By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
Roughly 48 hours after Mayor Catherine Pugh’s initial pick to be Baltimore’s next top cop withdrew his name from consideration, City Hall announced current New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison as the presumptive nominee to fill the post.
It was an abrupt change of plans for a process that has been criticized as both slow and lacking transparency.
But, in a written statement Pugh insisted Harrison was the right person to lead the beleaguered Baltimore Police Department (BPD), currently under federal consent decree and battling with a homicide rate that reached more than 300 for the fourth year in a row.
“Superintendent Harrison has achieved clear, compelling and consistent results in reducing violent crime, implementing a federally-mandated consent decree,” Pugh stated.
“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.”
Harrison joined the New Orleans police department in 1991. He was appointed police commissioner in 2014 by then mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The city did not respond to the AFRO’s request to interview Harrison.
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’s appointment came after a week of behind the scenes challenges when Ft. Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, Pugh’s initial pick, formally turned down the job after his son became ill.
The abrupt departure of Fitzgerald came after a contentious public hearing over the weekend where residents criticized the Ft. Worth police chief and blasted the process, which they said lacked transparency.
However, Harrison garnered a more favorable initial reaction from key players who will ultimately vote for his confirmation. Among them, Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, who had previously expressed reservations about Fitzgerald.
“Baltimore needs our next police commissioner to be a proven crime fighter with the ability to concurrently reform and restructure the Baltimore Police Department,” Scott said in a written statement.
“At first look Superintendent Harrison seems to meet those standards.”
But Harrison’s selection is not without some baggage.
In December, the New Orleans Advocate quoted Harrison as saying he had initially turned down the job despite being one of the top picks of an internal panel tasked with recommending candidates to Mayor Pugh.
“While I am humbled to be sought after to lead the Baltimore Police Department, I ultimately asked not to be considered for the position because of my commitment to achieving our goals at NOPD,” he told the Advocate.
However, fallout over the perceived lack of transparency during the search, which in part led to the abrupt announcement of one candidate withdrawing, shortly before announcing a new pick altogether continued.
Just hours after the announcement of Harrison’s selection, City Council President Jack Young released a letter to address concerns over a lack of transparency during the vetting process. In the letter Young requested the release of Harrison’s resume, a copy of his application, and an “affirmation” Harrison filed all of his federal and local tax returns.
The letter also asked Pugh to confirm that Harrison will attend public hearings and commit to a community policing strategy.
Currently, the BPD is headed by interim police commissioner Gary Tuggle. Tuggle, a former DEA agent, withdrew himself from consideration for the top job last year.
In 2018 Pugh’s previous pick, Daryl DeSousa resigned after he was indicted for failing to file several years of tax returns. In December DeSousa pled guilty to three counts of failing to file federal tax returns.
Public hearings to vet Harrison’s appointment have not been scheduled.