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With Harrison's impending confirmation, reason for hope in Baltimore's long struggle with crime and crooked cops

Acting Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison met with the Baltimore City Council as part of the confirmation process for him to become the next police commissioner. (Kevin Rector, Baltimore Sun video)

Michael Harrison will almost certainly be confirmed as Baltimore’s next permanent police commissioner when the City Council meets on Monday. He’s clearly qualified for the job, having run a major police department that’s also implementing a federal civil rights consent decree, and after a meet-and-greet blitz, virtually no one showed up to oppose him when the council’s executive nomination committee met and endorsed him, 5-0, on Wednesday. That’s a good thing, and not just because we’d be in serious trouble if another police commissioner nominee fell through after the Joel Fitzgerald debacle this fall. Mr. Harrison’s background and temperament give us reason for cautious optimism that he can make real progress on Baltimore’s pressing problems of police corruption, public mistrust and persistent, devastating violent crime.

Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison says that crime reductions will come as a result of policing reforms mandated under the city’s federal consent decree - but only indirectly, and not right away.

Mr. Harrison met with The Sun’s editorial board recently, and he came across as humble, thoughtful, straightforward and knowledgeable about his profession. He made no bold predictions about his ability to bring down the murder rate (indeed, he downplayed it as an indicator of the overall level of violence), and he offered up no manifesto on policing strategy. Rather, he focused on the nuts and bolts of modernizing the BPD under the auspices of the consent decree — upgrading the department’s technology, improving training, establishing new accountability procedures and rooting out corruption.

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At a time when some within Baltimore and without are questioning whether the consent decree is tying the hands of police in the fight against violence, Mr. Harrison clearly articulated the case for how it and effective crime fighting are complimentary, not contradictory. Meeting the terms of the consent decree means increasing the level of professionalism within the department. That leads to more disciplined officers presenting better evidence to prosecutors, who will then be more able to secure convictions. It means fostering citizens’ belief that the police are honorable and trustworthy, which makes them more willing to come forward as witnesses and more receptive as jurors. It makes the department a place where good officers want to work and stay.

In 2014, a new Baltimore Police unit probing officers’ use of force began looking at an incident in Northeast Baltimore, in which Sgt. Wayne Jenkins had run down a man with his vehicle. At no point did they know that Sgt. Keith Gladstone had stopped by the scene — and allegedly planted a BB gun.

At a time when the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and the department’s inability to uncover it continue to make the news, it was heartening to hear that Mr. Harrison considers the nine years he spent in the New Orleans Police Department’s internal affairs division to have been the most formative. It helped him see the department where he spent his entire career until now from an outside perspective, and that made him a better change agent when he later catapulted up the ranks. Internal affairs here clearly needs work — Mr. Harrison says he already sees signs that the officers there aren’t always as good as the ones they’re investigating. Ensuring consistent, transparent and thorough investigations of possible wrongdoing by Baltimore police officers will go a long way toward restoring community trust.

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The one objection raised to Mr. Harrison’s confirmation at Wednesday night’s committee meeting was that he is not from Baltimore and does not understand the city’s communities and history the way a native would. Fair enough; the last true outsider we hired as commissioner, Anthony Batts, never quite fit in — recall the Californian’s marveling that white-black racism existed here.

But although his slight New Orleans accent gives him away as a non-native, Mr. Harrison does get what it’s like to serve in a community with deep divisions on race and class lines, and he has lived first-hand the difficult process of righting a dysfunctional police department. Yes, he has a learning curve when it comes to Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the history of police-community relations here, but he also has an outsider’s perspective and doesn’t owe anything to anyone in this city. Baltimore pursued him, not the other way around. He has a free hand to evaluate the talent that exists in the BPD and to recruit the best from other departments to fill in what’s lacking. That's a good position from which to drive culture change.

We’ve seen a lot of police commissioners over the years, including many whose promising starts turned to disappointment. The job has always been difficult and unforgiving, and never more so than now. But Mr. Harrison offers not only the knowledge of how to reform a big city police department but also the ability to inspire — to inspire rank-and-file officers that they can succeed with a new model of constitutional policing and to inspire residents to believe that the violent crime that has plagued our city for generations can be quelled. We wish him the best of luck.

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