Just as Baltimore resolved one leadership crisis by hiring a new police commissioner, the judge overseeing the police consent decree bemoaned Wednesday, another arose in the mayor’s office.
“A whole new leadership crisis has engulfed the city,” said U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar of Mayor Catherine Pugh during the quarterly hearing where police department leaders, city officials and the U.S. Justice Department discuss progress on policing reforms.
The Democratic mayor has taken an indefinite leave of absence as she recovers from pneumonia amid a mounting scandal related to sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she sat on the board, and other agencies that had business dealings with the city.
Regardless of the mayor’s situation, Bredar said the consent decree reforms must continue under his watch.
“Despite the current drama and trauma in City Hall, not one word of the consent decree has been amended,” he said.
Newly confirmed in March, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison made his first formal appearance before the judge at Wednesday’s quarterly hearing.
Bredar praised Harrison’s appointment, but called it a “Hail Mary pass” thrown “at the last possible moment” to someone to lead the department through a critical phase of the reform process, where officers will begin training on new policies.
“I’m convinced that he gets it,” the judge said.
He said Harrison has expressed in meetings the need for reforms, and has experience with a consent decree but also, “a track record of successfully navigating mayoral transitions.”
Harrison told the judge he is committed and said he is convinced he can replicate his success in implementing a similar consent decree when he served as the New Orleans police superintendent.
The department had been without a permanent leader for more than a year just as the consent decree reforms began to be implemented. The city entered into the decree in January 2017 after a Justice Department investigation found that city police routinely violated residents’ civil rights.
But amid rising violence, Pugh fired then Commissioner Kevin Davis in January 2018. His replacement, Darryl De Sousa, resigned after being charged with failing to file taxes. Then, Gary Tuggle served as the interim commissioner while the city conducted an arduous search for a permanent one.
But just as the police department settled its leadership woes, Bredar said, those of city government erupted.
City Solicitor Andre Davis assured the judge that acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young supports the reform efforts and would attend the next quarterly hearing if he remains in the position.
Outside the courthouse, Harrison discussed his efforts to move the department forward, including recruiting top talent to work in Baltimore. One hire is Daniel Murphy from New Orleans, who will lead Baltimore’s implementation of reforms. Murphy started Monday and attended Wednesday’s hearing.
“I think the challenges are very similar” in Baltimore and New Orleans, Murphy said. “Obviously, every community, every police department is unique, but the success we had in New Orleans is directly transferable to here and we will modify it as necessary.”
Eric Melancon, the other New Orleans official coming to Baltimore to serve as Harrison’s deputy chief of staff, is expected to start next week.
The consent decree is expected take years to fully implement.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the parties also discussed continued challenges and efforts made in the areas of impartial policing; recruitment, hiring and retention, and sexual assault investigations.
Officers will be taught about fair and impartial policing during sessions on the city’s use of force policy, which was rewritten under the consent decree. For example, said Cynthia Coe, a Justice Department lawyer, they will discuss threat perception and how bias can influence how officers perceive a threat.
The officers also will discuss what’s known as “bias by proxy,” Coe said. This can occur when an officer responds to a call for a “suspicious person,” but there’s no reason to think the individual is actually suspicious, other than the caller’s bias.
“We hope we can make progress bit by bit,” she said, so that city residents can perceive a change and know that officers are being “fair and just.”
Police department officials also spoke broadly about efforts to recruit and retrain more officers amid a shortage, especially on patrol.
Timothy Mygatt, a Justice Department attorney, said Baltimore’s troubles with recruitment are not isolated. Departments across the country struggle to attract officers.
The department has faced consistent attrition for the last 10 years, but applications declined beginning in 2014, officials said. The department has set a new goal to hire 25 officers per month, half of whom should be African American and a third of whom should be women.
The department also plans to start a campaign to attract the best candidates, but Bredar questioned city and Justice Department officials, asking how the city police can attract top candidates given chaos at City Hall and other negative news out of the city.