Michael Harrison, a former top cop in New Orleans with internal affairs and reform experience and a clergyman’s demeanor, won the approval Wednesday of a City Council committee, setting up a final vote next week on his confirmation as Baltimore City police commissioner.
His nomination advanced with startlingly little opposition in a city steeped in violence and police corruption scandals; a similar hearing for one of his predecessors led to a sit-in, arrests and street protests.
By a 5-0 vote, after hearing from just a handful of community members at City Hall, the committee voted to send Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nomination of Harrison to the City Council for a vote on Monday.
“I would like to thank you for your willingness to serve the citizens of Baltimore,” said Councilman Robert Stokes, the committee’s chairman.
The room — full of city officials and brass from the department — erupted in applause.
The hearing lasted a little more than two hours.
At its start, an aide to Pugh spoke on her behalf, quoting a statement from the mayor that lauded Harrison as a change agent and “the right person, at the right time, and in the right place to lead our police department forward and begin the new era that all our residents have long hoped for and deserve.”
Afterward, a few members of the public spoke — their small number a statement in itself.
Jason Rodriguez, with the nonprofit watchdog group Copwatch, which encourages the filming of police officers engaged in street enforcement, was the lone voice of opposition. He said Harrison does not understand how Baltimore functions, its history of racism and lead paint poisoning of children, its unique neighborhoods and its specific problems with police abuse.
“My reasons are very simple: He’s not from Baltimore City. He doesn’t know the city,” Rodriguez said.
Harrison later said his experiences in New Orleans are relevant to Baltimore — that residents and police in both cities want the “same things.”
Three residents expressed their desire to see change in Baltimore, however it comes.
Three others — Darian Carter, 18; Kache McCray, 18; and Deaira Hayes, 19 — also spoke, on behalf of youth in the city, to welcome Harrison and urge him to think of youth as potential allies.
“Young people are not what’s wrong with Baltimore City. We are not problems to be dealt with. We are your youth, the future of this city,” said McCray. “We don’t hate the police. We react to the police, meaning we give what we get.”
“We would like to be by your side and work with you,” Hayes added.
Harrison embraced the youths after they spoke.
After the public comment portion, committee members and others on the council asked Harrison a long series of questions — about gun violence and the treatment of immigrants, officer morale and recruitment, the city’s opioid crisis, and the skepticism regarding the Police Department that runs deep in the city.
Harrison said he is ready to take on all those things. He said his crime strategy will be data-driven and hard-nosed when it comes to people who sell drugs and have a nexus to violence. He said his approach to immigrants will be to seek their help in solving crimes, not targeting them for civil violations that are the business of federal authorities.
Harrison promised to partner with health officials to address drug addiction. And he said he would launch a more robust recruitment effort and train officers in a way that makes them confident in their role as keepers of the peace.
“It’s my philosophy that officers should be tough on crime, while being soft on people,” he said.
Harrison reiterated comments he has made to residents and elected officials in a series of public and private meetings since he started working Feb. 11 in an acting capacity.
He said he would implement a federal consent decree mandating the department end its history of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices, as he helped do with a similar decree in New Orleans.
He noted he suspended three Baltimore officers Tuesday after a retired sergeant was indicted on federal civil rights and witness tampering charges related to a 2014 incident in which a BB gun was allegedly planted on a man — the latest development in the department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
And Harrison said he would confront the violence in Baltimore — which has seen more than 300 homicides in each of the last four years — head on, by building better cases and making punishment for crimes in the city seem more certain for those who would commit them.
He also told them that he is in the process of assessing all levels of leadership in the department, to see what needs to be done to establish a first-class command staff to lead the department into the future, as he won’t be able to do that alone.
Harrison said he also is focused on making sure officers have what they need to do their jobs.
“I believe some of what we’re seeing is just a lack of confidence in themselves and a lack of confidence in the department to support them when they do the right thing,” he said.
If he is confirmed by the full council — as expected — Harrison will earn $275,000 in his first year on the job.
He is the fourth man to lead the troubled department in little over a year. Pugh’s previous permanent commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May amid federal tax charges, to which he has since pleaded guilty. The council had approved De Sousa on a 14-1 vote.
Prior to De Sousa, Commissioner Kevin Davis — who was fired by Pugh in January 2018 — was approved by the council by a 12-2 vote. It was Davis’ hearing before the executive appointments committee that was met with protesters.
After De Sousa resigned, he was replaced by Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who eventually said he did not want the permanent job.
Pugh then put forward Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald for the position, but he backed out.
Pugh later picked Harrison — recruiting him from his hometown of New Orleans, where he spent his nearly three-decade policing career.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who sits on the committee, credited the community meetings giving residents the chance to ask Harrison questions before Wednesday with easing the process at the hearing.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said many people she spoke with expressed confidence in Harrison. But one man at a car wash shared his skepticism.
“’He’ll be gone in two years, I’ll bet you a dollar!’ ” Clarke said he yelled at her.
“Are you going to stick around to see us all through to a reduction in violence and reform in our police force?” Clarke asked.
Harrison said he and his wife, C.C., who was at the hearing, moved to Baltimore with a mind to staying here until violence is reduced, the consent decree is implemented, citizens are satisfied with police, and the department is functioning well.
“We are fully invested,” he said, “and are here for the long haul.”