In interviews, New Orleans officials, citizens (mostly) sing Harrison’s praises

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Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Still via live stream from WBAL-TV.

Asked for an example of when Michael Harrison’s leadership failed the city of New Orleans, Councilman Jason Rogers Williams settled on one of the now-former police superintendent’s most recent actions.

“There was that one time he took that job in Baltimore.”

Pressed for a better example, Williams described one instance when he thought Harrison made the wrong decision, but his concerns were ultimately unfounded.

“I can’t think of a time that he failed us, no.”

Like Williams, city officials from New Orleans showered praise on Harrison, the man who tomorrow will begin the confirmation process to become Baltimore’s next police commissioner. As advertised, Harrison has been a good steward of the department as it navigates the reforms mandated by a federally enforced consent decree, they said in interviews with a Baltimore City Council delegation sent to the Crescent City to find out more about the prospective commissioner.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell recalled a recent hearing with the federal judge monitoring the consent decree that showed the city was making real progress.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re moving toward full compliance,” she said. “We have four areas where we need to focus on.”

She characterized Harrison as someone who took over the department shortly after the consent decree had been put in place and moved “the progress significantly under his leadership as chief.”

And she, too, was upset to see him go.

“If you sense a little frustration on my behalf, I’m telling you that it’s warranted,” she told her Baltimore interviewers. “You have somebody who is committed, who has a demonstrated track record. When he stepped up he was able to move us faster toward compliance.”

Elected officials recalled how Harrison could get officers to buy in on reform efforts, such as body-worn cameras, and implemented Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) training to strengthen accountability among officers.

The city touts EPIC training online, billing it as a program where officers police one another, and as “an officer survival program” as well as “a community safety program, and a job satisfaction program.”

Even with something like paying police overtime–a constant source of headaches here in Baltimore–the leaders of New Orleans said Harrison handled it beautifully.

“Sometimes you go over your budget,” said Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, referring to when Harrison asked the council for $5 million to cover OT. “But he justified it and the community benefited from the hours that the officers were on duty.”

Heck, even the Fraternal Order of Police was in on the love fest.

“[H]e exceeded my expectations for him as a superintendent,” said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the police union. “And I think that he did well implementing the reforms and consent decree and doing his best to make it part of the culture of the police department as opposed to compliance for compliance sake.”

The 290-page report, compiled by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilmen Robert Stokes and Kristerfer Burnett, is in stark contrast to the one put together on the first man Mayor Catherine Pugh picked for the job, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald.

In that report, a former officer who was demoted after allegedly leaking information about a high-profile arrest of an African-American woman and her daughters aired his grievances, and community and religious leaders called into questions Fitzgerald’s effectiveness at bringing change to the Texas city.

Here, any concerns from citizens are not brought up until about the halfway mark in the interview transcripts.

Wesley Ware, the founder and director of BreakOUT, an organization that works with LGBTQ youth in New Orleans, said Harrison has picked terrible department liaisons to the community.

“And Chief Harrison said, Well, I know just the guy, and appointed that person to be the LGBT liaison, which was actually a huge mistake in the community, because that officer had a really terrible reputation with the LGBT community, and especially black trans women specifically, and a lot of just LGBT communities, youth and color in particular,” said Ward.

The second liaison was “someone who had even a worse reputation in the LGBT community,” according to Ward.

A new task force has been created by the mayor and human relations commission to appoint new people to those positions, he later said.

Tamara Jackson, executive director of the non-violence advocacy group Silence is Violence, said the department is mishandling cases.

“…[I]t’s misclassification of crimes, where victims are also labeled as perpetrators and not having that commitment from law enforcement in terms of the investigative processes, being transparent and being able to share your concerns with leadership within that infrastructure without retribution,” she said.

Jackson also works with the victims of crimes, and said the department has mishandled cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Upon taking office, Harrison made a point to process 300 untested rape kits and had detectives for such cases collaborate with the Family Justice Center, which offers victims services.

But, she said, the culture within the department is still not very accommodating to victims of those crimes–something a New Orleans police officer found out first hand.

“And she was taken that the department did not help her, and she’s been working for them for 12 years,” Jackson recalled. “And she couldn’t understand how something–she wears a uniform, she worked for this agency and she’s being treated like the people I represent.”

Jackson later said investigators will use an immigrant’s status in the country to press for more information, even if he or she is the victim of a crime. Some survivors won’t talk to police because they don’t have the proper documentation, she said.

But even in this session, the views on Harrison were generally positive, with other activists and community leaders touting his availability and transparency.

Norris Henderson, who said he’s been working on police reform since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, shared the story of his first meeting with Harrison, which was, ironically, at a solidarity protest following the death of Freddie Gray.

Dressed in plainclothes, Harrison came to the place where activists were planning the demonstration, set to take place outside the crowd at the Jazz Fest music festival. After asking the demonstrators to change their mind, which they declined, Harrison offered to give the protesters an escort.

“He said, Well, let us escort y’all to and from, because there’s going to be a lot of people getting out there drunk, going to see y’all protesting about police brutality,” Henderson recalled. “Some people may take a different opinion about what y’all are trying to do.”

It went off “without a hitch,” he said.

Compared to his predecessors, who fought changes tooth and nail, Harrison has been open to making changes, Henderson said. He saw EPIC training as turning a corner.

As part of Mayor Cantrell’s transition team, Henderson told the Baltimore City Council delegation he fought to keep Harrison in New Orleans.

The representative from Baltimore, unnamed in the transcript, replied, “We’ll take him.”

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel

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