Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who has led the department through federal reforms for the last four years but whose tenure was marred by stubbornly high levels of gun violence and staffing issues, is stepping down from his position.

At a news conference at City Hall on Thursday morning, Mayor Brandon Scott said he will nominate Richard Worley, currently the deputy commissioner for operations, as interim BPD commissioner, and intends to nominate him to the position permanently.

The departure was not totally unexpected. Scott said he and Harrison have had “numerous conversations over the past few weeks” about the future of the department. “And over the course of those conversations, it became clear to both of us that this was the right time to make this transition,” the mayor said. Word seemed to have gotten out, with rumblings around City Hall for more than a week preceding Harrison’s exit.

Harrison said now is the opportune time for him to pass the torch. “I have been truly blessed to serve the city of Baltimore and receive the support and confidence of the men and women of this department, our elected leaders and the great people of Baltimore,” he said. Though speculation has swirled in recent weeks about Harrison’s possible departure, the commissioner said Thursday that he has no offers and has not interviewed for any other jobs.

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“The first thing is, for me, is to breathe. The second thing is to make sure I’m here to help the new police commissioner get acclimated to the work,” he said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison to step down
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced that he will step down at a press conference. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Harrison, 54, has held the post since 2019. He had faced intensifying rumors and questions that he would depart for another job — which he denied — and refused to commit to staying through his term when pressed during a City Council budget hearing earlier this week.

One legacy he’ll be leaving is the stability he brought to the top position in the Police Department after the city went through four commissioners in less than four years. Harrison previously led the New Orleans Police Department, which he helped shepherd through a federal consent decree.

He would repeat the process in Baltimore, earning a national reputation as a leader who leaned into reforms and emphasized community policing.

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But stubbornly high rates of violent crime often clouded Harrison’s message about the department, which he lately has marketed as “the greatest comeback story in America.”

Harrison’s departure comes as Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, is also set to leave. And the city currently has an interim fire chief, after longtime chief Niles Ford left in December.

Deputy Commissioner Richard Worley, right, stands next to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott while speaking at a press conference on May 11, 2023.
Deputy Commissioner Richard Worley, right, stands next to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott while speaking at a press conference on May 11, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Johns Hopkins University professor Daniel Webster, who has long studied gun violence in Baltimore, said Harrison walked into “one of the most challenging situations you could imagine” with crises that were decades in the making. The commissioner took over the department after a stretch of several years that saw the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody, a subsequent uprising, and major corruption scandals, such as the Gun Trace Task Force.

“Cities don’t get over those kinds of things very easily,” Webster said. “And there had been enormous instability, with people moving in and out of leadership positions within the department and even the mayor’s office.”

All of those factors made the prospect of being a police officer in Baltimore unappealing, Webster added, exacerbating national issues around recruiting and retaining officers.

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“He was in a very unenviable position trying to address a huge problem with systemic roots, and in my opinion, he did a pretty good job,” Webster said.

While some fault Harrison for not having a clear strategy to fight gun violence, Webster said that was “not wholly within his capacity,” citing resource issues and the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, which he said Harrison wanted to start “right out of the gate when he came in. There were simply not the resources.”

“There were so many problems he had to solve before he could fully engage in a fairly complex strategy like GVRS,” Webster said.

Over the years, Baltimore has alternated between tapping homegrown talent and searching nationwide for leadership of its police force. Scott said Thursday that Harrison promised early on to reform the department and ensure that his replacement would come from within.

Both of those promises held true. Worley, Harrison’s replacement, was described by the mayor as a “fellow son of Baltimore.” Worley’s hometown roots, experience in the department and approach to the broader community were all important in the decision, Scott said.

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At Thursday’s news conference, Worley spoke of his ambitions to one day become commissioner, noting that it was rare for a rank-and-file officer to make it all the way through the ranks to the pinnacle of the department in which they had served. The department veteran praised Harrison for guidance on how to mend the agency’s relationships in Baltimore, speaking of the outgoing commissioner as a mentor.

A ranking member of the Baltimore Police Department, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements, said that Worley is well-regarded among the rank and file, but that his leadership style is yet to be determined. He described the mood within the department as “ambivalent.”

“When a commissioner goes, it’s like the French Revolution,” he said. “a lot of bloodletting will probably happen, so people are waiting to see how it shakes out.”

The potential departure of Harrison became a flashpoint during a Tuesday evening police budget hearing, when City Councilman Eric Costello tried numerous times to get Harrison to say point-blank whether he intended to serve out the rest of his contract.

Harrison demurred, saying that he serves “at the pleasure of the mayor” and couldn’t answer the question because “I have to know where the mayor stands on that answer before I can actually answer the question.”

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Costello repeated the question, which prompted Harrison to say that he had “said no to many opportunities that have come, but there may be a consideration that I may have to consider if it comes, if and when it comes, I may have to make that consideration.”

After a long pause, a visibly frustrated Costello abruptly called a five-minute recess. The budget hearing then continued onto other topics.

Costello said Harrison’s departure was a concern of the City Council during budget hearings this week and thanked him for his service to Baltimore.

“I have had a great working relationship with Interim Commissioner Worley during my nearly nine years on the City Council,” the Democrat said. “I am confident this will continue and that he will make the meaningful changes necessary to ensure all our communities across Baltimore City are safe.”

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com