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From one consent decree to another: Can police chief Harrison repeat New Orleans' success in Baltimore?

It was a troubled department. A U.S. Justice Department investigation found police officers often used deadly force contrary to policy or law. “Productivity” was measured by “quantity, rather than quality, of encounters and arrests.” And internal affairs investigations meant to identify and deter misconduct did “not function as an effective accountability measure.”

In many ways, the New Orleans Police Department mirrored Baltimore.

“Our department was considered one of the worst departments in the United States,” said Otha Sandifer, commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree compliance unit.

But under the leadership of Superintendent Michael Harrison, he said, “we’ve turned that ship.”

Harrison, who left the New Orleans department in January to become Baltimore’s next police commissioner, is again taking the challenge of leading a troubled department through expansive court-ordered reforms, while also dealing with a community largely distrustful of police. New Orleans was the subject of a Justice Department civil rights investigation in 2011; Baltimore was in 2016; both probes were followed by consent decrees.

“This consent decree, like New Orleans’, requires an intense makeover, a 100 percent makeover,” Harrison told local business leaders at a recent meeting. Other cities have been tasked with “two or three items to correct. Here, it’s a 100 percent makeover.”

He continued, “You really have to change the way we think and perceive, and deliver police services. Everything needs to change. It’s an entire paradigm shift.”

Harrison said he built the New Orleans Police Department into one that embraces its consent decree, in part by bringing a “no-nonsense approach to transparency and accountability” among the department’s top brass. He said years of working in the department’s internal affairs section – focused on integrity – were core to his policing experience.

That experience made him a top candidate for the Baltimore job.

“It was huge,” said Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis, who aided Mayor Catherine Pugh in the search. “He did a fantastic job.”

The two consent decrees are “not a complete overlap,” Davis said, but both focus on constitutional policing, de-escalation, community engagement and working with the behavioral issues.

“There’s a lot of commonality,” he said.

The Baltimore City Council is expected to approve Pugh’s nomination of Harrison at a meeting Monday at City Hall. He won the unanimous support of a council committee last week.

Ronal Serpas, the New Orleans police superintendent before Harrison and now a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said he has studied many cities that have come under federal consent decrees and has found many commonalities among them.

“You find poor choices in senior leaders who failed to maintain forward thinking and cities that also went through tremendous financial difficulties,” he said.

In Baltimore, Justice Department officials in 2016 found that officers routinely made unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and used excessive force, which resulted in deep community mistrust of the agency.

The city and Justice Department entered into a consent decree in April 2017.

Over the first year, the Police Department has met a considerable number of requirements, the judge and officials from the city, justice department and monitoring team have said.

“We’ve met almost 200 requirements set in the first-year monitoring plan, which is really remarkable if you look at the things going on,” said Michelle Wirzberger, chief of the department’s Consent Decree Implementation Unit.

She said the consent decrees in New Orleans and Baltimore focus on reforms related to training, officer misconduct, technology, community engagement and officer assistance and support.

Both consent decrees, for example, mandated changes to the way the departments handled misconduct investigations. In Baltimore, the department is still reeling from the federal racketeering convictions of eight Gun Trace Task Force officers who regularly violated citizens’ rights, conducted illegal searches and stole drugs and money. All of them either pleaded guilty or were convicted by a jury at trial and face or have begun serving jail sentences between seven and 25 years.

Officials agree that misconduct evaluations are important to ensure the department can investigate its own and deter wrongdoing by officers.

“The culture of the agency is really created to a very significant extent by internal affairs,” Davis said. “That’s where the ethos of the departments are set. People who are investigating serious allegations of misconduct — that changes the whole culture of the organization. It kind of becomes like muscle memory…. We report on people who don’t do right. That was the big failure in Baltimore,” he said, referring to the Gun Trace Task Force case.

In New Orleans, the department has been using the Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) program, which trains and empowers officers to intervene in potential misconduct before it happens. Wirzberger said the parties plan to bring the program to Baltimore given its success in New Orleans.

“The NOPD EPIC program is still in its infancy, but it shows great promise,” the New Orleans independent monitoring team wrote in the latest consent decree report released in January.

New Orleans made other changes to how it handles such investigations, including revising how misconduct complaints are received, investigated and adjudicated, which has increased the “public confidence in the NOPD’s ability to police itself,” the New Orleans monitoring team said. Officers who report misconduct also know they will not be punished, the monitoring team said.

The number of complaints made by the public against officers decreased from 669 in 2013 to 470 in 2017, the latest report from the New Orleans monitoring team said.

The New Orleans department has also seen other improvements, which local officials hope will be the case in Baltimore.

In New Orleans, the department has implemented new polices and protocols, which the monitoring team said had resulted in fewer use-of-force incidents, from nine in 2013 to zero last year. Of 122 use-of-force incidents reviewed by the monitors, none were found to be unreasonable.

In Baltimore, much of the work to date has focused on rewriting police department policies and is now shifting to training officers. The number of hours officers will spend in training will increase from 23 hours to 40 hours this year.

“You’ve got to be able to train your officers to handle anything they might handle on the street in a constitutional manner,” Wirzberger said. Part of the challenge, she said, is “completely re-imagining how we go about training.” Rather than relaying information to officers using a PowerPoint, she said, “We’re getting them to engage in scenarios, so they’re gaining muscle memory.”

In addition to increased training, Baltimore and New Orleans, like other cities, are also required to spend more on technology.

Baltimore is expected to spend up to $65 million on technology upgrades in the department. That cost is on top of annual costs to the independent monitoring team.

Many consent decrees also require departments to better engage the community, to discuss the consent decree, but also build long-term partnerships. The consent decree in Baltimore will require surveys of residents’ feelings toward the department “to inform policies, training and practices,” according to the Baltimore monitoring team’s second-year plan.

A 2017 survey by the monitoring team in New Orleans found that improvements in its latest survey “show a significant positive trend in community, officer, and detainee perception” of the department.

Wirzberger said her team was also working to make improvements in the upcoming year to engage more residents, a trend that she said would help educate them about the consent decree but also bridge relationships. Ultimately, better relationships will also help the department fight crime, she said.

“Engaging with the community, making sure we have strong relationships with them, making sure they feel comfortable telling us what is happening on their street on their stoop — that will help us solve crime,” she said.

Under Harrison’s tenure in New Orleans, overall violent crime rose, but homicides have declined. Harrison has said the department had to overcome many challenges, but believed further crime reductions would continue.

He believes he can replicate New Orleans’ success in Baltimore.

“The worst police department in America turned itself around,” he said, “because the men and women executed the plan, and people were held accountable.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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