If you’re looking for a tangible sign that Baltimore is better disposed toward Mayor Catherine Pugh’s new nominee to take over the police department than it was toward the last one, consider this: The City Council is sending half as many members to New Orleans to check out Michael Harrison as it did to Fort Worth to conduct background interviews about Joel Fitzgerald. Even Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the council’s most outspokenly critical member when it comes to the Baltimore Police Department and a firm believer in the idea that the department should be put under civilian, not sworn, leadership, says what he’s heard so far about Mr. Harrison is encouraging. The same goes for Councilman Brandon Scott, a frequent critic of the mayor on public safety issues and a vocal skeptic of the Fitzgerald nomination.
To be sure, the council still intends to vet the New Orleans police leader, as do local police watchdog groups. But the uproar about the way Mayor Pugh made her choice has, to a significant degree, faded with the general optimism that she has now made a good one.
But the council nonetheless passed a resolution last week asking the General Assembly to change the rules for selecting future commissioners. The council can’t do it themselves because the Baltimore Police Department is, technically, a state agency and is subject to public local laws passed by the legislature. The proposal calls for the establishment of a search committee whenever a vacancy for commissioner occurs, comprised of eight members of the public (five appointed by the mayor, three by the City Council president), in addition to several standing members, including representatives from the General Assembly and the Fraternal Order of Police. It’s a clear reaction to the complaints by council members and residents (as well as this editorial page) that Mayor Pugh didn’t live up even to the standards of transparency she initially set for herself, much less what is practiced in other cities.
In principle, we like the idea. Baltimore mayors (including Ms. Pugh) have in the past used advisory committees to help them vet police commissioner candidates, but their work has not been fully transparent. We believe the public would feel more invested in the process and supportive of the eventual selection if they knew who was doing the vetting and had opportunities to express their views about what kind of a leader the police department needs. For that matter, we would like to see Baltimore adopt the process used in many other cities in which finalists appear at public meetings before the mayor makes his or her selection. Mayor Pugh rejected that idea, believing that no one would apply under those circumstances, but it works elsewhere. And given that some of the people The Sun identified as finalists in the search that produced Mr. Fitzgerald said they were still interested in the post after his nomination imploded suggests that good candidates for a job like this aren’t so easily scared away.
But we have some questions about the proposal, too. Would a mayor be required to choose from the names the committee forwards? Given the practical reality that mayors and commissioners need to have the closest of working relationships, we’re not sure how that would work. Baltimore has frequently changed commissioners during crime spikes or other times of extreme duress. Would there be sufficient flexibility for a mayor to respond in an emergency situation?
We certainly hope this will turn out to be an abstract concern — that Mr. Harrison will prove the leader many expect he will be and that he will provide the department with the years of stability it needs. But the continued discussion about the selection process reflects broader concern about oversight and accountability in the police department, even amid the ongoing reforms mandated by the city’s consent decree with the federal Department of Justice. Whatever its merits, this proposed reform won’t fix that. A more substantive change the legislature could make would be to return the police department to full local control. That way the City Council could decide on its own whether to reform the process for selecting a commissioner next time that comes up — and can respond to the many other issues that will arise in the meantime.
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