Standing before a crowd of more than 75 religious leaders at a meet-and-greet for clergy on Thursday, acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison described his recent arrival in the city as a “calling” from God — and one for which his own experience as a church elder in New Orleans prepared him well.
“Ministry has prepared me for this. It has taught me to be sensitive to the needs of people, people who are hurting, people from all walks of life, all faiths,” Harrison said during the lunch on the Cylburn Arboretum campus.
“Had it not been for ministry, I do not think I would understand the calling that I have and the seriousness and the importance of what needs to be done here — and why, perhaps, God chose me, as opposed to anybody else.”
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh nominated Harrison last week as police commissioner after a 28-year career in his hometown of New Orleans, where he rose to the top of the department. At the City of Love church in New Orleans, Harrison was ordained a deacon in 2003 and as a church elder, or minister, in 2010. His wife, C.C., also served in a leadership role there.
Harrison said Thursday that in Baltimore, where churches are often the only stable institutions left in neighborhoods riddled by bullets, the role that religion plays in bringing about a future with less crime and better police relationships cannot be understated. And he called on the priests and pastors, the rabbis and imams, and other ministers before him Thursday to own that responsibility.
When the Rev. Derrick DeWitt of the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Sandtown-Winchester asked Harrison about the Baltimore Police Department’s trouble recruiting officers, for example, Harrison tasked those in the room with helping by communicating to their members that joining the department would be a way to serve their communities.
“If you think things need to change, come join our ranks and be a catalyst for change and help us change it,” Harrison said. “That will be one message you’ll see and hear me bring to you, to put before the congregations. Because that’s the best marketing tool, when you’re a pastor and you say, ‘God has told me to tell you to go be a Baltimore police officer.’ ”
Those in the room erupted in laughter, but Harrison — who will make $275,000 his first year — reiterated the point.
“People respect and revere their faith leaders, and your influence is far-reaching, and when people are looking for career advice, and especially when they have a calling to do something, they will tell you they have a calling,” he said. “Sometimes, it comes across as a calling to preach, but sometimes, it’s a calling to serve and protect.”
Many in the room nodded.
The City Council is expected to vote next month on Harrison’s appointment, and he’s expected to receive broad support. Ahead of that vote, Harrison has been attending town halls in neighborhoods across the city.
Unlike those events, Thursday’s meeting wasn’t open to the public. It was intimate and faith-focused. And many who attended came away with added confidence in Harrison’s ability to shepherd Baltimore to a new and better future, with more caring officers who enforce the law according to the Constitution and as part of a department with improved morale.
“I have a very good feeling about him. I truly believe that God has placed him here for a purpose,” said Vivian Utsey-Davis, director of youth and young adult services at Faith Baptist Church in East Baltimore and a chaplain for the Police Department.
Others weren’t quite sold.
The Rev. Louis Wilson, senior pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester, said he’s reserving judgement until he sees whether police begin to treat people on the streets as humans in need of help, services and a friendly ear.
“We’ll see,” Wilson said.
Bishop Lester Love, the leader of City of Love in New Orleans, said before a service there last month that Harrison worked hard to keep clergy — and other leaders in New Orleans — apprised of what was happening inside the Police Department. Love said Baltimore could expect more of the same.
“Chief Harrison developed relationships with clergy, the educators, the business world, and kind of let us know what was going on within the Police Department — the real numbers, where we were, what’s going on, how we can help — which I felt was very refreshing,” Love said.
On Thursday, Harrison said he planned to form a group of interfaith advisers, similar to one he organized in New Orleans, and to visit congregations of many faiths in his role as commissioner.
Personally, he said he and his wife are visiting churches to find the one they will call home — demurring with a smile when several pastors at the lunch courted him to join their flocks.