Next Baltimore police commissioner needs a new strategy
By Karl Bickel
Feb 10, 2019 at 6:00 AM
Michael S. Harrison talks about what the city of Baltimore can expect from him as the next police commissioner.
Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick for Baltimore police commissioner — newly retired New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison — officially assumes his role this week and kicks off a series of community meetings ahead of a vote on his nomination. While he has been widely praised as a solid choice, and a particular improvement over the mayor’s first pick, it may be time to pause and think about the path forward for the beleaguered department.
Since the year 2000, the Baltimore Police Department has had nine commissioners, interim and otherwise; Mr. Harrison will be the tenth (and the fifth just since 2015). We have seen time and again that bringing in a new commissioner, no matter how good they may be, who then appoints a few friends and colleagues to key positions, does not produce the organizational transformation required for a 21st century police department.
The Baltimore Police Department in particular needs more. It has been hobbled by community mistrust, corrupt practices and incompetence, along with a lack of quality leadership at all levels. These problems have been mounting for years and will not be resolved overnight.
The current situation actually presents an opportunity for the new commissioner to try a different approach, however. If successful, the BPD could be transformed into a first-rate department.
We have a deep bench of talented leaders from the policing field throughout the nation and in this region that can be drawn on to help. There are retired, and soon to be retired, police chiefs and command staff members with track records in progressive leadership who would like to stay in the game, so to speak. A dozen or more of these proven leaders could be brought in to fill some key positions on a temporary contract basis to implement change and mentor those who would take their place when their contract expires. Two, three and five year contracts could accommodate these leaders in choosing the level of commitment they would like to make and not have all of them leaving at the same time.
Partnering with a professional organization such as the Police Executive Research Forum, International Association of Chiefs of Police or the Police Foundation could aid in the development of a plan to: operationalize a new approach, recruit participants, secure financial assistance form federal, state and private sources, and complete and publish an evaluation of the project.
The most important parts of police commissioner nominee Michael Harrison's contract aren't the salary or the guaranteed payout. They're the ones that give him the power to reshape the department and hold him accountable for doing it.
This approach provides the new police commissioner the resources needed for success in transforming the Baltimore Police Department by using a cadre of proven leaders/mentors strategically placed throughout the organization. Done properly, and with a bit of luck, it could bring about a critical change in the department’s subculture.
Additionally, the institutionalization of real community policing efforts centered on transparency and partnership building might have some positive impact on the culture of the city at large, with the potential of becoming a model practice for others to follow when they are experiencing similar problems.
Michael Harrison will start work as Baltimore's police commissioner with a much more generous contract than the past three leaders of the police department, guaranteeing him a far higher salary, raises and other perks. But the deal also makes it easier a mayor to fire Harrison.
There are certain realities that must be faced. At a minimum it is going to take a five-year commitment to a new approach, one that will build leaders throughout the department who will change the culture of the organization. There will be bumps in the road along the way, and events will crop up that are out of the control of the police commissioner and political leaders. That should be expected and must not be permitted to derail efforts to move ahead.
It is time to stop doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Karl Bickel is a retired U.S. Department of Justice senior policy analyst and a former chief of law enforcement operations in Frederick County, Md. He started a career in policing with the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. He can be reached at KarlBickel@comcast.net