New top cop Michael Harrison introduces himself to Baltimore

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

The Michael Harrison era for the Baltimore Police Department has begun.

At an introductory press conference today, the 28-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department said his first priority now that he’s settled into Baltimore is to listen–to both residents, and to BPD’s rank and file–about what is most needed to improve policing in Baltimore and repair the ailing relationships between cops and communities.

Harrison said he plans to “make sure we can build relationships that were never built, improve on good relationships, and certainly repair bad relationships—because it will always be about relationships, and it is the one way that we will make Baltimore a great police department, make Baltimore a great city.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh introduced Harrison at City Hall, flanked by City Council members and administration officials. Also there was Gary Tuggle, who stepped down today as interim police commissioner, a job he’s held since former Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s term was cut short last May upon his indictment for not filing his taxes.

Pugh and Harrison both profusely thanked Tuggle, who originally left his longtime job with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to serve as De Sousa’s deputy. Tuggle presided over the department during a 10 percent drop in homicides (albeit, still more than 300 in 2018) and helped to successfully implement the mayor’s Violence Reduction Initiative in targeted areas, she said.

Harrison said he and Tuggle have spoken every night since Pugh nominated him for the job on Jan. 8, and he’s been briefed on every major decision or move by Tuggle within the department.

On at least one major move by Tuggle—to direct BPD officers to continue arresting people for possessing weed, in spite of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to stop charging the offense—Harrison hinted he may carry the baton.

“That’s a policy change from the state’s attorney, not a law change from the state legislature or in the city code,” Harrison said, noting that he was scheduled to meet with Mosby this morning. “Together we can figure out how the department can best approach this that satisfies everybody, but makes sure that the citizens and residents of Baltimore are safe, and that the department is following the law and its policies.”

Pugh has stated that one of the biggest draws to hiring Harrison is his experience overseeing a department undergoing court-mandated policing reforms.

Harrison recounted today how he stepped into the superintendent role for the New Orleans Police Department the year after its consent decree took effect. He even knows some of the consent decree monitors working here from his time in New Orleans, he said.

He likened the process of broadly reforming a police department’s practices to “building a machine.” He said it may not always be evident to the public that the department is fixing itself from within, but it’s because the “machine is being built.”

Federal investigators found some of the same issues in New Orleans that were later reported to be plaguing Baltimore in the fallout of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, including unconstitutional stops and seizures, excessive use of force and strained police-community ties, among many other areas.

Four years later, just as Harrison was leaving, he said the NOPD has achieved “substantial compliance in most areas,” and will likely be able to exit the process by next year.

He’s rosy on the prospects for the same success here: “I suspect it will be similar here in Baltimore.”

Harrison, whose lucrative contract was approved by the city’s spending board last week, also has years of experience investigating police misconduct from working in internal affairs in New Orleans. That could prove an asset to Baltimore, which has made national headlines for the racketeering scheme of the Gun Trace Task Force, as well as other more recent misconduct.

Rooting out corruption was one of Harrison’s biggest priorities in New Orleans, and “it will be no different here,” he said. “There will be no tolerance for corruption, and I will make strong, swift and certain decisions when those [cases] are brought to my attention.”

Harrison said he’ll evaluate his success as commissioner with various factors, including reduced crime, citizen satisfaction (using surveys, as called for in the consent decree), community-police engagement and satisfaction and morale among the officers of the department.

“All of that working together will give us a picture of how we achieve success,” he said.

The longtime New Orleans cop has a busy month ahead of him, with community meetings in each of the city’s nine police districts scheduled over the next two weeks. The first is tonight at Forest Park High School, from 7-9 p.m.

He still needs to be confirmed by the Baltimore City Council, as well. Pugh said today she would be submitting his nomination to the full council. The Executive Appointments Committee will hold his first hearing on March 4 at 5 p.m.

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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