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.
Union leaders called it a slap in the face. Some saw the move as intended to curry favor with the churches; this new chief preached on Sundays.
Five years later, however, Superintendent Michael Harrison has won over rank-and-file officers, even while navigating tough reforms under a federal consent decree.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has named him her choice to lead the city’s Police Department.
“He’s well liked as a person; he’s respected by the troops,” said Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, the union that represents officers. “He was a good police officer. He did his job, and he did it the way it was supposed to be done.”
In 27 years with New Orleans police, Harrison, 49, rose from a patrol officer to run the department in his hometown. He earned a reputation as an approachable commander, someone who doesn’t shy from the public and who cares for his cops. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he opened his home to some officers.
Last year, a survey of 281 New Orleans officers found 80 percent believed Harrison was leading the department in the right direction.
“He has a humbleness that you don’t typically see in the law enforcement world,” said Jason Rogers Williams, the New Orleans City Council president. “He was widely respected and widely appreciated in poor communities as well as affluent.”
While leading the department, Harrison formed a specialized TIGER Unit to suppress gun violence. New Orleans closed 2018 with its fewest homicides in 47 years. Harrison partnered with a nonprofit to redouble recruiting efforts. New Orleans police now receive 5,000 applications a year, recruiters say.
Harrison’s biggest task, however, came with the implementation of the federal consent decree. The U.S. Department of Justice faulted New Orleans Police for an array of unconstitutional tactics, everything from bad stops and racial profiling to excessive force and failing to investigate crimes against women.
Harrison took over as the department was ordered to change under the watch of federal monitors. The scene was fraught for turmoil.
“There was relatively little drama,” said Peter Scharf, a professor of criminal justice at the LSU School of Public Health in New Orleans. “Mike has been exceptionally skilled at implementing a very tough, monitored, performance-driven consent decree process. He’s invested in that and achieved quite a bit of buy-in.”
In Baltimore, he would find himself in the same position. Justice Department officials have ordered similar reforms after Baltimore Police were found to routinely violate constitutional rights of citizens.
“That gives Mike a real leg up. He’s actually lived through this already,” said Ronal Serpas, the previous New Orleans chief who also ran the Nashville Police and Washington State Patrol. “I’ve always thought that Mike was among the top leaders throughout the country.”
Pugh’s panel of advisers had recommended Harrison from among six finalists for the job. But Harrison previously said he was not interested in leaving New Orleans.
Tuesday morning brought the surprise announcement by Pugh. She named Harrison one day after her first choice, Fort Worth police chief Joel Fitzgerald, backed out. Harrison still requires approval of the Baltimore City Council.
Harrison earned a salary of $179,000 in New Orleans. Pugh has said her next top cop could earn $260,000 a year.
With 3,100 officers and civilians, the Baltimore Police force is more than twice as large as New Orleans’. Similarly Baltimore has a population of more than 600,000 compared with about 400,000 in New Orleans.
Both cities grapple with poverty, gun violence and urban decay, whether from vacant homes or the damage of Hurricane Katrina.
An ordained minister, Harrison also preaches at the popular City of Love Church in New Orleans. He met his wife while in high school there. They have been married 27 years and have two grown children.
"She knows this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Harrison said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "We both are public servants at heart, and it's in our DNA. I think that's why it's why we're so evenly matched."
After high school, he joined the Louisiana Air National Guard. Then at 21 years old, he decided to become a police officer. By late 1991, he served as a patrol officer in New Orleans.
"I applied, fell in love with it and never looked back," he said.
As an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, Melanie Talia routinely called a young Harrison to testify in court. She now runs a nonprofit that raises money for police equipment and recruits new officers.
“He came to court and he told it like it was,” she said. “If it was a great case and a great set of facts: here it is. And you know what, if it wasn’t a great case and wasn’t a great set of facts: here it is.”
Harrison climbed the ranks, working as a narcotics detective, a night watch sergeant and lieutenant. He spent more than nine years in internal affairs.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Loyola University New Orleans, among other management degrees.
In 2012, he took command of the 7th District, the largest and busiest police district in New Orleans.
"My body of work in the 7th district made the mayor take note,” he said, “and made him think I was capable of running the department.”
In August 2014, Serpas abruptly resigned as superintendent. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu tapped Harrison as interim, then permanent successor.
Scharf, the criminal justice professor, said some officers resented Harrison’s sudden rise.
“That was a source of discontent,” he said. “Over time he built really good collateral in the department.”
At the time, the force faced persistent budget shortfalls and a poor reputation. The force was still marred by the notorious Danziger Bridge shooting of 2005. New Orleans officers opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians, killing two.
Landrieu leaned on Harrison to turn things around. "He did a spectacular job,” Landrieu said.
Still, Harrison allows politics to interfere with decisions, says Hessler, the police union attorney. He says the superintendent backed a failed civilian security patrol. Harrison also shifted the department away from merit-based promotions. Hessler said the courts have faulted the department over the shift.
Harrison, however, enjoys widespread support in New Orleans. City leaders there wonder whether Harrison alone can bring his past successes to Baltimore.
"The police chief is not a white knight who fixes everything on his own," Landrieu said.