Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison says Baltimore will see a reduction in crime as a result of reforms mandated under the city’s federal consent decree — but only indirectly and not right away.
The consent decree, he said Monday, does not focus on slashing robberies, shootings and homicides, per se, but on establishing clear operating standards and building systems of accountability. Such systems — including specific performance metrics — will result in heightened police performance and greater community trust of officers.
And that, Harrison said, will in turn lead to the dismantling of criminal networks that facilitate such violence.
“It is really about reshaping the department so the department can perform at a high level,” he said.
“It is the equivalent of building a machine and then turning it on. For a while, it looks like nothing is happening,” Harrison said. “Actually, the machine is being built. And then the machine, at some point, will turn on and produce its expected outcomes.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nomination of Harrison as commissioner goes Wednesday before the City Council’s executive appointments committee. The full council is expected to approve the nomination as early as next week. He discussed his views of the consent decree during an interview Monday with the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun.
The city reached an agreement with the Justice Department on the decree in 2017, well before Harrison’s arrival here last month. But it will control how he maneuvers in his new position — and influence his tenure in Baltimore. Police commissioners here often last only a few years, and the vast majority have served for a shorter period of time than the consent decree is expected to last.
Harrison, the former New Orleans Police Department superintendent, oversaw similar reforms there. He suggested he did not view the Baltimore department's agreement as an impediment, but something that will facilitate changes that are “the right thing to do.”
He addressed one of the biggest criticisms of the Baltimore deal: that it makes police officers less inclined to intercede in situations that they have not been called to handle, in part because they fear new rules make them vulnerable to punishment. Harrison said some officers in New Orleans felt the same way — until commanders trained them and explained the consent decree in the proper context.
“The [New Orleans] officers started off, just like Baltimore, saying, ‘The consent decree is keeping us from doing what needs to be done,’” Harrison said. “That is absolutely not true. The consent decree does not do that. It only mandates that we do it in a constitutional way. And our training has to be sufficient to make sure our officers are well-trained to know how to do what needs be done.”
As he sees it, Harrison said, being police commissioner in Baltimore right now is a lot like being a doctor. He has to “assess, diagnose, prescribe, treat [and] evaluate” the Police Department, in that order.
That’s a different position than the one he found himself in when he was named superintendent in New Orleans, he said. He had come up in that department, and “knew the nuances” of it, he said. Also, when he took over in 2014, the technologies and resources the department needed to track progress were in place. The “machine,” as he put it, was already there.
Not so here, he said.
“Right now, it’s about figuring out what I have, who I have, what are the gaps, how do I fill those gaps, who do I fill them with, and making sure we have the right skill sets at every level to build this machine,” he said.
As more aspects of that work start clicking into place, residents “will see us affect crimes in different ways,” but “it does take a while for all of it to catch traction,” he said.
Not that everything related to the crime fight is determined by the consent decree, he said.
For instance, he is reviewing the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative zones, high-violence areas Pugh’s administration identified for intervention from city agencies. He is considering whether that effort has “displaced” crime, and whether the city should “adjust and redeploy,” he said.
Harrison said he knows Baltimore keeps close track of homicide figures, but the more valuable “indicator” of violent crime is nonfatal shootings, which “really gives you the temperature of the level of gun violence.”
Through Feb. 23, the most recent date for which city data is publicly available, homicides in the city were up 17 percent over the same time last year. Nonfatal shootings were up 62 percent.
Also Monday, the office of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young released transcripts of interviews by several council members of New Orleans community members. A council delegation visited that city Jan. 31-Feb. 1 to talk with people about Harrison.
Among those with positive things to say was police and prison reform advocate Norris Henderson. He told the council delegation that the first time he met Harrison, it was at a planning meeting for a “solidarity rally” at Jazz Fest for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from injuries suffered in 2015 in Baltimore Police custody.
Harrison walked in wearing civilian clothes, asked if he could “sit and talk,” and the group said he could. He asked if he could change their minds about rallying, and they said he could not.
“Then he figured it out,” Henderson said.
“He said, ‘Well, let us escort y'all to and from, because there’s going to be a lot of people getting out there drunk, going to see y'all protesting about police brutality. Some people may take a different opinion about what y'all are trying to do,’” Henderson said. “And so, that went off without a hitch.”