Michael S. Harrison talks about what the city of Baltimore can expect from him as the next police commissioner.
NEW ORLEANS — Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick for Baltimore’s next police commissioner was once a corrupt cop — but only as part of an undercover ruse. Michael Harrison, then a young police officer, helped the FBI take down real corrupt cops and a drug ring that was flooding cocaine into New Orleans in the 1990s.
As part of the sting, Harrison wore a wire to dinners with a drug dealer, who slipped him cash in to-go boxes in exchange for what he thought was intel from Harrison’s narcotics unit.
Harrison says it was some of the best police work of his career, taught him something about himself and about police integrity, and set him on a path to the top of the New Orleans Police Department. It not only got him noticed and promoted to sergeant, but ultimately transferred to Internal Affairs, where he continued to root out corruption in a troubled department with no shortage of in-house targets. That experience, in turn, became a top selling point for him to take over the department as superintendent in 2014, to help steer it through a federal consent decree mandating reforms.
Now, Harrison, 49, says all of that experience will serve him well in Baltimore, which faces similar corruption issues and is under a similar consent decree. It will help him ensure “fair, thorough and just investigations” into alleged misconduct, so that “justice is served and the citizens feel we have the capacity to honestly and objectively investigate ourselves.”
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she has chosen New Orleans police superintendent Michael Harrison to lead the city’s police department, a day after her previous pick for commissioner withdrew from consideration.
“I bring that skill set,” Harrison said in an interview in his office in New Orleans.
Nearly across the board, Harrison — who still must be confirmed by the Baltimore City Council — receives high marks here for improving community relations and implementing the city’s consent decree. Pugh has said she picked him in part because of those strengths.
But she also believes he will be able to stem crime — an equally important task as reform, and one for which his record is more mixed.
While homicides in the Louisiana city of 393,000 fell to 146 last year, the fewest in nearly half a century, the number of killings has fluctuated over Harrison’s tenure. Meanwhile, aggravated assaults have increased. Armed robberies were down last year, in part as a result of a targeted enforcement campaign that Harrison launched, but robberies are higher than they were the year before he became chief.
From 2013, the year before Harrison was appointed, to 2017, the most recent year for which crime data is available, the overall violent crime rate increased 43 percent, according to figures tracked by the FBI. Property crime rose 10 percent.
“It’s a complicated story. It’s not as if he came in and violent crime started to fall,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst and consultant to the New Orleans City Council. “Other than armed robberies, there hasn’t been a sustained reduction in any major crime type that can be traced back to any enforcement action. It’s a good year to be counting the murders, but it’s one year.”
In Baltimore, a city of 612,000 which had 309 homicides last year, Harrison’s ability to tackle street crime and reduce the bloodshed will be scrutinized. Some civic, business and law enforcement leaders have suggested the crime fight is more important than reforms, and Gov. Larry Hogan just last week said there’s been too much focus on the consent decree versus public safety.
“I think it’s out of balance,” Hogan said.
Harrison said he has the chops to introduce reforms and tackle crime simultaneously. He cites his years of experience in drug units, as a commander in troubled districts where retaliatory shootings mirror those in Baltimore, and as a chief who empowered tactical units and used analytical tools to help reduce killings.
Harrison attributed some of the increase in crime in recent years to better reporting of sexual assault cases. The FBI also changed its definition of rape in that period. But even excluding rape, violent crime climbed 32 percent from 2013 to 2017.
Harrison also stressed that when he took over in 2014, the department was understaffed and struggling to implement the consent decree. The changes he’s made, he said, mean the picture will improve in coming years.
When the New Orleans police superintendent resigned in 2014, the mayor promoted a 45-year-old commander to run the force over more senior officers. Five years later, however, Superintendent Michael Harrison has won over rank-and-file officers.
“We do believe the machine we built can go further and decrease crime,” he said.
He also knows the work to improve isn’t over, he said. Of that there are constant reminders.
Shortly after a morning New Orleans City Council hearing this past week where council members lavished Harrison with praise and wished him well in Baltimore, he was back in his office on the phone, asking for updates on a shooting the night before that wounded a 9-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man in the city’s Treme neighborhood.
“Keep me posted,” Harrison said.
An ordained pastor, Harrison said he sees a “divine opportunity” in coming to Baltimore, and believes that God’s hand was at work when he got a call from City Solicitor Andre Davis asking him to consider the position, and then an offer from Pugh last week.
“I’m excited for this opportunity,” he said. “God has blessed me, and I’m excited.”
Some say it may indeed take an act of God to save Charm City from its demons.
Baltimore is the most murderous big city in the United States. The police department has been exposed as a hot bed of corruption, where a recent federal investigation brought down a unit of detectives who stole and resold drugs on the street, among other crimes. The city’s consent decree was put in place in 2017 after U.S. Justice Department investigators determined Baltimore police had engaged for years in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing.
Outgoing New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has started the paperwork to collect his pension after nearly three decades with the force, and as per routine the payout would come in addition to his salary as Baltimore’s police commissioner.
The Baltimore Police Department operates with a half-billion dollar annual budget, but still manages to spend millions of dollars each month on overtime. Recruitment has been dismal, officer morale is poor, and crimes routinely go unsolved.
In May, then-Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who Pugh had installed four months prior, was federally charged with failing to file his tax returns and resigned. Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle said he didn’t want the permanent position. In November, Pugh put forward Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald for the position, but many on the City Council had concerns and he withdrew his name last week to deal with his teenage son’s medical issues.
Pugh quickly announced Harrison as her replacement. She has declined to discuss his salary, but has said the next commissioner could earn $260,000. Harrison earned $179,000 in New Orleans.
He will arrive in Baltimore as acting commissioner the first week of February, and will be officially nominated for City Council consideration only after a series of community forums, Pugh’s office has said. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said his office will vet Harrison, and the mayor’s office is in the midst of a similar review.
Harrison’s career is not without blemishes.
In 1999 he was sued, along with a federal agent and an officer from another department, over mistakenly raiding the wrong place during a drug investigation. The investigators had busted into what turned out to be the wrong part of a large house that had been divided into separate apartments, according to court records.
The federal government, New Orleans Police and another agency settled the case for $20,000 shortly before it was scheduled to go to trial, court records show. Harrison said that an investigation led them to the house and a judge signed the search warrant.
Michael Harrison, the New Orleans police superintendent named Tuesday as the next Baltimore police commissioner, stressed in his first interview the need for strong leadership if the department is to change its culture and reduce violent crime. Harrison talked Tuesday with The Baltimore Sun.
“There was no way to know, or no way to know then, there was a wall inside the house,” he said, referring to the division of the home.
In 2011, Harrison and other internal affairs investigators were sued by an officer they had investigated, who alleged they pulled him over and pressured him to resign. The officer didn’t pursue the case in court after the initial filing, records show.
The same year, Harrison received a one-day suspension for improperly disposing of some police uniforms, which he called a mistake.
Activists say Harrison has made progress in building credibility with black residents, but that police are still seen as a hostile force in some neighborhoods. Susan Hutson, who runs the city’s independent police watchdog, said that since Harrison took over she hasn’t received access to all the information that she'd like, but that he has taken transparency seriously.
And while the police are doing a better job of following the Constitution, Hutson’s office has shown that the city's black residents are still disproportionately stopped, arrested and subjected to force by officers.
“We’ve got a ways to go. I don't think we’re fixed by any means, but he’s really moved the ball forward,” Hutson said.
“If he can take the Wild Wild West like it was after Katrina, and then have this neighborhood calm, I know he can do it there.”
Connie Holmes, 69, New Orleans resident
Share quote & link
Malcolm Suber, a longtime activist, said Harrison has resisted calls to strengthen civilian oversight of the police — something that also is an ongoing battle in Baltimore. Hutson's office gets to follow investigations into police shootings as they happen, but it lacks power to subpoena the department or investigate misconduct by itself.
Suber called the lack of a civilian agency with subpoena power “the missing ingredient” in the city’s police reforms.
“You can’t have the police policing the police,” he said. “We would still characterize police in the neighborhoods as an occupation force. … It's not so blatant, 'We're going to kick your ass.' It's, 'Excuse me sir, may I kick your ass?'"
Harrison acknowledged he has reservations about a civilian body with subpoena power, saying he feared that could result in parallel investigations in important cases that produced two sets of testimony and two sets of evidence — potentially causing problems in court. But he said he generally welcomes oversight, including from Hutson’s office.
New Orleans officials estimate that they are 93 percent of the way to implementing the consent decree, and said in a document recently made public that the job would be done in “the very near future.” But in a response, the independent monitor overseeing the department's progress — which is separate from Hutson's office — said police were doing admirably but the department still had significant work to meet targets on community policing, unbiased policing and stops, searches and arrests.
Still, many people in New Orleans said Baltimore would be lucky to get Harrison — who they view as a change agent.
“Baltimore is the toughest police job in America right now. Baltimore is experiencing many of the same things that New Orleans has experienced in the last eight years,” said Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ former mayor who first tapped Harrison as police superintendent. “I think Mike is the right guy at this time for that city. Actually, I feel quite strongly about it.”
Many in New Orleans credit Harrison with helping close an ugly chapter of policing defined by decades of rampant corruption, in which black residents of New Orleans in particular endured what activists describe as “police terror.”
In 1994, just three years after Harrison joined the department, a police officer ordered the killing of a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. And a drug trafficking case targeting the same officer ended with convictions of a dozen officers.
Joel Fitzgerald, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s choice to become Baltimore’s next police commissioner, has withdrawn from consideration for the job, a decision that spells more uncertainty for a department that has now been with permanent leadership for more than seven months.
Around the same time, federal authorities teamed up against Richard Pena, one of the city's biggest drug traffickers, and Mitcher Hardin, a dealer who was Pena's top customer. That was the case Harrison worked on, ultimately wearing the wire as he accepted cash bribes at fancy dinners.
Mike Timko, the lead FBI agent on the case, said Harrison had a relentless work ethic and made invaluable contributions to the case.
“He was helping me morning, days, nights, whatever was needed,” said Timko, who is now retired from the FBI.
The investigation exposed more corruption in the police department. An officer in league with Pena kidnapped two people, who Pena's gang later killed. A second officer was convicted of drug charges.
In 2000, Felix Loicano — who was tapped to run Internal Affairs at the depths of the corruption — hired Harrison to the unit.
To protect the team from being infected, that meant vetting not only by the police, but by the FBI and an independent agency — and sitting for a polygraph examination.
“He was part of the good guys,” said Loicano, who is now retired.
But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath laid the department's ongoing brutality and corruption bare to the world. Katrina destroyed much of the city, and officers were implicated in crimes — such as the shooting of six unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge, the shooting of another man, Henry Glover, and the attempt to cover it up by putting his body in a vehicle and lighting it on fire on a levee.
Harrison, who was involved in investigating both those cases, allowed 22 members of the Internal Affairs unit to live in his home in the storm’s aftermath so they could continue working, but many other officers deserted their posts, and the police were blamed for allowing crime to spiral out of control.
Connie Holmes, 69, said her home in the city was badly damaged by Katrina, forcing her to flee to Texas, where she lived for more than two years. When she eventually came back, the house was uninhabitable as repairs were being made, and she lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in her front yard.
Crime was all around, she said, with gunshots ringing out. “They were playing Cowboys and Indians around the trailer at night, and I was hitting the deck.”
But as time went on, things improved. She recalled Harrison participating in an anti-violence parade in the neighborhood, and the police department becoming more responsive to calls and complaints. She said she came to trust Harrison and urged Baltimoreans to do the same.
“If he can take the Wild Wild West like it was after Katrina, and then have this neighborhood calm, I know he can do it there.”
At the City of Love church in New Orleans, where Harrison and his wife, C.C. Harrison, have been members and leaders for 19 years, people at a Wednesday night service were effusive in their support for the superintendent.
Bishop Lester Love, the leader of the church, said Baltimore is getting Harrison for a reason.
“The first round draft pick always goes to the worst team,” Love said. “Congratulations, Baltimore. Y’all getting LeBron James.”
After the service, congregants lined up to give their congratulations to C.C. Harrison, the superintendent’s high school sweetheart and wife.
C.C. Harrison said their “heads are spinning” in anticipation of the move, but she has no doubt her husband will succeed. He is calm in crisis, she said, and a natural leader.
After reading Baltimore’s consent decree, she said, her husband saw the New Orleans of five years ago. That he wanted to jump in again did not surprise her.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.