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Baltimore police union escalates criticism of Commissioner Harrison, calls crime plan ‘untenable'

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison releases the Commissioner’s Crime Plan on Thursday, July 18 at police headquarters.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison releases the Commissioner’s Crime Plan on Thursday, July 18 at police headquarters.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Police union ratcheted up its opposition to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s efforts to overhaul the beleaguered department, releasing a statement Tuesday calling Harrison’s new crime plan “untenable.”

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso’s letter escalates its public sparring with Harrison that began soon after he took the top job in February. Mancuso wrote that the crime plan is written for a department “flush with resources” — which the Baltimore department is not, he said — because it lacks updated technology and is short by 500 officers, among other things.

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“The current deployment of Patrol Officers will not be able to, under any circumstances, implement the new crime plan as intended,” Mancuso wrote. “Any crime plan must begin with the stark reality of the current resources available, not the resources that are desired."

Police spokesman Matt Jablow said late Tuesday that “FOP leaders declined three invitations to meet with the Commissioner to talk about the plan.”

Harrison also weighed in, saying in a statement that his long-term push to address systemic concerns in the department and his “crime reduction strategy” will make the department more “efficient and effective, and the city significantly safer.”

“One of my highest priorities as Commissioner is making BPD a better place to work,” Harrison said. He added that he’s been striving to launch “numerous new initiatives, including a renewed focus on recruitment and retention to increase the number of officers on the street; improving technology and applying smart deployment strategies to reduce officers’ workloads; and improving working conditions to increase officer morale.”

Tuesday’s back and forth is just the latest public challenge of Harrison by the police union.

It previously questioned Harrison’s plan to use 120 “micro-zones” that deploy officers across the city to areas that have experienced high rates of violence over the past five years. Union leaders called that plan an effort to get something out to the public at a time when violence has escalated.

Mancuso and police administrators also clashed over a press conference announcing the arrest of Sgt. Ethan Newberg, who was charged with wrongly arresting and assaulting a bystander who questioned his police tactics. Harrison was highly critical of Newberg, saying he was “tarnishing the badge that we all wear.”

Mancuso snapped back, saying Harrison “condemned” Newberg while failing for days to address disturbances involving large crowds of youths at the Inner Harbor during Memorial Day weekend that resulted in a few arrests. The union released a statement at the time telling officers to “Protect each other and don’t fall into the trap that they are only kids. Some are criminals!

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Harrison later called the union’s comments “highly inappropriate.”

Mancuso on Tuesday did not respond to additional questions from The Baltimore Sun. A spokesman for Bernard C. “Jack” Young also did not respond Tuesday.

City Council President Brandon Scott offered to mediate between the police commissioner and the union, saying he’d host them in his office or at his favorite restaurant, Koco’s Pub on Harford Road.

“We have to end the back and forth,” Scott said in a meeting Tuesday with The Baltimore Sun’s Editorial Board. “People are dying. Police officers [are] being overworked in many instances, they don’t have the resources they need, they’re answering too many calls for service, but we have to get everyone to the table. I don’t have time for bickering.”

Harrison’s plan offers an immediate crime-fighting strategy as well as long-term goals for the department over the next five years for crime reduction, community engagement, compliance with Justice Department consent decree reforms, accountability, technology, increasing the ranks, and communication.

One of the points in his plan calls for 10-minute response time with “highest priority calls where life or property is in immediate danger,” Harrison said. It also calls for officers to spend a third of their day — when not responding to direct and emergency calls — engaging the community and taking other “proactive efforts.” The department also created “focused patrol areas” or “micro-zones” across the city’s nine districts where officers will be concentrated.

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Kenneth Thompson, head of the monitoring team that is helping the police department implement widespread reforms mandated by the consent decree, said the team has reviewed and supports Harrison’s vision.

“As Chief Judge [James K.] Bredar has observed, constitutional policing will lead to greater trust in the police department, which will lead to greater cooperation between the community and the police department,” he said. Improving that relationship will lead to more effective policing and less crime, he said.

In January, Bredar said that “constitutional policing and effective policing are intrinsically interwoven. You simply won’t one get one without the other."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison discusses his new crime plan for Baltimore.

Mancuso said for the crime plan to be effective, Harrison needs to face the truth that the department is in “dire” financial straits and needs more trained officers. Mancuso also criticized the department’s outdated technology and said systems often aren’t compatible with one another, which leads to the department not being able to account for the location of officers or the status of their assignments.

In an interview last week with WBAL-TV 11, Harrison said he does not feel the city is unsafe.

“It is not the correct narrative that if you come into Baltimore, your life is in danger and you are somehow not safe,” Harrison told the station.

Mancuso said that comment left him “speechless.” He called the commissioner’s remarks an “outright fantasy” and said the public deserves to know about the “precarious situation Baltimore is in.”

Nearly 40 people have been killed so far this month. That is the highest figure for any month since July 2015.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum that helped recruit Harrison to Baltimore, called Harrison’s plan a “road map" and said Baltimore’s many issues, including lack of resources, low officer morale and years of unstable leadership, can’t be fixed overnight.

Wexler said Baltimore should follow New Orleans’ example in lowering crime and meeting the demands of a consent decree.

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“They should look to New Orleans and see what happened there,” he said. But, he added, "it would take a few years.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this story.

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