By Stephan Janis, Special to the AFRO
The official confirmation of a new police commissioner marks a watershed moment for a city that has been without a permanent top cop for almost a year.
The Council unanimously approved the appointment of former New Orleans Superintendent Michael Harrison Monday, after a series of meetings with the community prior to the vote.
But now that the city has finally found a permanent leader for the department that has been roiled by scandal and weakened by departures, many unanswered questions leave the people rooting for him to succeed—anxious.
Among the most pressing: How can a police chief fix a department under a federal consent decree while battling one of the most turbulent stretches of violence in city history? And what if the Harrison, who has managed to successfully balance crime suppression and reform in New Orleans, doesn’t deliver quick results?
It’s a precarious balancing act reflected in the expectations of community members who spoke to the AFRO about Harrison’s confirmation.
“What I want commissioner Harrison to do first is two things. I want him to come up with a crime fighting plan and how he will implement a path to reform, because they are equally important,” Councilman Brandon Scott told the AFRO.
“I also want him to do a deep analysis on police department efficiency and how they respond to calls,” he said.
Part of his biggest challenge, some say, is that the BPD, can barely go a week without a scandal erupting, an ongoing distraction that continues to detract from both crime fighting and mending the relationship with the community.
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted former Baltimore Police Sergeant Keith Allen Gladstone on charges of denying the civil rights of a Baltimore man who was wrongfully charged. The indictment alleges Gladstone planted a BB gun on the suspect after a member of the notorious Gun Trace Task Force intentionally struck him with a police vehicle.
Then, there’s a legacy of police brutality that also continues to cause tensions. One of its victims Tawanda Jones, whose brother died in police custody in 2014, thinks Harrison has to laser focus on establishing a real sense of community oversight.
“I had the opportunity to meet with him at a meet and greet. He sounds amazing,” Jones told The AFRO.
“However, we need to see full transparency. And most importantly we need accountability.”
During his series of encounters with community members, one of the biggest themes that emerged was both the poor attitude and lack of engaged patrol officers. The chronically understaffed division has been cited by residents as the one aspect of policing they would actually like to see expanded.
“When police get a call, they have tendency to come into the community and shine a light on someone’s house,” said Lloyd McGuire during the meeting at the Forest Park School in the Northwest police district. “It’s not good.”
How Harrison plans to direct the department in his first days on the job is unclear. Police department spokesman Matt Jablow did not make him available for an interview with the AFRO.
However, not all community members are pleased with Harrison’s responsiveness so far.
NAACP Baltimore Branch Criminal Justice Chairperson Christopher Irvin says he has been waiting three weeks to sit down with Harrison. But he has not been given a time frame for when that meeting will occur.
“I have reached out to his scheduling person as the chair of criminal justice for the NAACP to meet with us both city and state conference. They confirmed receipt of the email. That was three weeks ago and haven’t heard a word from him,” Irvin told the AFRO.
“They can’t publicly wring their hands over crime but not sit with the people who are directly engaging with the community.”