If Mayor Catherine Pugh’s political fortunes weren’t already tied to her selection of Baltimore’s next police commissioner, they definitely are now after she ignored widespread calls to engage in a more transparent, inclusive process once her first choice, Fort Worth Chief Joel Fitzgerald, backed out to attend to family health concerns. Instead of announcing the process for making a new choice, she simply named New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael S. Harrison as her nominee. It’s a bold move that could either become a lasting symbol of her decisive leadership or the choice that fatally weakens her administration.
We certainly hope it’s the former, not for her sake but for the city’s.
In the weeks ahead, we will learn much more about Mr. Harrison and his record, both through the work of reporters at The Sun and the efforts of the City Council, which has displayed an admirable commitment to vetting the mayor’s choice for this most crucial city post.
But at first blush, there are some encouraging signs in his record. In New Orleans, he has been operating under a federal consent decree like the one he would be tasked with implementing here. He spent a substantial portion of his career in internal affairs — something that should be top of mind for a Baltimore commissioner in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. And he comes from a city that, like Baltimore, has historically had high rates of violent crime. We’ll need to dig deeper into the record of his years as chief, but in general, the number of violent crimes and homicides specifically are an order of magnitude lower than they were when he joined the New Orleans Police Department 27 years ago. No one in Baltimore can say that.
And another thing: Mr. Harrison has been with one police department his entire career. He hasn’t moved quickly from one chief post to the next, as Mr. Fitzgerald has. In fact, he didn't even apply for the Baltimore post but was approached by the mayor’s search team, which rated him higher than Mr. Fitzgerald to begin with. Unlike Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Harrison has already announced his retirement from the New Orleans Police Department. He seems to be putting all his chips on the table for the Baltimore job. That’s good; we need that kind of commitment.
What happens next will be very important. In her announcement, Mayor Pugh promised that Mr. Harrison would participate in “a number of meetings with community leaders, neighborhood associations and citizens prior to the formal submission of his nomination to the City Council.” That process needs to be truly robust. Baltimore needs to get to know Mr. Harrison and understand his views on fighting crime and reforming a troubled police department before he is confirmed, and he needs to spend time getting to know Baltimore and its officers before he takes over as the city’s top cop. The lesson of Mr. Fitzgerald’s nomination, which had appeared to be troubled before his son’s health emergency forced his withdrawal, is that Baltimoreans won’t give their support to a new police commissioner automatically. It has to be earned.
The process for getting to this point is not what we would have liked or what we think this city needs or deserves. Of course, we also didn’t like the process by which the former schools CEO Gregory Thornton was pushed out and Sonja Santelises was hired to replace him. But we have never regretted the outcome. Baltimore’s police department needs a visionary leader who can rebuild trust in the community; inspire officers with a new model of effective, constitutional policing; root out corruption; and bring the department into the 21st century in its technology, tactics and management. If Mr. Harrison can do that, the messy process by which he came here will quickly be forgotten.
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