By Stephan Janis, Special to the AFRO

In a city reeling from consecutive years of record violence, the police commissioner designate Michael Harrison’s first encounter with Baltimore residents had a sense of urgency.

Despite a wintry mix of rain and ice, the auditorium at Forest Park School in the Northwest police district was nearly full Monday evening.  And residents who attended the first of a series of community meetings had tough questions for the former New Orleans’s police superintendent who plans to visit all nine police districts during a roll-out tour this week.

Michael Harrison, center, acting commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, speaks at an introductory news conference, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Baltimore. Harrison, the former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, started Monday as acting leader weeks before the city council is expected to vote on his nomination as permanent police commissioner. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Prior to taking queries for residents, Harrison gave a brief speech outlining his tenure in New Orleans, touching upon the community policing philosophy he developed while serving as top cop for roughly four years.

During the nearly 10-minute talk he also spoke frankly about his experience rooting out corrupt cops, a process he experienced first-hand working narcotics in the 1990s.

“What you’re feeling now I went through,” he said of the continuing series of corruption scandals that have plagued the New Orleans police department.

“One thing that is unique about me, working undercover I had the unfortunate opportunity to observe a lot of corrupt police officers,” he said.

“I had no problem putting bad cops away,” he added to applause.

Throughout the meeting, residents expressed concerns about the department’s troubled relationship with the community.

“I want to know what you think about community policing,” said Dr. Waneta White from among the people.

“I think the relationship between the police and the public is poor.”

Harrison responded that community policing was central to his strategy for Baltimore.

“Community policing is what the center of American policing should be and what it will be in Baltimore,” he responded.

“Community policing is a philosophy.”

They also expressed fears that the law enforcement agency prone to indiscriminate arrests and brutality complaints would continue to employ divisive policies of the past.

“Quality of life should not be criminalized,” said Anthony Williams.  “I don’t think that’s the answer to the ills of the city.”

Some noted that the pain of both unrelenting violence and over aggressively policing have created deep psychic wounds that would take time to heal.

“When police get a call, they have tendency to come into the community and shine a light on someone’s house,” said Lloyd McGuire.

“It’s not good.”

Harrison said the lack of community-oriented policing was the product of flawed culture in the department.

“It speaks to a culture that is long-standing, deep-rooted, and systemic,” he said.

Harrison joined the New Orleans police department in 1991.  He was appointed police commissioner in 2014 by then mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The New Orleans Police Department has been under federal consent decree since 2013. The city entered the decree with the Department of Justice (DOJ), promising better training, higher recruiting standards, and policies to insure constitutional policing.

Harrison emphasized his experience working within the boundaries of a consent decree as a major selling point for his ability to both turnaround the BPD and fight crime simultaneously.

“It will be about a culture change,” he said.  “We need to be hard on crime and soft on people,” he added. “Too often we’re hard on crime and hard on people.”

Baltimore has experienced a marked increase in violence since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.  Last year, Baltimore notched its fourth consecutive year of record homicides.  This year the city has already recorded 29 murders.

The department has also suffered high turnover at the top. Since the departure of Anthony Batts in 2015, the top job had three other occupants, Kevin Davis, Daryl DeSousa, and Gary Tuggle.

Despite a series of difficult questions, Harrison promised progress, not the least of which would be an agency transformed from one of the most troubled to an exemplar of professional policing.

“When it’s all done, people will come to Baltimore City and hire people here to be chief of their city.”