One day after Fitzgerald withdraws, Pugh picks New Orleans police chief as BPD’s next commissioner

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Image via the New Orleans Police Department

Within 24 hours of Joel Fitzgerald’s decision to withdraw from the confirmation process to be Baltimore’s next police chief, Mayor Catherine Pugh has picked another finalist from her fraught search process: New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison.

Pugh announced her choice in a press release this morning, hours after she arranged, and then abruptly cancelled, a press conference about the city’s ongoing, eight-month-long police commissioner search. “We will, of course, be communicating further details,” she had said while calling off the presser.

Then came this morning’s announcement about Harrison, who’s served with the New Orleans Police Department for 27 years, been its chief since 2014 and, unlike Fitzgerald, has informed his home city of his plans to leave. That’s a notable departure from a month ago, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Harrison said he was “humbled” about being recommended by a panel of police executives for the job here in Baltimore—without having applied—but planned to stay put.

“Superintendent Harrison has achieved clear, compelling and consistent results in reducing violent crime, implementing a federally-mandated consent decree, increasing police recruitment, introducing advanced technologies, and deploying proactive and effective policing strategies that reflect 21st century, constitutional policing,” Pugh said in a statement. “He will bring not only significant and relevant experience to addressing the challenges of Baltimore, but the insight and sensitivity needed to reestablish essential trust and confidence of citizens in their police officers.”

Harrison also differs from Fitzgerald in that he has experience leading implementation of a federally enforced consent decree for a troubled department. The U.S. Justice Department and NOPD entered into their agreement in January 2013, following a 2010 investigation called for by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu found a pattern of excessive force, unconstitutional stops by officers, discriminatory policing and other violations.

A report released by consent decree monitors in April 2018 said a series of policy changes has made the New Orleans department a “respected, forward-thinking, reform-minded police agency,” according to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

When monitors pointed to possible violations during arrests and stops in 20 percent of the cases they reviewed and found two-thirds of domestic violence calls were handled “ineffectively and, in some instances, inappropriately,” the department started disciplinary proceedings against 35 officers and implemented new training programs, the report said.

Harrison has said he hopes to have the NOPD fully compliant with Justice Department regulations by 2020.

Since the consent decree agreement, crime has fallen and transparency has risen. Last year, the city was on pace to have its fewest murders since 1971, the Times-Picayune reported, with homicides declining for the second straight year. The Crescent City’s murder rate was still higher than Chicago’s in 2017, however.

Harrison attributed the decreases to tools that allowed officers target serial offenders and the use of data to aid officer deployments.

As for transparency, a 2015 analysis by FiveThirtyEight dubbed New Orleans the “queen of open police data,” in terms of quantity.

In a statement included in the mayor’s press release, Harrison said he “look[s] forward to getting to Baltimore in the coming weeks to engage broadly with residents about the challenges to public safety and confidence in their police department.

“My first priority will be to drive meaningful cultural change within the Department such that not only is there a renewed sense of purpose and mission among those sworn to protect and serve, but that citizens’ trust is restored to a new level that enables true collaboration and confidence. Only then can we make sustained progress in reducing violence in close partnership with those who have the most at stake.”

City Councilman Brandon Scott, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, released a statement saying Harrison seems to meet the standards of being a “a proven crime fighter with the ability to concurrently reform and restructure the Baltimore Police Department.”

Scott also reiterated his call for a more transparent nomination process and said he would again be working with the Baltimore delegation in the Maryland General Assembly on legislation to “change the structure of the Baltimore Police Department.”

Putting it in plainer terms, Councilman Ryan Dorsey posted screengrabs of Pugh’s vow of transparency and the news of Harrison’s selection with the question, “So much for communicating on process?”

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young submitted a letter to Pugh asking for background information about Harrison, including his resume, a list of civil or criminal cases to which Harrison is a party and “affirmation” Harrison has filed his state and federal tasks. It also includes a list of questions for Pugh’s pick.

Harrison will meet with community leaders, neighborhood associations and residents before he’s formally nominated to be confirmed by the Baltimore City Council. Pugh’s office said details on those council hearings and the prior meet-and-greets and other engagements have yet to be determined.

Pugh, who had promised a transparent process for Fitzgerald that wound up frustrating council members, local state officials and the general public over opaque decisions and limited information, said “details of the community engagement and City Council approval process… will be communicated at the earliest opportunity.”

During an ad hoc press conference this morning, Pugh stood alongside Young and State Sen. Bill Ferguson, an early critic of how Fitzgerald was chosen, to defend the way she selected Fitzgerald, and now Harrison.

Pugh said she met with community members, business people and elected officials to hear their concerns before consulting with members of the Police Executive Research Forum to discuss the city’s needs.

“Some people seem to think that this was an entirely closed process, and it was not,” she said.

The police executive organization outlined a process for candidates to feel “comfortable in coming and having conversations,” and invited Pugh to its May conference in Nashville, where she was advised by police chiefs from across the country.

Pugh said she seeks the advice of experts from a particular field before making any type of executive appointment.

“I am not an expert in policing, and so I thought it was important to get the advice of police chiefs from around the nation,” she said.

At the time of Fitzgerald’s selection, Harrison was not willing to formally apply, Pugh said, but he is now retiring from the New Orleans department to go through the process.

Harrison has risen through NOPD’s ranks since 1991, when he started as a patrol officer. He’s since served as a detective in narcotics, sergeant and lieutenant of NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau (tasked with investigating NOPD officers), commander of the Special Investigations Division, in leading posts in two different police districts and superintendent of the police force.

Pugh began her police commissioner search process back in May, when Darryl De Sousa resigned after being indicted for federal tax fraud charges that he later pleaded guilty to. She nominated Fitzgerald, who’s headed the Fort Worth Police Department since 2015, in November, a month after she initially denied he was her choice after his name leaked on Twitter.

After weeks of visiting Baltimore and planning for his confirmation hearings at City Hall, Fitzgerald withdrew from the hiring process on Monday. Three days earlier, his son had been admitted for emergency surgery in Texas after doctors discovered a mass in his brain.

The same day that news broke, The Sun reported Fitzgerald had inflated parts of resume. And one day later, this past Saturday, dozens poured out with negative testimony to City Council members about Fitzgerald’s candidacy to lead Baltimore’s troubled police department, and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund called upon Pugh to drop him as her nominee and restart the process.

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