Baltimore entered a new policing era Monday night, as the City Council gave final confirmation to a new top cop.
Michael Harrison, the city’s first permanent police commissioner in 10 months, received unanimous support from the council. He also received a complex mission — to drive down historically high rates of violent crime while reforming a dysfunctional department — and a significant amount of power to reach those goals.
Legal and law enforcement observers say that with final confirmation of his nomination, Harrison has the runway from which to launch his agenda. He can bring in a new command staff, for instance, or shake up how officers are deployed.
Chuck Wexler is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that helped Mayor Catherine Pugh recruit Harrison. Wexler said Harrison has been listening to people since he arrived in Baltimore. Now, he will begin to act.
“The first part is assessing your team: What is the command staff of the Baltimore Police Department? And what are its strengths and weaknesses?” Wexler said. “Going forward as a confirmed commissioner simply will allow him to make the changes as they are needed.”
Harrison did not attend Monday night’s vote.
“I expect a long and productive relationship with the City Council and am looking forward to working together to achieve our goals of reforming the Baltimore Police Department, reducing crime and rebuilding trust with the community,” he said in a statement.
Harrison has said he is excited to start pushing through the reforms as outlined in the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, as he did with a consent decree he oversaw as the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department before coming to Baltimore.
And, he is eager to begin shaping a command staff that will be able to implement those reforms and attack crime simultaneously, he has said.
“There is talent within, but it will be a combination of bringing some dynamic folks from wherever they may exist to the team, and create this collaborative team of people from within and people who will join us to reform the department,” Harrison said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Jonathan Smith, chief of special litigation in the Justice Department's civil rights division under the Obama administration, said that is the right attitude. Smith said it’s important for Harrison to see himself as a leader in the consent decree process.
Smith said it is also critical that rank-and-file officers see Harrison as committed to the work — and that it is good Harrison has said he is here to stay.
“If they think he's a short timer, or they think he's going to be undermined by the politicos, which has happened before in Baltimore, or by the union, then officers won't embrace the reforms in the same way,” Smith said.
Sgt. Michael Mancuso, president of the police union, said Monday he is “cautiously optimistic at best” about Harrison’s appointment because of the extent of the problems he inherits. They include the consent decree, a lawsuit against the city over police and fire pensions, and the continued loss of officers from an understaffed department.
“The recruitment and retention issue is very important,” Mancuso said. “He will have little success with the current staffing levels where they are.”
Mancuso said patrol is “dangerously short and overworked,” while detectives have huge caseloads.
Monday’s vote brought to an end a 10-month process to fill the position.
The previous permanent commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned because he faced three federal tax charges, to which he pleaded guilty.
Pugh named Fort Worth, Texas, police chief, Joel Fitzgerald as his replacement. But council members and members of the public expressed concerns about his qualifications, resume and the way he was selected, and Fitzgerald eventually dropped out of the running because of a serious health problem that developed for one of his children.
Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who stepped into lead the department after De Sousa resigned, expressed interest in taking on the role permanently, but later withdrew.
A panel of outside experts advising Pugh in the hiring process after De Sousa’s departure identified Harrison as a top candidate. However, after the Sun uncovered that fact, Harrison and Pugh said he had not officially applied for the job.
Later, as Fitzgerald’s nomination fell apart, City Solicitor Andre Davis called Harrison and pushed him to consider the post. When Pugh called and offered him the job, Harrison said, he accepted — describing his coming to Baltimore as a “calling.”
Since his arrival in Baltimore a month ago, Harrison has attended town hall meetings in each of the city’s nine police districts. By the time he reached a vote Wednesday by the council’s executive appointments committee, he had built enough consensus for his nomination that it was approved on a 5-0 vote.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee and the only council member to explain his vote Monday, said Harrison “understands that crime fighting and reforms go hand in hand.”
Pugh said in a statement that she was “delighted” the council shared her view that Harrison is “the right person, at the right time and in the right place to remake the Baltimore Police Department and restore community trust.”
“We have much work yet to accomplish, but have in Commissioner Harrison a seasoned partner who regards this work as both an opportunity and a privilege,” she said. “I ask all of Baltimore to work with us in creating the safer city we desire and deserve.”
Harrison will be sworn in Tuesday at City Hall, Pugh’s office said.
Some observers said the fact Pugh had a hard time finding a permanent commissioner gives Harrison power moving forward because she will be disinclined to fire him.
“Why would any mayor want to go through this whole transition again?” Smith said. “They would have to be nuts.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she has been “encouraged” by Harrison to date — including by his swift suspension last week of additional officers in relation to the latest federal charges in the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
Ifill also appreciated Harrison’s rejection of “the idea that the consent decree is an impediment to good, strong policing” and his recognition that “corruption on the police force undermines public safety by keeping the community from trusting the cops.”
“These are strong signals out of the gate that Commissioner Harrison understands that increasing public safety is directly dependent on developing a police force that has the respect and trust of the community,” Ifill said.
Harrison, an ordained minister, spent nearly 30 years in the New Orleans Police Department, and has experience in drug units and internal affairs. He helped lead his former department into compliance with a raft of reforms under that city’s consent decree.