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Commissioner: focused on transforming Baltimore Police Department into one ‘community wants, needs, deserves’ | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, center, walked this month among protesters seeking law enforcement reform after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, center, walked this month among protesters seeking law enforcement reform after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Shortly after the brutal killing of George Floyd, I got a call from my daughter. As a child of a cop, the magnitude of these moments is never lost on her, but she just wanted to talk to her dad while also lamenting the death of yet another Black person at the hands of law enforcement.

After expressing my support for her wish to protest against police brutality and social injustices, I took a moment to reflect on my career in law enforcement and how that journey has brought me to Baltimore.

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In 1994, New Orleans — with a population of fewer than 500,000 residents — saw 424 murders and was grappling with a police department plagued with corruption. Two decades later, the Department of Justice would go on to label the NOPD as the worst police department in America. The next year, I became the chief of that department.

I know what it’s like to be part of an agency that, at times, is a source of embarrassment and shame due to the action of bad officers.

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I have heard the analogy of “a few bad apples” over and over again, but the whole phrase is, “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” Policing reform needs to focus on the bunch, and even redesigning the barrel in which the apples are held.

I know the immense pride that comes from being part of that same law enforcement “bunch” whose shortcomings are exposed, confronted and ultimately reformed. I also know the feeling when that agency becomes a model of national reform, while also reducing violent crime and rebuilding community trust.

Given the events from the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on from where the Baltimore Police Department has come, where we are today and what lies ahead.

As our nation now rallies for justice and for reforms to failed policing policies and practices, I want to assure all Baltimoreans that I remain focused on transforming their police — our police — department into one that our community wants, needs and, most importantly, deserves.

The truly horrific use of excessive force that resulted in George Floyd’s death can never be justified or permitted. Last year, BPD fully implemented its new Use of Force Policy, which was developed in collaboration with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and approved by our Consent Decree Monitors with input from the community. The core principles of this new policy include recognition of the sanctity of human life, the priority if de-escalation, the duty to intervene and provide medical assistance, and a clearly-defined threshold for acceptable uses of force.

But it’s going to take more than just updating policies, it requires changing the culture of the whole agency, from the inside-out and from the top to the bottom. The Baltimore Police Department will soon implement its own version of peer intervention training modeled from the Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) program in New Orleans. We must empower and encourage officers who speak out and intervene when they witness the bad actions of their colleagues. Right is always right even when no one is doing it. Wrong is always wrong, even if everyone is doing it.

Just as professional training can be the catalyst to transforming police culture, targeting root causes of violence is the catalyst to sustained reductions in violent crime.

We are developing our focused deterrence program, which is a critical component of the BPD’s Violence Reduction Strategy and seeks to address the conditions that fuel the culture of violence in our city. This program will connect sustainable networks that positively engage our youth and also bring to bear the community’s resources surrounding prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and reentry efforts. This approach was recently validated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and the BPD supports their recommendations.  

As I have said from my first day as your commissioner: Police cannot do it alone.

We have taken innovative steps with our communities in adopting the city’s first ever true Community Policing Plan, which is the foundation for providing transparency, establishing accountability and rebuilding public trust with the BPD. We must align our operations with community expectations to build better relationships with the communities we serve.

Phrases like “defund the police” don’t scare me. I’ve overseen the rooting out of millions of dollars of waste and abuse at the BPD in my short time here, and I believe fiscal responsibility supported by sound financial planning is how we build a foundation of trust. At all costs, we must guard against arbitrary cuts that will inhibit our ability to implement reforms and keep the public safe. We must not defund progress.  

In all that we do to bring about reform, we must be deliberate, innovative and collaborative.

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I, along with the entire BPD, share the urgency to drive down violent crime. Couple this with a renewed commitment to reforms and we will rebuild trust. Not because it is court mandated, but because it is the right thing to do. It ensures that we are reducing crime in the right way, the constitutional way and the way that builds relationships that were once broken, instead of perpetuating a cycle of violence between law enforcement and our communities. We must move away from a “warrior” mentality and shift to a philosophy of “guardianship” that invests and cares deeply about protecting all those in our community.

Policing reform efforts are not just a professional motivation for me; it’s a personal one. Like many Black parents, I too have had to talk with my own children about potential interactions with law enforcement.

Baltimore has witnessed too many painful tragedies and endured for too long the devastating consequences of all that is wrong with policing in America. We must get it right here as we work to continue writing a new chapter for the Baltimore Police Department.

We can redefine what policing means together and be the greatest comeback story in America. We can. We will. We must.

Michael S. Harrison (Commissioner@baltimorepolice.org; @BaltimorePolice on Twitter) is the Baltimore Police Department’s 41st commissioner. He previously served as superintendent at the New Orleans Police Department and oversaw consent decree reforms during his tenure.

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