New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison hasn’t started his new job as Baltimore’s top cop, but city officials aren’t wasting any time in preparing him for it.
“We are flooding him with information, not quite non-stop,” City Solicitor Andre Davis said. Harrison, he said, is getting “a crash course in Baltimore.”
That’s because when Harrison, 49, assumes the position of acting commissioner on Feb. 11, he will confront a number of immediate challenges. Chief among them is a federal consent decree that mandates sweeping changes, and a federal judge who has expressed concerns about the department’s ability to carry out the reforms without stable leadership.
“BPD and the City must right the ship,” U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar has said. “The City must identify a strong, capable leader for the department and give him or her the tools and support necessary to achieve the requirements set out in the consent decree.”
Harrison also will take over a beleaguered department that has seen significant turnover in its command staff, including the recent retirement of the head of its training academy.
He’ll face a police union that has been critical of the department’s failure to implement a new shift structure for officers that is required under a new contract that took two years to negotiate.
And he’ll face a community whose trust in the department has been eroded by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, and the federal racketeering indictments and convictions of members of the department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force.
“I’m excited for this opportunity,” Harrison said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun. “God has blessed me, and I’m excited.” Harrison has helped lead the New Orleans department through its own consent decree, and served for nine years with that department’s internal affairs unit.
Though he is coming to Baltimore this week, Harrison won’t be on the job when the city and U.S. Justice Department go before Bredar for the next quarterly hearing on the consent decree, which is scheduled for Thursday.
Bredar has repeatedly said that a new a police commissioner is critical to the success of the department, especially as it enters the second year of the decree, which largely focuses on retraining officers on revised policies on the use of force, fair and impartial policing, body-worn cameras and stops, searches and arrests.
The department has had three leaders in the past year. Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Kevin Davis last January, replacing him with Darryl De Sousa, who resigned in May after he was charged with failing to file his income tax returns. Gary Tuggle has been serving as interim commissioner.
Attorney Ken Thompson, who heads the independent monitoring team overseeing the reforms, said the Police Department needs a dedicated leader who will advance reforms.
“We need a strong commissioner in place to set the tone,” he said.
At a hearing Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis, Thompson told legislators “the culture of corruption has to be addressed,” and it will likely take the city longer than seven years to reach full compliance.
Another challenge for Harrison will be implementing new officer training requirements after the recent retirement of the head of the training academy, Major Marc Partee. The number of hours officers will spend in training will increase from 23 hours to 40 hours a year. And the monitoring team has expressed concern that the training academy is understaffed for the job.
Councilman Robert Stokes said the lack of leadership at the top of the Police Department has filtered down to create staffing problems in the police districts. For instance, Tomecha Brown in the Southeastern District and Natalie Preston in the Northeastern were promoted from captain to majors in command of their districts this month, but the department has not yet filled the captain jobs.
“She's doing the captain job and the major job and that to me doesn't make sense,” Stokes said of Brown.
Councilman Zeke Cohen also expressed concern, calling the district commanders the department's front line. “To not have any deputy or captain is a big challenge,” Cohen said.
The instability has left officers feeling abandoned, Cohen said, and makes it more difficult for the community to trust their local police.
“With an absence of stable leadership, it's hard to get the public to trust enough in the police to come forward with vital information,” he said.
Bridal Pearson, chair of the Civilian Review Board, a panel of volunteers that reviews Baltimore police misconduct complaints, said the next commissioner should focus on meeting with different groups across the city.
“I think it’s important that the next commissioner listens to all of the community stakeholders,” he said.
Many policies seem to be created by a “top-down approach” and are disconnected from the most disadvantaged communities that tend to be most directly affected by departmental policies, he said.
At every CRB meeting, he said, the panel hears multiple cases where a resident reports being randomly harassed by police officers outside their homes.
“They feel disrespected, they don’t trust the police. It’s important for any commissioner to understand the dynamic,” Pearson said. Many people outside those communities don’t understand that these issues exist, he said.
“People who don’t face these issues are often dumbfounded about why these changes are needed. There’s a certain type of privilege that exists” among those who have a different experience with police, he said.
In addition to meeting with community groups, Harrison will likely meet with union leaders to hear their concerns, which have included retention and morale, and most recently concerns with a new contract.
Baltimore officers were poised to start a new shift schedule this month, which was part of a labor agreement approved by union members in November. The contract added two civilian members to the internal trial board that hears misconduct cases, and changed officer workweeks from four 10-hour shifts, to five eight-hour shifts.
A letter from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, said the planned change is delayed, causing issues for officers’ child-care arrangements, scheduled leave and other plans.
“That schedule was due to begin on 1/6/19 and it has been delayed at no fault of this Union,” the letter said.
The union has now instructed members to file overtime for all shifts where they work more than eights hours.
Mancuso did not respond to several requests for comment.
Davis said the schedule change was delayed, but given that the contract was only approved in November, it takes some time to implement.
“It took some work. We ended up with just a couple of weeks to put everything in place, so there was a little delay,” he said.
Beyond the administrative challenges Harrison faces is the city’s stubborn crime problem. Baltimore has seen more than 300 homicides in each of the past four years, though the department did see some improvements last year. Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle has touted a 5 percent decline in nonfatal shootings, a 14 percent decline in robberies and about a 30 percent decrease in burglaries.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said over the past year, there’s been an uptick in crime in the areas around the Inner Harbor.
“It’s mostly be in street robberies and assaults. It’s certainly not a good trend,” he said.
As a result, the Downtown Partnership has hired 67 security officers, up from 32. But Fowler said it’s expensive and not something that can be sustained long-term.