After putting the New Orleans Police Department on its best footing in years, Superintendent Michael Harrison is leaving his post soon to become the top cop in the crime- and scandal-plagued city of Baltimore, officials announced Tuesday.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other city leaders cast Baltimore’s successful courting of Harrison as a testament to the strides NOPD has made in its fight against violent crime and in its efforts to comply with a 2012 federal court-ordered reform agreement.
Local politicians offered near-universal praise for Harrison, 49, after news broke that he would retire from the NOPD and accept an offer from Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh to become her chief on the heels of a year that saw New Orleans police record its lowest number of murders since 1971.
However, even as Harrison insisted that he had Cantrell’s full support before his departure, a number of political observers questioned whether she could have done more to retain a police chief regarded as a rising star since his appointment by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu more than four years ago.
Harrison’s departure makes picking a new police chief easily the most urgent item on Cantrell’s agenda. Several ranking officers within the department are rumored as potential candidates.
Both Landrieu and City Councilwoman Helena Moreno described New Orleans’ loss as “Baltimore’s gain.” City Council President Jason Williams echoed them, calling specific attention to Harrison’s implementation of the seven-year-old reform agreement, known as a consent decree.
“Consent decrees are super tough to work through, enforce and find some level of commitment for in the department,” Williams said. “He did that. He did it so well that he got the entire department to not just institute the changes, but embrace them, and do more than the consent decree required.”
In a rare step for a federal judge, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees the consent decree, also issued a statement.
“Chief Harrison’s appointment marked a turning point in the NOPD’s progress toward compliance with the consent decree,” she said. “His commitment to constitutional policing for the City of New Orleans, and his leadership team’s commitment to the same goal, has made all the difference. The police department he leaves behind is well prepared not only to maintain the reforms achieved thus far but to continue to excel.”
The Baltimore department also is under a consent decree that was approved in 2017.
Cantrell said she wished Harrison the best going forward. Nonetheless, the impression lingered that she was keen to exercise her mayoral privilege of appointing her own chief rather than keeping a Landrieu-era holdover.
After her November 2017 election but before taking office in May, Cantrell said she would launch a nationwide search for a new chief and invited Harrison to submit his résumé along with everyone else.
She pivoted prior to her inauguration, naming Harrison as her pick — but she stopped short of fully committing to him, saying she would instead come up with a scale to grade his performance and then decide whether to keep him long-term.
A panel searching for Baltimore’s next police superintendent then interviewed Harrison and selected him as its No. 1 candidate to succeed a chief who pleaded guilty to failing to file federal tax returns. Harrison ultimately told Baltimore not to consider him for the job.
When news about Harrison’s first flirtation with Baltimore broke in December, Cantrell made no public comment about her views on the chief. But she told The Advocate’s editorial board in late October that she had “100 percent” confidence in him.
Harrison also told a reporter with the newspaper multiple times that the mayor had assured him he was “her chief,” and in a statement Tuesday, he reiterated that he appreciated the “full support” and “necessary resources” Cantrell provided him.
Yet, despite those assurances, people familiar with Harrison’s thinking said the chief privately never felt that Cantrell did enough to make him feel secure in his post or assure the public that she was committed to him for the long haul.
A source within City Hall who is close to Harrison said the police chief never truly felt as though the mayor was an ally. The source said Harrison, a New Orleans native with deep community ties, wanted to stay but worried that Cantrell might replace him at any point.
The head of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, Rafael Goyeneche, said he got the same impression from a distance.
“Her silence on this probably played a role in Mike Harrison accepting this position,” Goyeneche said. “If it was made clear (that) Mike Harrison was her chief (and that) she wanted to continue with him as the chief of the police department, I like our chances of retaining him.”
Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell declined to comment on the remarks from Goyeneche or the others beyond saying that the mayor considered Harrison the chief without qualifiers such as acting or interim.
In a statement, Cantrell credited Harrison for the NOPD’s progress on the consent decree.
“We stand ready to begin the next great era,” said Cantrell, who hopes to name Harrison’s successor before he starts his new job.
Harrison may start in an acting capacity in Baltimore within the next two weeks, before its City Council then votes on whether to approve him long-term, media outlets there reported.
Landrieu sought to portray Harrison’s departure as a result of national demand for adept police chiefs rather than a misstep on Cantrell’s part.
“This is par for the course on how these kinds of decisions are made. Police chiefs generally don’t stay in the same city forever,” he said. “It’s not unlike quarterbacks in the NFL. When you’re a high-caliber player, everybody in the country wants you.”
Whether or not Harrison felt uneasy about his standing with Cantrell, there were certainly other motivations for him to head to Baltimore.
Media outlets reported that Pugh, the mayor there, said she would be willing to pay her new chief in the neighborhood of $260,000 to $275,000.
That is substantially more than the $179,348 a year that Harrison was making as NOPD’s superintendent, according to records. The 28-year veteran also could supplement his new salary by tapping into an annual pension from New Orleans of roughly $160,000.
Pugh’s office didn’t immediately comment on what salary it had offered to pay Harrison.
Furthermore, Harrison has long shown an eagerness to tackle challenging assignments, from his time as an undercover narcotics officer to an internal affairs sergeant, and serving as Baltimore’s top cop stands among the toughest gigs in policing these days.
Riots erupted there after Freddie Gray died from spinal cord injuries while in police custody in 2015. The 343 killings in Baltimore in 2017 resulted in the city notching its highest-ever murder rate. Things improved somewhat last year, but according to unofficial statistics, Baltimore still has the nation’s second-highest murder rate, after St. Louis. New Orleans is No. 4.
And last year, several members of the Baltimore police force’s now-infamous Gun Trace Task Force were convicted of federal charges after prosecutors said they trampled on suspects’ constitutional rights and stole cash and drugs.
Unjustified police killings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a slew of unconstitutional patrolling practices led NOPD to adopt the consent decree, and Harrison’s implementation of that complex agreement caught the eye of Pugh’s administration, which is seeking to rebuild trust with the public, her office said.
In its first few years, progress on New Orleans’ consent decree was halting, and in May 2015, a disappointed Morgan called on Harrison to “pick up the pace” of enacting it.
That summer, the department was also buffeted by the deaths of several officers in the line of duty and mass robberies at Uptown restaurants that seemed to exemplify the force’s sluggish response times to 911 calls.
Since then, however, Morgan and federal monitors have consistently praised Harrison for his partnership. The department has received high marks for its use of body-worn cameras, its investigation of police shootings, its dropping rate of shootings as well as other “critical incidents,” and its rising satisfaction rates in resident surveys.
Harrison engineered a wide-scale redeployment of officers from desk jobs to the streets that cut down on response times, although the city still has much longer wait times than others in the region.
Pugh’s office suggested that New Orleans’ improved violent-crime statistics in 2018 added to Harrison’s luster.
The 146 murders last year marked the fewest in the city since 1971, and there was also a 28 percent drop in non-lethal shootings from 2017.
Harrison has said his agency helped drive those numbers down.
One way involved creating his Tactical Intelligence Gathering and Emergency Response, or TIGER, team, which counted on detectives and tactical officers to build cases that removed repeat violent offenders from the streets. The unit has produced results over the past couple of years, he said.
Another way was his agency’s increased use of an expanding network of street-surveillance cameras, which has helped lead both to quick arrests and eventual convictions of high-priority suspects, he said.
Landrieu said Harrison was also talented in handling emotional situations like the June 2015 killing of Officer Daryle Holloway, who was transporting a suspect to jail when he was fatally shot.
“He was very even. He had a beautiful touch. You can’t panic, you can’t overreact,” said Landrieu of the Holloway case, one of several line-of-duty deaths that NOPD endured during Harrison’s watch.
“You have to make sure that the public knows that you’re going to protect them, and at the same time, you have to minister in a very purposeful and thoughtful way, not only to the community but to the family.”
Although Harrison predicted in 2017 that the “end is near” for the consent decree, the department is not quite there yet. The next federal court hearing could provide the fullest accounting yet of the department’s progress over the last decade.
Yet all of that was enough for the panel evaluating 51 candidates for Baltimore’s police chief, which ranked Harrison highest.
Pugh initially ignored that recommendation and chose Fort Worth, Texas, police chief Joel Fitzgerald for the job. But Fitzgerald this week withdrew his name from consideration in light of health issues affecting his son and concerns that his résumé overstated some on-the-job achievements, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Pugh’s administration then approached Harrison and offered him the job, according to officials. Harrison accepted and on Tuesday issued a statement bidding farewell to his native city, where he’s been chief since August 2014.
“Serving as your police chief for the past four years has been the highest honor and privilege of my … career,” Harrison’s statement said. “This city and its people will forever hold a special place in my heart.”
Harrison’s looming departure is the latest turn in a career arc that has taken him from the halls of McDonogh 35 High School to speaking appearances at international policing conferences.
He speaks proudly of his upbringing on the city’s streets, which he said gave him an important perspective on policing here in a 2016 interview.
“I understood neighborhood culture, the dynamics of the different schools,” he said.
After service in the Louisiana Air National Guard, in 1991, Harrison started patrolling the streets of New Orleans as an officer in the 6th District, which covers Central City. Within three years, he had transferred to the Major Case Narcotics Unit, where he worked undercover to arrest drug dealers, often collaborating with the DEA and FBI.
He spoke with pride of his role as the city’s “premier” undercover operator in a recent legal deposition.
In 1998, he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the 8th District, which covers the French Quarter and Central District.
A year after that, he moved to the Public Integrity Bureau. For the next 9½ years, his job was to arrest crooked cops and discipline those who had merely messed up.
In the days after Katrina, Harrison put up 22 officers at his home in Algiers. For years afterward, he kept a picture of them on his wall.
Unlike other officers, Harrison survived the 2005 storm’s messy aftermath without major blots on his record. He was promoted to lieutenant and eventually transferred to the 7th District, which covers New Orleans East and has a reputation of being one of the department’s most challenging yet low-profile assignments.
Outside the department, Harrison raised two children with his wife, C.C., and served as an ordained minister at the City of Love church in Hollygrove.
When Landrieu picked him for the top job, it came as a surprise to many inside and outside the department.
Critics said Harrison was chosen for his willingness to go along with the mayor. Harrison later admitted that he was also surprised by the pick.
Not all of his subsequent decisions won him praise.
One that rankled the rank-and-file involved promotions that Harrison made under the “Great Place to Work Initiative,” a Landrieu-era restructuring of civil service rules that gave leaders greater flexibility in promotions. Police organizations portrayed the new process as an end-run that could introduce bias into the process.
Landrieu said the changes were necessary to fix the department’s post-Katrina leadership crisis.
Harrison also has faced his share of controversies, although none of them seemed to threaten his personal reputation.
A mere three months after Harrison took the helm, the New Orleans inspector general issued a report detailing years of bungled rape investigations by five detectives in the NOPD’s Special Victims Section.
The scandal drew national headlines, though department investigators later said the detectives’ work wasn’t as bad as news accounts reflected.
Unlike his predecessor, Ronal Serpas, who sought to pick apart the findings of an earlier inspector general report on rape investigations, Harrison publicly accepted the inspector general’s findings without pushback and worked with advocates to improve policies and procedures in the Sex Crimes Unit.
By 2016, then-Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux was praising the unit’s “spectacular” transformation.
In January 2017, a member of the TIGER team that Harrison created fatally shot Arties Manning III during a surveillance operation targeting another man. The officer wasn’t charged criminally, but a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Manning’s family remains pending.
By the end of his tenure in New Orleans, Harrison enjoyed broad support from community members. Fifty-six percent of voters approved of his job performance in a November poll by the University of New Orleans.
Despite their differences in approach to certain aspects of their job, Serpas on Tuesday said he was proud of how Harrison had performed.
“Baltimore will be a very challenging position, and I think he will do very well,” Serpas added.
During an interview last month in his office, Harrison was being shadowed by a deputy chief from Nashville he has been mentoring.
Harrison at one point nodded toward a picture of a man who once had mentored him during his climb up the ranks.
It was the late Richard Pennington, who took over NOPD when the city registered an all-time high of 421 murders in 1994 and then presided over a 62 percent drop in slayings five years later.
Asked if he felt Pennington would be proud of him, Harrison said, “I think he would be.”