Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison: His calming, steady presence was still not enough | COMMENTARY

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Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, here at a December 2019 news conference, is stepping down after four years on the job with his successor, Richard Worley, right, chosen by Mayor Brandon Scott. File. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

When Michael S. Harrison was sworn in as Baltimore police commissioner in 2019 by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, he pledged to achieve at least two things. He said he would make the city safe, while helping it meet the requirements of a court-ordered consent decree. In short, fewer murders and more constitutional policing.

Four years and three months later, it was announced Thursday that he would be stepping down before the end of his five-year contract in March 2024. Meanwhile, Baltimore is still under the auspices of that consent decree, which oversees systemic changes in training of officers, in accountability and in community relations. As for gun violence, the numbers remain stubbornly high despite modest signs of success in neighborhood violence reduction and other programs. In a news release, Scott said nonfatal shootings are down 8% this year, and homicides are down 19%. In 2022, the city’s homicide count surpassed 300 for the eighth straight year. By last weekend, it had topped the 118 mark for 2023, or roughly one murder every 1.3 days. If that pace continues, Baltimore could finally see the mark fall below 300 for the year, but perhaps not by much. It’s hard to celebrate that as a win.


In short, Commissioner Harrison leaves office neither hero nor goat, but as someone who often presented a calm, steadying and thick-skinned presence (no doubt informed by his time as police superintendent of New Orleans). These were attributes sorely needed in a community still feeling wary of law enforcement in the wake of Freddie Gray unrest in 2015 and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal of 2017, not to mention the brief and controversial tenures of Harrison’s predecessors. They include Darryl De Sousa (sentenced to federal prison for failing to file tax returns) and Kevin Davis (fired by Pugh for failing to stem the homicide count five years ago).

Commissioner Harrison was involved in no personal scandals. He seemed, as promised, a 24/7 presence appearing at crime scenes or a City Hall podium when required. He did not kowtow to the police union, nor did he throw up barricades to much-needed reforms. Indeed, he seemed to get along well with the federal monitor, while often publicly supporting his officers and advocating for greater resources — including just this week before the Baltimore City Council. Many credit him with making the department run better and more professionally, and getting it to embrace those much-needed reforms.


Yet, in the end, there is no avoiding the numbers. And not just the gun violence statistics but perhaps the voting tally. Mayor Brandon Scott will face a contested Democratic city primary in 10 months. With the nomination of now-acting Commissioner Richard Worley as top cop, Scott gets a fresh start and, at least in theory, a recalibration of expectations. Worley’s 25 years of experience in the department (including as chief of detectives) and the very real possibility the homicide tally will fall below 300 this year should yield some symbolic political boost — or at least partially deflect criticism that can now be heaped on the departed Harrison. Whatever the conversation that led to the commissioner’s abrupt decision to step down, it seems unlikely that politics did not play some role.

Nevertheless, the transition should provide an opportunity for a fresh assessment of strategies and investments. Worley’s knowledge of Baltimore, as a Pigtown native, and of his department; his better relationship with the police rank-and-file; and the trust that the mayor clearly places in him (as the local district commander from Scott’s days on the City Council) may all be helpful in this regard. His quick appointment without a national search is troubling however, especially without explanation. The mayor might have been vetting him for months, but Scott gave no indication of that during Thursday’s new conference.

That the commissioner’s announcement came with some aura of mystery and foreshadowing (he was specifically questioned about an early departure in the Tuesday council budget hearing) seems par for the course, given the pattern of rapid turnover among the mayor’s senior staff. Whatever the merits of the departed or the new arrivals, the ongoing personnel churn does not inspire confidence.

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