Baltimore Police Department needs a shake-up — but don't push out the good cops

Acting Deputy Police Commissioner Melvin Russell is widely credited with helping calm tensions after Freddie Gray's death. He will leave the department under a restructuring by new Commissioner Michael Harrison.
Acting Deputy Police Commissioner Melvin Russell is widely credited with helping calm tensions after Freddie Gray's death. He will leave the department under a restructuring by new Commissioner Michael Harrison. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has swiftly followed through on promises to change a department beset by corrupt cops, high homicide rates and a breakdown in support from the community. In a show of strong and deliberate leadership, he has moved to restructure the department, bringing in former colleagues from New Orleans familiar with consent decrees, and reducing the number of the highest ranking officers to create a more efficient organization. The department needed a cultural shift, and Mr. Harrison has shown since his confirmation March 11 that he is willing to make that happen. We can only hope the overhaul will eventually result in a drop in murders and other crimes, although Mr. Harrison has wisely cautioned that won’t happen overnight.

We’re all for a shake-up in the police department. It needed to happen. We only urge our new commissioner to keep balance in mind. There were clearly bad, corrupt officers in the department and policies and structures that allowed such an environment to fester. We also know that any shift in power comes with personnel changes, and some people are bound to retire or quit rather than accept the new way of life. But Mr. Harrison also needs to make sure he’s identifying and keeping officers with strong institutional knowledge and community connections. Otherwise, he risks losing what was working in the police department and further undermining morale among officers.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison speaks with reporters ahead of the graduating ceremony for the 29 new officers set to graduate Friday. (Jessica Anderson / Baltimore Sun video)

The coming departure of Deputy Baltimore Police Commissioner Melvin T. Russell, a 39-year veteran of the force who leads community outreach efforts and was a highly visible face of the department, has raised eyebrows from some in the community. During the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in April 2015, Mr. Russell walked into the crowd to urge calm. He wouldn’t have been able to do that without the relationships he had built in the community as he rose up the ranks over decades.

Then there is Lt. Col. LaTonya Lewis who became the highest ranking African American woman in the department last year when she was put in charge of homeland security. Under the restructuring, she now serves a much lower communications role. Police spokesman Matt Jablow said that Ms. Lewis is “still an important member of the department,” but it is hard to see how much influence she can have in such a diminished position.


Acting Deputy Baltimore Police Commissioner Melvin T.  Russell, a 40-year veteran of the force who leads community outreach efforts and was one of six finalists who interviewed last year for the top job, is leaving the department this week amid an organizational shake-up.

Commissioner Harrison praised Mr. Russell in a telephone interview and acknowledged he was beloved by the community. The need for change trumped that.

“I agree with the value Col. Russell brought to the city,” Mr. Harrison said. “Some people will say I don’t, and that is not true. But I am mandated to correct the structure within the department.” (We should note that lawmakers who support Mr. Russell also backed the commissioner’s decision to prioritize restructuring, and Mr. Russell himself urged support for Mr. Harrison.)

The commissioner said he is working to align people with their skill sets. He has also sought to better balance commander to officer ratios. Under the old structure, some leaders had 1,000 people under their command while some had seven.

The commissioner, who doesn’t like to refer to the personnel changes as a shakeup, also noted that there were still plenty of officers on the force with deep roots in the department and community.

To that point, on Tuesday department officials announced promotions and expanded roles for some of those people, including Col. Richard Worley, who becomes the chief of patrol, and Col. Byron Conaway, who will lead the city’s Criminal Investigation Division. The Community Collaboration Division will move under the chief of patrol’s office and be led by Lt. Col. Sheree Briscoe, a key and highly respected presence in the Western District where Freddie Gray was initially detained.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced additional command staff and structural changes Monday.

Ultimately, community policing will be part of the job description of everybody who serves in the department, Mr. Harrison said.

“It is what should be at our core,” he said, “the essence of what we are and what we do.”

Mr. Harrison has said he’s actively looking outside the department to fill critical roles, and at least three jobs have been listed with national law enforcement groups — chief financial officer, chief technology officer and police academy academic director. We understand some of this thinking given, for instance, the department’s dismal recruiting efforts under current leadership and the need to catch up the department’s technology to the current century. Some outsiders can help strengthen the department.

As he weeds out all that has served to foster mistrust in the department, Mr. Harrison should just remember the honest officers who have made inroads into the community and can also help turn the department in the right direction.

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