By Hanna Krueger, NOLA.com | Times-Picayune
New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said last month that, although he had been approached about a job as Baltimore’s police chief, he didn’t want the position. On Tuesday (Jan. 8), however, Baltimore’s mayor announced that Harrison was her pick to lead law enforcement in her city.
Harrison didn’t speak in depth Tuesday about his decision to leave New Orleans. But aside from considerations of salary and politics, the two cities share similarities that explain why they wanted him – and maybe why he said yes.
New Orleans and Baltimore police are both under federal consent decrees and have struggled with high crime rates and poor public perception of police. Having tackled those issues in New Orleans, observers say Harrison is an ideal candidate to take them on in Maryland.
“This is one of the most consequential weekends of my life,” Harrison told the Baltimore Sun. “The phone call Saturday morning (about the job opportunity) was a life-changing phone call … It took a lot of thinking, but my whole career has been preparing for this moment.”
Like the police department in New Orleans, law enforcement in Maryland’s biggest city is also under a consent decree aimed at addressing longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing. New Orleans entered into the agreement in 2012 and has since become almost fully compliant with its mandates. Baltimore’s consent decree is more recent, having only been in effect for a year and a half.
Both cities have a history of unconstitutional policing and a severe lack of public distrust in police, which is only exacerbated by consistently high crime rates. With more recent corruption and a larger population, Baltimore poses greater challenges than current-day New Orleans, but criminologists believe Harrison has a good shot at improvement.
“There has been progress in New Orleans, a place where progress once did not seem possible. He is one of the few who might be up to the job,” said David Harris, who researches police behavior and law enforcement as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Federal oversight in Baltimore came on the heels of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who was found unconscious with a nearly severed spinal cord after traveling in a police transport van in April 2015. The police department’s lack of consistency in explaining Gray’s arrest and his injuries spurred a citywide protest which deteriorated into mass chaos, violence and looting.
Though Gray’s death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner, three Baltimore police officers were found not guilty and the charges were dropped for three others.
A year later, the United States Justice Department issued a sprawling report which “condemned many long-standing discriminatory enforcement practices by Baltimore police that allowed for illegal searches, arrests and stops of African Americans for minor offenses.” Gray was originally arrested for possessing what the police alleged was a knife illegal under Baltimore law. State Attorney Marilyn Mosby later declared the knife legal.
Then, in March 2017, eight rogue officers within a nine-member Gun Trace Task Force were charged with a massive criminal conspiracy of abuse, theft, profiling and deception.
“A criminal enterprise was permitted to operate within the police department for years at a time,” Sen. Bill Ferguson told the Baltimore Sun.
Since the Baltimore Police Department entered into the consent decree in April 2017, crime, corruption and community distrust have persisted. Last year, the department experienced cases of officer misconduct, sustained record levels of violence and the final convictions in one of the biggest police corruption scandals in city history.
All the while, three different commissioners headed the already unstable department in 2018. Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was fired in January. Darryl De Sousa replaced him, but lasted just a few months before resigning when it was revealed he failed to file federal taxes. Gary Tuggle, a former DEA special agent recruited by De Sousa, was picked for the interim spot.
Is Harrison fit for the challenge?
Harrison leaves New Orleans with high praise from city officials and criminologists, who argue he helped bring the department to the cusp of fulfilling the consent decree mandates through community outreach and enhanced technologies. Can he maintain his efficacy and popularity as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department?
“It will certainly be one of the more difficult jobs any police chief has faced,” Harris said.
It remains to be seen whether Harrison will be able to effect change in a new city struggling with corruption and crime.
“He will need to manage new sergeants, a new political dynamic, a new relationship with the city. How easy will it be to transition those skills?” asked Peter Scharf, a criminologist with LSU’s School of Public Health.
Baltimore is also a far different police department than the New Orleans force Harrison took over in 2014. NOPD entered into the consent decree in 2013 after a federal report exposed misconduct and abuse by law enforcement during and after Hurricane Katrina. Superintendent Ronal Serpas was head of the department at the time and remained in that role until 2014.
“By the time Harrison was appointed, much of the reform had already been put in place and he was able to continue it. He was the good cop, who boosted morale and improved technology,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Baltimore will be a different challenge for him. He is going to be the doing the gutting and cleanup.”
However, Harrison is no stranger to both police corruption and reform, having been with the department since 1991. From 2000 to 2009, he was a supervisor in the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, which handles internal investigations of officers alleged to have violated NOPD policy.
“With 20-plus years in New Orleans, he’s been through some fairly dark times,” Harris said. “It will be a leg up to have a chief that has been through that, but also has experience with consent decrees.”
‘This isn’t a job for the faint of heart’
Despite Harrison’s experience and support, his move to Baltimore could prove challenging, observers said.
“This isn’t a job for the faint of heart,” explained Harris. “You could not go into this with the feeling that you could just tidy up the corners and smooth things out and everyone will be happy.”
One of his first jobs will be understanding and ameliorating the corruption and division within the police department. Many officers who helped cover up the extensive crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force were not formally charged and remain in law enforcement, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“This is going to take a long time,” said Katie Zafft, a criminologist at University of Maryland. “Longer than people would like, but he has to set the foundation for relationships and understand where the rot is and how far it goes.”
The second task will be gaining the trust of the community. There is an inherent obstacle in an outsider becoming the chief of a new city, said Harris, which is only exacerbated in a city with already meager public trust in the police department.
In New Orleans, Harrison made an effort to focus on community policing – a strategy that focuses on building ties and working closely with members of the communitity. To some degree, he experienced success, as showcased in relatively high public satisfaction rates. That success won’t immediately transfer to Baltimore, where he will have to start from scratch.
“The relationship with much of the community, particularly those of color, is in as bad as shape as you can imagine,” said Harris. “The turmoil is extraordinary in the department. Scandal doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Correction: A pervious version of this story incorrectly New Orleans entered into a federal consent decree in 2012. The city and NOPD entered the agreement in January 2013.