Commissioner Michael Harrison reflects on his first year as the head of Baltimore's Police Department.
Drug dealers continue to stash their wares in vacant houses, and prostitutes openly solicit business near Nancy McCormick’s Southwest Baltimore home.
McCormick, who heads the Mount Clare Community Council, regularly shares what she sees with officers from the city’s Southwest District, although she has yet to meet with Commissioner Michael Harrison. A scheduled neighborhood walk with Harrison a couple of weeks ago was canceled because of rain.
But McCormick remains patient.
“He’s got a lot on his hands," McCormick said of Harrison, who was sworn in as the city’s top cop a year ago. “I feel sorry for him.”
Residents and advocates have been pressing for big changes in Baltimore, a city that has long struggled with both violent crime and aggressive, at times criminally abusive police. While problems persist, many continue to express hope in Harrison’s ability to turn the department and the city around.
"We didn’t hire him to be a wizard or a magician. We hired him to do the work and the work takes time,” said Ray Kelly, a Sandtown-Winchester resident who has long advocated for police reform. He is now a member of the monitoring team overseeing the federal consent decree that mandates sweeping changes.
Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who has since been sentenced to federal prison, hired Harrison in January 2019 at $275,000 a year salary in large part because of his experience leading the New Orleans Police Department. It, too, had been plagued by police scandals while struggling to reduce violent crime.
"We didn’t hire him to be a wizard or a magician. We hired him to do the work and the work takes time.”
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Harrison is the fifth person to hold the top Baltimore police job in the past five years.
“I’m here because I’m supposed to be here,” Harrison said in an interview. He cited as accomplishments restructuring the command staff, reducing overtime spending by $2.6 million, and streamlining the hiring and training of new officers.
"Though it takes time and it’s slow, we’re making changes from the inside out. And we are correcting the culture and turning it into a high-performing police department,” Harrison said.
His contract did not include specific crime reduction goals, though Pugh said publicly “we’ve got to get under 300” homicides. The city saw an increase in killings from 309 in 2018 to 348 last year. Nonfatal shootings were up nearly 20%. The pace of violence has continued into 2020 with more than 50 people killed in January and February alone.
Harrison said other crime categories have declined, and that reducing homicides and shootings requires a broader approach to address the “culture of violence” in Baltimore.
Another challenge has been the department’s continuing struggle to improve its reputation within the community, especially with the ongoing fallout from federal charges against 14 officers, many connected to the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.
The department also faces significant staff shortages, and is currently about 350 short despite a new recruitment campaign.
Despite the challenges, Harrison said he is well-equipped for the job after having led the New Orleans department, which the U.S. Justice Department in 2012 called “the most troubled department in America." He said that department also overcame internal scandals and 496 homicides in one year.
“I’ve been there and it can be done," he said.
But after one year, some are skeptical of the out-of-town chief who hadn’t experienced the specific challenges in Baltimore.
The Fraternal Order of Police president, Sgt. Mike Mancuso, has been an outspoken critic of Harrison. He says he fails to see any urgency from police command to address the violence.
“There’s no new direction to the men and women in patrol in any given day. It’s very concerning from the union standpoint. That’s why we have been so vocal,” Mancuso said.
The union president said he believes the department has not identified new strategies to get violent criminals off the street. If that were done, he said, crime would go down.
As the number of homicides has remained high, homicide clearance rates have dwindled to just 32% — one of the lowest in decades.
Past administrations held commanders accountable when crime went up in their district, Mancuso said. He complained that weekly Compstat meetings have lost that focus and include discussion over policy, recruitment and other issues.
Andre Davis, the recently retired city solicitor who helped bring Harrison to Baltimore, said he believes the commissioner is faced with unprecedented circumstances but has demonstrated he can get the job done.
“He has totally exceeded my expectations. He has been every bit as smart, steady, creative and patient. I think he has just done a fantastic job,” Davis said, adding that Harrison should be given another two years before his performance can be criticized.
Harrison has not been given enough time to make any real impact on violence, which is deeply rooted in many other societal issues, Davis said.
“We lock up black boys and black men and we send them back to the same community with no real opportunity to get decent work, so what we end up with is what we got," Davis said.
For community members like McCormick, who have yet to feel any changes, Davis said change is coming from the consent decree. The former solicitor said the first two years on the job are focused largely on paperwork, meaning rewriting policies to meet requirements from Justice Department lawyers and national best practices.
Now, he said, officers are beginning to train under those policies, such as when and how to use force, when to stop, search and arrest someone, and how to safely address individuals with mental health issues. Officers are also learning how to engage with the community in thoughtful ways.
Rather than jumping out and arresting guys on the corner, officers will be expected to get out of their cars and talk to those men, Davis said.
Kobi Little, president of the local NAACP, said he’s been pleased by Harrison’s efforts to engage the community, but has been disappointed that he has not seen positive changes from all officers.
“We are concerned that we have not heard from the public that day to day interactions with Baltimore Police officers have improved under the commissioner’s leadership, and we are troubled that the commissioner has fallen back on law and order tactics like flashing light patrols and militaristic aerial surveillance referred to in the community as spy planes,” Little said.
With a dwindling number of officers, Arch McKown, safety chair for the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, said he believes the department needs to have a more thoughtful approach to addressing community concerns.
“I would like them to see harnessing more technology. I would like to see more of an effort with police partnering with community," he said. City neighborhoods have different needs, McKown said.
"What goes down in Sandtown-Winchester is much different than what goes down in Butcher’s Hill,” he said.
Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, a longtime civil rights leader in Baltimore and president of the Matthew Henson Community Development Corp. in West Baltimore, said he wants the focus on communities hardest hit by violence.
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“I would encourage [Harrison] to put special emphasis on the Western District since five of the last six years we have led in homicides and violent crimes,” Cheatham said. But he said he was pleased overall with the commissioner’s efforts so far.
“I think he’s saying and doing the right things," he said.
Joy Ross, president of the Harlem Park-West Community Association, said she’s already seen positive changes, which she attributes to Harrison’s leadership.
“I see what he’s doing, and I see the police presence throughout my travels," said Ross, who travels around the city for her job as a home nurse. "I actually feel safer now, because every time I turn around there’s a cop. I didn’t see that before.”
And she sees an additional improvement in the officers.