When Michael Harrison left his hometown of New Orleans to become the top cop in Baltimore, he recalled people saying he was taking the worst policing job in America.

The death of Freddie Gray. A federal consent decree. The Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal. A commissioner sent to federal prison for tax evasion.

Then, just weeks after Harrison arrived in town, the mayor who selected him stepped down amid scandal.

Four years later, Harrison is still here and embarking on the final year of his five-year contract. He has won praise for his temperament and commitment to reform — a steady hand guiding the department through a federal consent decree. But, at the same time, many are frustrated with a crime rate that routinely ranks among the worst in the country, and the police union says his tenure has been a disaster.

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The next year is pivotal. Harrison’s contract is set to expire one month before Mayor Brandon Scott goes up for reelection in April. Scott has touted efforts that go beyond policing to reduce crime, acknowledging it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. But high crime rates make him a target for any political opponent. And if it doesn’t improve, will Scott or a new mayor want Harrison to stick around?

In an era when big city police chiefs have shorter tenures, Harrison, 53, is among the most senior leaders in the country, having spent eight years guiding two notorious departments. While he says he has no plans to leave the city during his last year, beyond that Harrison’s future is unclear.

Asked in an interview with The Baltimore Banner if he wanted to stay for another term, Harrison seemed unsure but also said that was not his decision to make. “Right now, I’m 100% focused on showing up every day doing the best I can to turn our department into what it is becoming: a premier law enforcement agency.”

Scott said he hasn’t begun contract discussions with Harrison, which would occur “in due time and in due respect to him.”

“The reality is, we have to see what he wants to do,” he said.

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Scott said he and Harrison have a “great, strong working relationship,” and that under Harrison’s stewardship, police departments across the country have reached out wanting to duplicate their programs — something Scott said that in recent years would have been unthinkable.

“He’ll be the first to tell you, we still have a long way to go ... but you can’t deny he’s done tremendous and great work to reshaping and organizing BPD into being a not perfect but a significantly improved agency,” Scott said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison speaks to police academy graduates at a March 10, 2023 graduation ceremony at police headquarters. (Justin Fenton)

Not everyone agrees with Scott’s assessment. Mike Mancuso, president of the Baltimore Police Department union, faults Harrison for “doubling-down” on the consent decree at the expense of public safety.

“Over 1,400 of Baltimore’s citizens have been killed over his 4 years here, and he hasn’t been fired,” Mancuso said in a statement to The Banner. “Instead, he has been paid about $1.2 million to watch crime spiral out of control. PC Harrison is a nice man, but that does not make him a good fit for Police Commissioner of Baltimore City.”

City Councilman Mark Conway, who chairs the public safety committee, commended Harrison for doing a “phenomenal job reforming the department.”

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“That said, we are not where we need to be on crime,” Conway added, declining to address Harrison’s future beyond his current contract. “We have a whole year in front of us. A lot of things can happen within a year.”

Those mixed results have made it difficult for some — including State Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat —to judge Harrison’s tenure. She said the consent decree should be re-evaluated, and the police department continues to be dysfunctional as well as plagued by morale problems. But she said a better choice did not immediately spring to mind.

“The department continues to drain resources and public safety has not been improved,” Carter said.

Andre Davis, a former federal judge, personally recruited Harrison while serving as city solicitor and said he’s become a friend. “I hope he stays. He wants to see it through,” Davis said. “If city leadership is smart, they will get him signed to a contract within the next several months and take that whole issue off the table.”

Harrison, a Louisiana native, spent 27 years with the New Orleans Police Department, including a stint in internal affairs where he posed as a corrupt officer to take down real corrupt officers and a drug ring. He catapulted from a district commander to commissioner, while the department was under federal consent decree.

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A search panel helping pick Baltimore’s next commissioner in 2018 recommended Harrison, but he was bypassed by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, who instead chose the police chief of Fort Worth, Texas. But after Pugh’s pick withdrew, Harrison was re-approached and accepted in January 2019. He arrived a month early, and was formally sworn in March 12.

Baltimore Police commissioners have had a short shelf life, particularly so in the years prior to Harrison’s appointment, with five commissioners leading the agency over a four-year span. Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III held the position for five years before resigning, a term that included overseeing a drop in homicides below 200 victims for the first time since the 1980s. Anthony Batts was fired after almost three years; Kevin Davis was fired after about two-and-a-half years; and Darryl De Sousa lasted a few months before his legal trouble.

In Baltimore, Harrison is being paid considerably more than commissioners before him — this year his contract hit $287,500 per year, more than the top cop in Chicago is paid. Harrison also negotiated a unique clause in which he would get paid the balance of his contract if he was fired without “just cause.”

Much of Harrison’s focus has been on revamping training and policies in order to meet the requirements of a consent decree that the department “put itself in,” as he has said. That includes improving training and supervision and changing the way the department measures success — less emphasis on crime statistics, and more on procedure and compliance. He’s particularly proud of mentoring and leadership development programs.

“We’ve made great strides and great progress, though it doesn’t always seem that way to the outsider looking in,” Harrison said.

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While Harrison’s predecessors also claimed to be improving the department and reducing complaints, Harrison has the benefit of an outside, independent consent decree monitoring team that is backing those assertions. In an assessment released in December, the monitoring team found officers have been using force “substantially less frequently” than four years earlier, and using force more appropriately when it does occur.

Joshua Harris, who is vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said his organization has an “open and honest” line of communication with Harrison and his staff, including the sharing of body camera footage ahead of its public release.

There have also been just two shootings by officers over the past year-and-a-half, a far cry from a decade ago when such a stretch would likely have seen more than a dozen such shootings.

“For the first time in at least a decade, there has been true stability in police leadership and consequently, in the policing policies communicated to rank and file officers,” Maryland’s chief federal judge, James K. Bredar, said at an August oversight hearing.

Bredar said it will take “several more years” before the consent decree will be successfully implemented, and only “provided the city stays the course with its current police leadership.”

Harrison took over a few years after gun violence in Baltimore surged, and there have been more than 330 homicides each year of his tenure. The larger picture, however, includes some encouraging trends: Nonfatal shootings are down 10% since Harrison’s first year, while total reported violent crimes have declined almost 12%. But that’s well short of the kind of reductions that would bring about a safer city, and the 15% annual reduction in gun violence that Scott’s comprehensive violence reduction plan calls for.

Mayor Brandon Scott and Michael S. Harrison, Police Commissioner, Baltimore Police Department, talk to the media at the scene of the multi-victim shooting at the Edmondson Shopping Center. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Harrison says he’s encouraged that officers took more than 2,600 guns off the street last year, and believes detectives are making better cases. He thinks the court system ramping up after being shut down for COVID is likely helping as well.

Though it’s far too early in the year to indicate a trend, as of Monday nonfatal shootings were down 26% — from 125 to 93 — so far this year compared to the same time last year, while 19 fewer people had been killed, a decline of 28%.

Michael Sullivan, who Harrison recruited to Baltimore from the Louisville Police Department to be his deputy running operations, said Harrison sought to run the agency with urgency, but also like that of a Fortune 500 company. Sullivan recalled veterans of the agency wanted to unleash overtime spending, warning crime would otherwise “go through the roof.”

“Crime didn’t go through the roof, because we had business processes that made sure we were doing what we were supposed to do,” said Sullivan, who is now interim commissioner in Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the country.

Harrison faces regular questions about whether officers are reluctant to engage, blaming the consent decree.

“There are still areas in our city where crime is festering, and it feels like there’s not enough intervention — I think specifically about some of the continued open-air drug markets that we have,” Councilman Zeke Cohen said to Harrison at a City Council oversight hearing last week. “I am curious when ... our communities can expect that we will disrupt, we will intervene, and we will not tolerate folks who are causing harm, committing crimes, pretty blatantly in our neighborhoods.”

City officials lay a large share of the blame on the Police Department’s increasing challenges with attrition and recruiting. The department is down more than 470 officers from what a staffing plan identified as an optimal level that would allow officers to respond to calls and spend time interacting with the community to build trust.

The problem shows no signs of improving — attrition has increased and hiring has decreased over the past three years, including 320 officer departures and just 121 new hires over the past 14 months. It’s not a problem exclusive to the Baltimore Police Department, but nonetheless leaves the agency unable to fulfill obligations to the consent decree that could release the city from federal oversight.

Harrison told the City Council during last year’s budget hearing that he has to balance resources dedicated to policing with making sure the department continues to take reform seriously.

“I cannot disrupt the work that’s being done, that we’ve gotten praise from around the country” to beef up patrol or investigative resources, he said.

Chuck Wexler, president of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which is often consulted in police chief searches across the country, said chiefs seem to increasingly have shorter tenures, and that’s made Harrison, with a combined eight years between New Orleans and Baltimore, one of the more senior major city chiefs. Harrison is the president of PERF’s board of directors.

“He has earned this reputation of someone that walks the talk, who doesn’t just talk about police reform, but knows how to put in systems,” Wexler said.

Wexler said Harrison makes time on Saturday afternoons to speak on the phone with other chiefs or people who are aspiring to become leaders. “If you want to talk about career and how you handle different situations, on Saturday afternoon Mike Harrison is available,” Wexler said.

“I can’t speak for his future, but I know he’s very pleased with where he is. It’s a place where you can make a difference,” Wexler said.

On a recent Friday, Harrison and his command staff attended the graduation for the newest police academy graduation class. The first three rows of the auditorium were blocked off, but there were just 11 new officers, taking up only the first row.

Harrison said that while the officers were just embarking on their careers, “I am in the twilight of mine.”

“The past 30 weeks [of academy training] have been hard, because we made it hard — so we could make you the best,” Harrison told them. “And make no mistake about it, we are the best police department in the United States of America.”


Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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