By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, [email protected]
During my recent phone conversation with Michael Harrison, former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), he spoke freely about the cesspool he entered as a young officer with the infamously corrupt NOPD.
“At that time it was the height of the crack epidemic, police corruption…it was really bad,” said Harrison who joined the NOPD in 1991. “We hit the streets man, my partner and I, and a few years there and then I got tapped to go to a narcotics unit. Because the majority of the work we were doing we were in uniform, but we were catching drug dealers.” Harrison also did stints with the DEA and the FBI, as well as some time in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But he said his work nabbing drug dealers is what caught the eye of the NOPD command staff and the chief of the department specifically, because cops were becoming ensnared in Harrison’s investigations.
“The work I did in narcotics actually was the kind of work that not just brought down drug dealers, but actually…brought down a bunch of corrupt police officers and it got the attention of the chief,” Harrison said. “So, I got promoted and after a year the chief said I need you to bring your skills to internal affairs. And I spent another nine years as both a sergeant and a lieutenant.”
When Harrison was a young officer in 1994, New Orleans a city of about 484,000 was plagued by a murder rate of 424, which was a grisly record for the city. By 2014, he was tapped by then Mayor Mitch Landrieu to lead the NOPD and despite campaign promises pledging to engage a national search for a new chief in 2018, new mayor LaToya Cantrell retained Harrison in the chair. Although homicides have fluctuated during his time as chief, last year the murder rate was down to 146 (in a city of just under 400,000), the lowest number in almost 50 years.
During our conversation, Harrison also spoke freely about a deep and abiding faith in God and you get the sense his ascension in law enforcement would have been impossible for him without it.
“My wife and I are deeply rooted in spirituality,” Harrison said. “It’s the only way I can do this job. It’s a gift from God.”
Harrison, who is set to officially arrive in Baltimore next month to formally begin the confirmation process to become the city’s fifth police commissioner since 2015, will most assuredly lean heavily on his faith in order to turn around what is arguably America’s most corrupt big city police department.
“It is what keeps me humble and keeps me grounded,” Harrison said. “Ministry has been a good classroom for me in dealing with the needs of people, especially when they are going through crisis, because everybody is going through something,” he added.
It has been well documented that last year’s murder total of 309, although the lowest in four years, was the fourth year in a row the city eclipsed the 300 homicide total. And since the Uprising of 2015, Baltimore has seen some of the darkest days in the city’s history when it comes to the now virtually non-existent relationship between the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) and the mostly Black, mostly poor communities of Baltimore.
Yet, Harrison seems confident his experience in New Orleans and more importantly his faith equips him to be the man to lead the BPD out of the wilderness.
“It’s my faith that keeps me up and going to work the next day,” Harrison said. “It’s only your faith that keeps you going everyday.”
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.