police chief Kevin Davis to serve as a deputy commissioner. When Davis became chief he, too, imported a handful of commanders from his previous departments.
Two previous commissioners from New York, Kevin P. Clark and Edward T. Norris, also filled command staff with outside hires.
A local nonprofit vice president who has held posts with the mayor’s office and the national Police Executive Research Forum is aiding Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison as he evaluates needs within the department.
Each commissioner, including those who rose up through the department’s ranks, has made changes to command staff.
“It’s very common everywhere,” said Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of management at the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Division of Public Safety Leadership. “The problem in Baltimore is that there have been so many commissioners, each one taking his own direction with changes in the command staff, that command staff has been consistently unstable.”
So much turnover, he said, means that those in command-level positions haven’t been able to gain experience because they’ve moved around so frequently.
“It’s constantly ‘learning as you go’ to the extreme,” he said.
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Richard W. “Rick” Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents 69 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada, said it takes time for most new chiefs to make evaluations.
“When you come from the outside, you really don’t know anyone. Who can you trust? Who supports the agenda you are trying to develop and form? It takes time to size people up,” he said.
But Baltimore is in a crisis, and Harrison doesn’t have the luxury of taking his time, he said.
Myers, who served as chief of six departments over the course of his career, said it’s important to put a team in place if possible in the first 90 to 120 days, but that every agency is unique, with different problems and a different culture.
Any new leader must “size up the most dysfunctional elements.”