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Baltimore needs a superstar change agent as police commissioner; we should be willing to pay for it

Two things seem to have captured the public’s attention about the contract Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved this week for police commissioner nominee Michael Harrison: His salary ($275,000, a major bump over his predecessor) and the guarantee that he will get a year’s pay whether the City Council confirms him or not. Interesting though they may be, they’re not the most important things to focus on.

The guaranteed payout is unusual, but realistically it may have been necessary in this case. When Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nomination of Fort Worth police chief Joel Fitzgerald imploded, Baltimore’s crime fight risked a real tailspin if she had not been able to provide swift reassurance that the police department would get a strong leader well versed in improving the civil rights record and community relations of a big city department. Mr. Harrison fit the bill and came highly recommended. Luring him away from New Orleans — a city where he is well liked and had spent his entire career — to the rolling crisis that is the BPD cannot have been easy. We agree with those on the council and in the community who do not want this clause in his contract to become a precedent, but we don’t want anything about the process that got us from former Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s resignation to this point to become a precedent either. It has all been a mess. If this clause is part of the price we pay to extricate ourselves from it, so be it.

The salary is less of a concern. Yes, it is a lot of money, and yes, it is $65,000 more than Mr. De Sousa’s starting salary. But the difference amounts to a little more than one hundredth of a percent of the police department’s budget. If he can accomplish the task set before him — to simultaneously reduce crime, implement the reforms mandated by the city’s federal consent decree, restore community trust in the police and boost morale in the rank and file — he will earn that and then some. The fact that he will collect a six-figure pension from New Orleans is not our business. We set salaries based on the demands of the job, not the personal financial situation of the person who holds it.

The important parts of the contract are those that give Mr. Harrison incentives for performance and the authority to make changes necessary to achieve it — and those that give the city the ability to fire him if he fails to live up to our expectations.

We agree with City Council members who complain that the performance incentives in Mr. Harrison’s contract are too vague, but they have the power to do something about that. They can set out the parameters for such incentives through a resolution or through their annual approval of the mayor’s budget, and we urge them to do so. In addition to the measures Ms. Pugh suggested — reduction in homicides and recruitment for the department — we would suggest that Mr. Harrison should be measured on the swift and thorough implementation of consent decree-related reforms.

A truly crucial element of the contract is the specified authority for Mr. Harrison to bring to the department a chief of staff and as many as eight high-ranking commanders. Mr. Harrison needs to bring about a culture change in the Baltimore police, and it will be difficult for him to do so without changing the leadership more broadly. (On a related note, while we are concerned once again to see the department lose more officers than it has been able to hire, the continued departures from the ranks are not necessarily a problem to the extent that they represent people steeped in the BPD’s old ways of doing things.) Mr. Harrison is widely respected in national law enforcement circles, and he should use his contacts to recruit the best people he can find, not just those he has worked with in New Orleans.

Finally, Mayor Pugh did a wise thing in negotiating an expanded set of criteria by which Mr. Harrison could be fired for cause (and thus not be on the hook for the remaining balance of his contract). We certainly hope it doesn’t come to this, but given Baltimore’s experience, it’s smart to stipulate that the commissioner can be fired for any offense that would be grounds for termination of a BPD officer, indictment on felony or serious misdemeanor charges, breach of BPD or city administrative policy; or any conduct that “reasonably calls into question his moral character” or harms the department’s reputation, among other things. At least three of the last seven permanent commissioners could have been fired on one or more of those grounds.

If Mr. Harrison is as good as advertised, those termination clauses won't ever come into play, and questions about his salary will quickly be forgotten. He starts on Monday, so we’ll find out soon enough.

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