Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Monday that her new choice to become police commissioner will hold community meetings in all nine of the city’s police districts in the coming weeks, as part of a plan to build support for her pick.
In the meantime, New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison will begin work as acting commissioner by Feb. 11, Pugh said — and possibly earlier.
“The community meetings are going to be the most important for him,” Pugh said. “He wants to meet the people. He wants to get to know Baltimore.”
Friday is Harrison’s last day in New Orleans, a city where he climbed the ranks to lead the Police Department. Pugh said Harrison is planning to come to Baltimore next week at his own expense to look for a place to live.
No public meetings are planned for next week and details of Harrison’s schedule once he’s on the job are still being worked out, but Pugh said she’s thinking of holding the community meetings at schools during February.
It’s not yet clear when Pugh will formally nominate Harrison to the City Council. Once she does, council members have several weeks to hold hearings and votes. By the third council meeting after a nomination, the council must vote or a nominee is automatically approved, according to the city charter.
The Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, a coalition of activist groups, has called for Harrison to meet with residents across the city to gain support and convince community members that the police will be responsive to their concerns.
“We want to ensure there is an opportunity for community members to meet this new police commissioner nominee as early as possible,” said Lydia Walther Rodriguez, a spokeswoman from the group.
“It’s extremely important when it’s someone who’s coming from another city because he needs to be able to hear directly from community and he needs to hear from residents who've been living here for years.”
After struggling to secure political and community buy-in for her first choice, Pugh envisions a different approach to building support for Harrison.
Pugh’s first pick, Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, declined to begin work in Baltimore before being confirmed by the Baltimore City Council. He withdrew last week after his son suddenly became seriously ill, but Fitzgerald had planned to spend little time in Baltimore — greeting the community at two meetings on the weekend before his confirmation hearing.
“Community members were not reached out [to] until very late in the process,” Rodriguez said.
The selection of a police commissioner is widely viewed as one of the most important decisions in Baltimore this year. The city has seen four years with more than 300 homicides annually and is in the midst of implementing reforms as part of a civil rights decree designed to stamp out discriminatory policing.
The stakes have been reflected in efforts by community organizations and council members to subject the mayor’s nominees to scrutiny.
The council president’s office is planning a visit to New Orleans, similar to a trip by a council delegation in December to Fort Worth to look into Fitzgerald. On Monday, an aide to Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the details were still being worked out.
The council president is also seeking extensive information from the mayor about Harrison, including information about any lawsuits and internal New Orleans police investigations. Questions about access to such records roiled Fitzgerald’s confirmation process, with four council members saying they wouldn’t vote for him without the information.
Rodriguez said her group is conducting its own investigation into Harrison and would be contacting community organizations in New Orleans to learn more about him.
On Friday, Councilman Zeke Cohen said he planned to have Harrison meet with members of a public safety task force in his district.
“I would encourage the nominee to do the same in each and every police district across Baltimore,” Cohen tweeted.
Even as they weigh Harrison’s nomination, council members also looked to change the process a mayor follows to choose future leaders of the Police Department. The council adopted a resolution Monday on a voice vote that calls on the General Assembly to create a committee to help the mayor pick a commissioner.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who introduced the resolution, said so far he’s heard positive things about Harrison and is glad he will begin work as acting commissioner.
“That's great for this one time after a disastrous appointee, but moving forward that needs to be the standard,” he said. “Having an open and transparent search for police commissioner has to be a mandatory thing.”
Scott’s resolution attracted eight co-sponsors.
However, Young said Monday that he opposed the idea.
“The commissioner’s position is the choice of the mayor,” Young said. “It should remain with the mayor.”
Scott is looking for a state legislator to bring up the idea in Annapolis. State Sen. Bill Ferguson said he’d discussed the idea with Scott and said he wasn’t sure what the best approach was.
“I’m certainly open to considering any legislation that enhances transparency and engagement for the citizens of Baltimore,” Ferguson said. “The process we’ve had to date has not been ideal.”