Acting Commissioner Michael Harrison before City Council’s Executive Appointments committee / Photo by Brandon Block
Acting Commissioner Michael Harrison before City Council’s Executive Appointments committee / Photo by Brandon Block

Acting Commissioner Michael Harrison stood before the Baltimore City Council’s Executive Appointments committee Wednesday night, promising to “revamp” the beleaguered Baltimore Police Department, create “systems of accountability,” and institute a sweeping culture change, if he is confirmed at next Monday’s vote.

“The culture is really what’s allowed by supervisors and management that allows officers to think that they can do things or fail to do things and get away with it,” Harrison told the committee. “And it really is about changing that culture of holding people accountable.”

Harrison was all big promises last night, and many of them were ones commissioners hoping to get the top cop gig have declared over the years—though Harrison has more community support than most, and is highly regarded in New Orleans, where he rose through the ranks to Superintendent over his 28-year career.

“The experiences I bring are very parallel to what’s happening [in Baltimore] with violent crime, and in a major city dealing with a consent decree,” Harrison said.

He was thoughtful and composed on Wednesday, expressing confidence that Baltimore’s problems could be solved by building an “organizational culture,” instituting “performance metrics,” and “developing positive relationships” with community members.

Harrison’s confirmation vote next Monday seems all but certain—council seems relieved to have a competent candidate and fear who Mayor Catherine Pugh might pick next if Harrison is not confirmed. Still, correcting a department plagued by corruption scandals, lawsuits, and most importantly, an intensely fractured relationship with Baltimore’s residents will not be easy and it sometimes seems as though Harrison is its last hope.

Two high school students reminded Harrison of the lack of trust citizens feel toward the police.

“Commissioner, we don’t hate the police, we react to the police,” one student said. “Meaning, we give what we get.”

Only one speaker (out of seven) got up to oppose Harrison—Jason Rodriguez, founder of the Baltimore chapter of Copwatch. He argued that because Harrison is not from Baltimore, he can’t fix its unique problems.

Other speakers were cautiously hopeful but wary.

A lack of transparency and a disinterest in community engagement hobbled the mayor’s previous nominee, Joel Fitzgerald, who cancelled plans to fly in for a weekend of meetings, one of which saw 48 people stand up to testify against him, before withdrawing his name. Fitzgerald cited a medical emergency—his son having brain surgery—in his announcement, though community and council opposition was already high when a personal emergency befell the Fort Worth commissioner.

Councilperson Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer attributed the evening’s small community showing as a “positive testament” to the Mayor’s office community outreach this time around: Harrison met with residents in each of the city’s nine police districts last month.

Harrison referred to the BPD’s organizational problems as an “infrastructure gap,” and stressed “technological” and “personnel” solutions.

“Right now we are actually building a machine,” he said. “So the machine is not yet able to produce a lot of outcomes because we’re still building it. But once you build it and turn it on then it’s able to produce outcomes.”

Harrison’s calm, technocratic positivity belied the extent of systemic corruption he’s up against. Just in the past two days: a federal lawsuit, another indictment, and four more suspensions.

Hours before Harrison spoke at council, Jerome Johnson who was wrongfully imprisoned for 30 years for a murder he did not commit filed a federal lawsuit against the BPD, claiming detectives withheld key evidence, pressured a witnesses to change her story, and “systematically suppressed” evidence that would have exonerated him over decades.

On Tuesday, the department announced that four officers – Ryan Guinn, Adam Storie, Carmine Vignola, and Robert Hankard – had been suspended and were under Internal Affairs investigation for, according to Harrison, “knowing about” a 2014 incident in which a BB gun was planted on a man another officer had run over (Guinn and Storie were present at the scene). The man who brought the BB gun was Sgt. Keith Gladstone, a retired sergeant federally indicted on Tuesday and the officer who drove over the man, Wayne Jenkins, is currently serving 25 years for his involvement in the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) scandal.

Councilperson Zeke Cohen was one of many council members who brought up the GTTF, calling them a “stain” on the city. Harrison promised to implement “strong but fair” policies and stressed training and punishment for “bad behavior.” Other committee members asked how he would address the BPD’s lack of transparency and seeming indifference to council oversight.

“My general sense is that this stems from the department being very aware that it is established as an entity of the state not an entity of the city and that it has no statutory obligation to respect this body in any way,” said Councilperson Ryan Dorsey, who said he has had an “incredibly difficult time” getting basic information from the department in the past.

The BPD has been under state control since 1860. Regulatory changes, even ones as simple as redistricting, need to pass through the general assembly in Annapolis.

“What’s missing is a system and a set of protocols,” Harrison said, promising to create a “systematic” and “standardized” exchange of information with council.

Dorsey stressed that what he was hearing from Harrison while encouraging was pretty much what previous commissioners had said only to “then follow through with no communication whatsoever.”

There are reasons to be concerned about Harrison’s tech-adjacent “best practices” rhetoric.

Under his leadership the NOPD piloted a secretive “predictive policing” program developed by the data-mining firm Palantir Technologies that operated for six years without the knowledge of New Orleans’ city council. The program ended last March after The Verge reported its existence. Predictive policing, an emerging technology which uses data from social media and crime mapping to predict where crime will happen and, more importantly, who will commit crimes, is controversial among legal scholars who worry that it replicates racial bias and unconstitutional policing practices.

Harrison cited his record of success in reducing high homicide and crime rates in New Orleans, where he also managed the early stages the city’s 2013 consent decree, which is now approaching compliance.

He pledged to clarify misperceptions about the consent decree, which councilman Eric Costello also noted is frequently invoked at oversight hearings as a reason why the department can’t make certain changes requested by council.

“When I talk to the officers, they will tell me what I think they’ve told you, that the consent decree keeps me from doing certain things. No, it absolutely does not,” he said. “It just makes sure we do our jobs in a constitutional way.”

In a recent unscientific survey of 362 officers by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, 44 percent of BPD respondents said they do not “fully understand” the consent decree and 77 percent said they feel “restricted” by it.

Harrison expressed a measured willingness to engage with new policy ideas related to civilian oversight and deprioritizing drug arrests, as well as treating opioids “as a public health crisis,” though he avoided specifics.

On cannabis possession—which State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby recently announced her office would stop prosecuting—Harrison acknowledged that its a “dynamic happening across America.” He also said officers may continue to arrest for possession and use it as probable cause to conduct searches, a position similar to that of outgoing commissioner Gary Tuggle.

“Our policies align with the law, and the law didn’t change but her policies changed,” Harrison said. “And I made that clear [to Mosby], circumstances may from time to time necessitate an arrest—although our priorities are to move away from arrests—on simple possession of marijuana.”

He added that although marijuana is a nonviolent offense, “it doesn’t always mean that a person caught with simple possession of marijuana is a nonviolent offender.”

Like other past commissioners, Harrison stressed a focus on violent offenders, and argued we should move away from valuing statistics, which incentivize officers to make unnecessary stops, to valuing “relationship building.”

It’s not exactly clear how he still succeed where others have failed, however. Building relationships is one thing, destroying them is another. As the still-growing GTTF scandal plainly shows, BPD brass have been all too willing to cover for officers who rack up arrests and confiscate guns, who not only do not prevent crime but perpetrate it themselves.

“Who by far is the better officer: the officer who can arrest the most people or the officer who can prevent the most crime?” Harrison said, letting a question with an obvious answer, that recent commissioners have all asked but failed to effectively act on, linger in council chambers.

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