5 takeaways from Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s first council hearing

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Photo by Ethan McLeod

To little surprise, the Baltimore City Council’s Executive Appointments Committee last night unanimously approved Michael Harrison’s nomination to be Baltimore’s next permanent police commissioner.

Speaking before a crowd of city officials, police brass, reporters and residents for about two and a half hours, Harrison convinced the committee he’s is in it for the long haul–he does have a lucrative five-year contract, we’ll note–and that he has the leadership skills needed to reform a police department mired in deep-rooted inefficiencies and corruption.

But while the 5-0 vote in favor of Harrison seemed inevitable, the public hearing was informative. Here are a few key takeaways from inside the Du Burns Council Chamber on Wednesday night.

Where was everybody?
Only two months after more than four dozen people poured out to mostly pick apart Joel Fitzgerald, there was a glaring absence of public testimony about Harrison. Only eight people in all came up to testify, including three teens who shared their permitted two minutes at the mic.

Only one individual, DMV Daily News producer and CopWatch co-founder Jason Rodriguez, publicly opposed Harrison, arguing he’s not a Baltimore native and therefore “has no clue about the culture of this city” or the culture of corruption plaguing sections of the police department.

The others were either neutral, sharing their hopes for Harrison to help push drug dealers off corners and into steady and safe work, to listen to young people instead of viewing them as a problematic sect of the population, or to communicate more with families whose loved ones’ deaths remain unsolved.

One local resident, Matt Hood, said he’d already met Harrison at one of his nine district meet-and-greets and supported him.

That may have been a factor in the sparse public turnout. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he himself went to each of those meetings, and had seen residents have their chances to speak directly with the former New Orleans police superintendent and offer their support or criticisms.

Northwest Baltimore Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said the public’s absence was actually a “positive testament” to Harrison’s candidacy, and for the mayor’s office’s work vetting her pick the second time around. Oddly, he even celebrated the lack of public testimony as convenient, noting, “It’s gonna get us out of here a lot earlier tonight than we would’ve been.”

Council members trust Harrison for his consent decree experience
City lawmakers didn’t shy away from praising the longtime former New Orleans cop, with Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke even uttering (well ahead of the committee’s vote), “there’s sort of a consensus that you’ll work out.” One of their biggest reasons for supporting him: his time spent implementing federally mandated reforms for the New Orleans Police Department, which he led from 2014 through 2018.

Harrison highlighted that experience in his opening testimony, pointing out that New Orleans’ consent decree was more onerous and sweeping than other cities’ agreements at the time, similar to Baltimore’s.

He assured it won’t interfere with officers’ ability to effectively police. “The consent decree will not make our officers soft on crime. It only ensures that we do our job in a constitutional way.”

Some of Baltimore’s rank-and-file cops already told him they feel parts of the consent decree limit their confidence in their work, he acknowledged.

One of his goals, he said, is to educate officers within the department “to overcome those fears and show that we have their backs”—to inspire “competence and confidence in police officers.”

Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

Corruption, misconduct are elephants in the room
Harrison’s hearing happened to fall one day after federal prosecutors announced a ninth city cop had been indicted for his connections to a Gun Trace Task Force ringleaders, allegedly for planting a gun at the scene of a crime for former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in 2014, and later trying to keep a fellow officer quiet about it.

Councilmen Kristerfer Burnett, Ryan Dorsey and Zeke Cohen asked Harrison how he’d tackle corruption, the “blue wall of silence” among officers and the “major stain on the department and this city” that is the GTTF.

Harrison highlighted a need for a stronger system to penalize bad officers, while rewarding those who do practice constitutional policing and are willing “to step in front of their colleagues, and even in front of their ranking officers,” to stop them from engaging in corrupt acts. He also called for peer intervention systems within BPD, a “robust internal affairs system that has extremely incompetent investigators” and a heightened requirement of holding supervisors accountable for underlings’ actions.

“Shift the culture and then you’ll see more officers taking steps to save careers,” Harrison said.

Burnett pointed out that it was only last year that BPD graduated a new class of recruits, only for one of them to be seen in a viral clip angrily beating a man bloody on a stoop in West Baltimore.

Harrison said much of the blame lies with leadership in BPD’s academy. As commissioner, he’ll seek to bring in “a high-level academic” to vet teaching plans, ensure there’s scenario-based training and treat the recruitment process as “an environment of higher learning” for future cops.

“Tough on crime, and soft on people”
A cop of nearly three decades, Harrison’s language included a mix of law-and-order commitments and holistic policing-oriented phrasing. As an example, Councilwoman Shannon Sneed asked him if he would support mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat offenders.

“I think it’s more important to have the certainty of punishment than the severity of punishment,” Harrison said, nodding to violent offenders being let off the hook because of dropped cases, reduced sentences or other steps in court. That’s a bigger priority than raising the bar for punishment, he said. “Right now, there’s no certainty; people are committing crimes because they think they can.”

More broadly, Harrison summed up his philosophy on policing from his time in New Orleans as: “Our officers should be tough on crime while being soft on people.” That includes familiarizing themselves with residents of the blocks they patrol and, crucially, implementing implicit bias training for officers, which he said was one of the core reasons why the consent decree process has been working in New Orleans.

“Good police work is always about developing these positive relationships with members of our community, no matter who they are, no matter where they live and no matter what they do for a living. Relationships make our officers better at what they do, and make Baltimore a better and safer city.”

He’s into the idea of being more transparent with data and policies
Dorsey brought up a gripe of his with the department under Gary Tuggle and Kevin Davis, saying he’s “had an incredibly difficult time since taking office of getting a timely response, if any at all” to requests for data and general information from BPD. Past commissioners assured him they’d be more communicative, but “followed through with no communication whatsoever,” he said.

Harrison said he’ll ensure council members have direct access to him and other police department brass if they have an information request. And he’ll seek to implement a streamlined system across various units and all nine districts for responding to requests. “I think what’s missing is a system and a style of protocol,” he said.

“I’m happy to share and build something with you that we all can agree on.”

Harrison is scheduled to appear before the full council for a confirmation vote on Monday, March 11.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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1 COMMENT

  1. Harrison didn’t have to convince anyone. Bernard Jack Young had already made the deal. Putting Robert Stokes as head of the committee was a dead give away. Stokes votes Jack Young’s interest every single time. The BOE hiring Harrison was an abuse of executive power. There is no need to have 14 City Council members because they have no power. City Council should be reduced to 6 members and the money should go to education.

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