BALTIMORE — A day after her first choice withdrew his candidacy, Baltimore's mayor on Tuesday picked New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison as her nominee to lead the city's troubled force and become a key player in making sure sweeping reforms finally take root.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said Harrison has already declared his intention to retire from the New Orleans Police Department and come to Baltimore. She said the veteran police leader has delivered "clear, compelling and consistent results in reducing violent crime" while leading a city under a federal consent decree similar to Baltimore's.
Harrison, a New Orleans native who has helped his hometown's once scandal-plagued force implement ongoing reforms since becoming superintendent in 2014, would be the fourth police commissioner of Pugh's roughly 2-year-old administration.
"He will bring not only significant and relevant experience to addressing the challenges of Baltimore, but the insight and sensitivity needed to re-establish essential trust and confidence of citizens in their police officers," Pugh said Tuesday.
Harrison will certainly recognize the tough terrain in Baltimore, which has recently led all big U.S. cities in violent crime statistics and where gritty realities have helped make it the setting for hard-boiled crime shows over decades. Since he took over in New Orleans, he's shored up a depleted department and reversed decades of scandal that included the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In a 2012 federal consent decree that is still in effect, New Orleans agreed to a host of changes in policies governing hiring, training, discipline, procedures for use of violence and other elements of police work. New Orleans saw its lowest homicide rate in decades last year under Harrison, who was already a 24-year police veteran in the department and a district commander when he took over the leadership.
New Orleans Council President Jason Williams described Harrison as a "wonderful man" who ushered the Louisiana city through an "extremely precarious time" with the ongoing court-backed reform process. "Consent decrees are typically met with disdain from top to bottom. Chief Harrison instead embraced it," he said.
If his appointment as acting commissioner is authorized by Baltimore's City Council in the coming weeks, Harrison will face a slew of formidable challenges. He will have to reduce one of the highest homicide rates of any large U.S. city, rebuild trust between officers and deeply skeptical residents, and win the confidence of a demoralized department racked by corruption scandals and feuding factions.
That's all while making sure mandated reforms are embraced in Baltimore, where U.S. Justice Department investigators found the police force routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens for years. Baltimore and the Justice Department entered a court-backed consent decree in January 2017.
Peter Scharf, a Louisiana State University professor of public health who specializes in violent crime, described Harrison as a seasoned and approachable leader who has stabilized the scandal-prone New Orleans Police Department.
"His strengths are that he can build trust in the most challenged areas of the city, the most high-crime areas. Second thing is, he's kind of a cop's cop and has had success bridging divides across the police department."
Scharf said the biggest unknown is whether Harrison's skill set in New Orleans can be easily transferred to Baltimore.
"He will need leaders within the ranks ready to welcome him," he said.
The leadership of Baltimore's police union didn't comment on Harrison's selection. On Monday, union leaders issued a statement saying they hoped Pugh would "look to someone with the proper experience, and documented success, that it will take to lead" the Baltimore force.
City officials, clearly intending to show they will handle Harrison's nomination with more finesse than that of Pugh's first choice, will have him meet with community leaders, neighborhood associations and citizens prior to his formal nomination.
Harrison said his first priority will be to "drive meaningful cultural change within the department" so there's a renewed sense of mission among law enforcers and to rebuild citizens' trust and confidence in their police.
The nomination process for Pugh's first choice, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, was rocky from the start and her administration was widely criticized for a monthslong lack of transparency and public outreach.
Fitzgerald, the first African-American police chief in Fort Worth, abruptly withdrew his candidacy for the Baltimore position on Monday in order to stay in Fort Worth with a son who faces a second brain surgery this week. But he was already encountering skepticism about his record. On Saturday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on Baltimore officials to withdraw his nomination.