BALTIMORE — As Michael Harrison begins his tenure as Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, he faces multiple challenges. The force has struggled to implement a federally mandated consent decree meant to reform practices and rebuild community trust. The city continues to mire in a sustained violent crime wave since the post Freddie Gray uprising in 2015. Leadership has been tumultuous for more than a year, as four different men have assumed the role of Police Commissioner. Even Harrison’s own selection process was not short on controversy.
After being officially appointed and sworn in, the Michael Harrison era of the Baltimore Police Department became reality. The new commissioner spoke with WMAR-2 News reporter Brian Kuebler in his first sit-down interview with a Baltimore television station. The two talked of the inherited challenges, the lofty goals, and the realities of reform.
Read the full transcript below:
BRIAN KUEBLER: Let’s start from the top. You’ve been here about a month now, acting in and around the department. I’m sure you have done your homework on this police department. … What has been this department’s most glaring deficiency that deserves your attention right away.?
COMMISSIONER HARRISON: I don’t know all that I need to know yet. I’m still making assessments about the department as an organization and about the members’ individual leadership and performance capacity. Just like I met with the community members to make sure I got an assessment of what’s important to community members, I’m meeting with officers around the department. I’ve been to a bunch of roll calls to hear from them, and I think the officers need a lot of tools.
I think the officers need a lot of tools. There is a big technology deficiency, where technology is extremely lacking and it was promised to me that it would be a resource we would have and it would be improved. The mayor made a commitment to giving us the resources for the officers to be productive and successful in being police officers here, so we can transform our department. Certainly there is an issue with violent crime and a culture about crime and how people deal with conflicts. Part of it is fueled by the drug market and the competitiveness of the drug market, and then there are retaliatory bad acts that are happening everyday around that every day that lead to violence, and then there is a culture within the department regarding systems of accountability, you’ll here me say that a lot, that are not as robust as they should be, and to some extent not existent at all. Part of that is technological. Part of it is human, and I think with good training, good technology, building a good infrastructure for the technology to build upon, I believe we can become less paper and more digital, move the department into a digital environment, become more efficient and effective because we’re moving away from paper processes, but building human systems of accountability that inform us about officer and personnel performance. What to do about good performance and bad performance; what to do about supervisors neglecting observations of bad performance, and managerial observations of bad performance, and the inability to even recognize a bad performance and what to do about it. And so those human systems of accountability are very important to me. It’s what we had to overcome in New Orleans. But I think just training, technology, at the core is where we really begin to transform this police department.
Then we need to do to make sure we’re working to do everything we can partnering with all the social service providers to fix what’s wrong with society that make people make decisions to commit crime. Lets be truthful, it is a person’s decision to commit a crime, and then there has to be consequences on the back end to deter that. And so us in the middle, fixing our department, becoming a world class, 21st century police department, making sure that we have strong consequences that deter people from making bad decisions, and then kind of working to change the culture externally in the community to guide people toward a path away from crime. I think all of that is where we are right now. But training and technology to be specific about where we start.
KUEBLER: Do you feel that it is easier to do or harder to do in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force Scandal, meaning this department has been at bottom or close to it for more than a year now since that trial, and the public testimony that came out in it. Is it easier to rebuild from that close to the bottom, or is it harder in your opinion after kind of seeing what this department has gone through over the last year?
HARRISON: It’s likely to be harder, not necessarily because of the Gun Trace Task Force, because there are always things that are happening in departments. What makes it harder is I have to first learn the culture of the city and the culture of the police department, not having grown up in this department like I did in another police department. So over time, I’ll understand the nuances of the city and overcome that, and so I don’t think it’s necessarily the Gun Trace Task Force, It’s just a generational culture of how things are done within a city, within in a government, within a bureaucracy that I now have to overcome, that could be similar or could be different than I was used it in another city.
I think what you speak about, the Gun Trace Task Force, makes it difficult because it then makes citizens apprehensive to believe that we can self correct. So it is not necessarily within the department. It is convincing our constituents and our taxpayers who pay for our services, that we can self correct and we can self manage, and we can self supervise and then discipline and investigate ourselves and then hold ourselves accountable.
KUEBLER: That’s a colossal task, is it not?
HARRSION: That is a colossal task, but that’s what I’m here to do, because we’ve done it before in New Orleans and now we’re here to do it again. There are some differences, but we can overcome that. It first has to be, and I know you’ll probably get to this, building the most dynamic, fluid, talented, bright team of leaders who can lead at a high level and a high capacity who are willing to accept responsibility and accountability for either their ability to perform at that high level, or their inability to perform at that high level, and finding those from within, because there are very bright, talented people who deserve an opportunity to lead in this department, and then there may be some people from the outside that we have to bring in, because there is a generational culture shift that has to happen to make sure we build these systems of accountability that inform us and then hold people accountable at every level. And then overcoming the notion of, ‘well that’s the way we used to do it, that’s the way we’ve always done it.' This has to be overcoming that in learning to speak about what we could be and how good we could be.
KUEBLER: That’s a big problem, the culture of this department. … Command staff – you’re the fourth commissioner in less than a year-and-a-half. There’s been a lot of turmoil, but the command staff in this department, it seems, as a reporter who’s been around for a little bit more than a decade, that it’s the same faces being plugged in and out. What is your read on the current command staff, and what kind of changes, do you have an idea of the kind of changes you'd like to make to surround yourself with the type of leaders that you're speaking about?
HARRISON: I am going around to department meetings with officers and rank-and-file members of the department almost everyday, just like I did with the community members. While there is certainly a lot to do everyday, I want to carve out time to do that. We just put out a notice to the command staff and the executive team, that I would be holding one-on-one meetings, interviews if you will, and people will get invitations to come and then we will walk through that. But I’m in the process now of evaluating systems and evaluating people, and that takes a while. My assessment of the organization is that it has talented and bright people. I think there are two parts to your questions. How the organization should be structured? And then, who possesses the correct skill sets to fit in those positions? That takes a little longer, and that’s where I am, with the help of some bright people here in Baltimore and from around the county are assisting me with that. Without going into great detail about who, we’re making assessments about how the organization should be structured so that it’s flexible, so that it’s effective, so that it has efficiency, and not do duplicative work, and people have the right skill sets for the positions, not just to perform human or technical skills but really conceptual level skills. It takes a while to make those assessments, to figure out who possesses those skill sets, and then who has the willingness to step up to a leadership position at this level where the stakes are so high.
.@BaltimorePolice Commissioner Michael Harrison also says he just notified command staff that he will be interviewing executive level employees. He says he needs specific talent to move the department forward. @WMAR2News #Baltimore pic.twitter.com/rsXjIe9Eav— Brian Kuebler (@BrianKuebler_) March 13, 2019
KUEBLER: Victims’ names like Kaylyn High , Taylor Davis, the young woman who was caught in the cross fire Monday night in the triple shooting, in these communities…the last six months or so you heard them say, "I don’t see anyone from the city here after something like this. I don’t see the police department getting in front of this,.I don’t hear that we’re supposed to be looking for this person. I don’t feel that someone is going after the person who did this to my daughter, my brother, my sister." Is that going to change in your administration? Is the community going to be able to hear from the police department more often? Are they going to see the dedication that you speak of, of trying to reconnect with the community that in many parts feels like has not been engaged by this police department?
HARRISON: I’ve heard the citizens’ stories. I’ve heard their complaints. I made my way across the city and met with literally thousands, I would imagine, of people through community meetings at night and even meeting people by day, who told me those very same things. What I can tell you is I get briefed every day about successes in the police department – murder cases that are cleared, shootings cases that are cleared with arrests, robbery cases that are cleared – and so where victims of violence are being notified that justice is being done and being serviced, and perhaps there needs to be a great improvement in that.
The answer to your question is, that will improve, because we have to have systems of accountability. We have to be able to provide great customer service, and that means communicating with our constituents, the members of our community who we serve, and when we are working on cases, that there are open lines of communication, so residents understand where we are in the process, and if there are updates they get them regularly, and if there are no updates, they’re advised there are no updates to report on. I think those, when you hear me say systems, those are human systems that can be built that perhaps don’t exist. That can change some of the perception.
And yes, there are a great many men and women doing great work every day that we want to highlight, but I think a lot of that gets lost, has not been reported as equally as the bad news, and so we want to make sure that we tell the story and we tell it the right way and it actually gets out, but in areas where we can improve, we want to own that. We’re going to improve. We’re going to own that, and you’re going to see us measure ourselves, but we’re going to ask the citizens to measure us. In the very near future we’re going to commission a citizens’ satisfaction survey that annually citizens will be able to evaluate us on a number of issues, and that community engagement and that trust building certainly will be a big part of that.
KUEBLER: Ok, so more visible in the community, whether it be media briefings and talking to people after large or particularly atrociously murders or crimes, instances like that.
HARRISON: Yes, and so we are looking to get in front of it. One of the first things I did, I made an appeal to the people to come forward. You know, please tell us what you know because somebody perhaps saw something, or heard something, or knows something. We need that information. It will only be through citizen cooperation that we’re able to solve crimes like that, and we so desperately need their help.
Now yes, we have to reform and we have to be trustworthy in order to gain trust, and so we need to rebuild those things about us that make us trustworthy, and that will be through citizen engagement.
KUEBLER: And that is a monumental task, as you’re aware of.
HARRSION: That’s a monumental task. It was in New Orleans and it is here, but we can do it. And we want to do it because, number one, because we can, because we should. It’s the right thing to do. The citizens pay for it and deserve it and expect it.
KUEBLER: I’m going to ask you about Sean Suiter. That is a case that I’m sure you have read up on and been briefed on. That is a case where there are two schools of thought. That doesn’t seem to be moving in any direction at this point as the city is waiting, everyone is waiting on the medical examiner to either reclassify this thing or keep it as a homicide. If it remains a homicide, will there be a renewed effort on the part of this police department to continue researching and working that investigation as such.
HARRISON: Well, right now as I believe it is still classified as a homicide. It’s an open investigation. Without knowing a lot of what you’re asserting, I can’t say there’s not been less than a full good effort to it. And so I hear you say, ‘a renewed effort,’ I don’t know that it has dwindled or died down. I’ve met with Homicide detectives, and I will make sure that it is thorough and that the detectives are just and fair and thorough, and make sure that we seek the truth, and that justice is done, and that we produce, if we can get the evidence produced, a quality investigation that turns into a criminal prosecution. If it turns out to be a homicide. If it turned out to be something else, then we will make sure that we’re professional, and we’re thorough, and that we’re just, and that we make that investigation into the best investigation that it can be. And so I have not known it to be less than a great effort to investigate that. What I want to make sure is, that there are no barriers, that we’re accountable, and that we’re transparent.
KUEBLER: Consent decree, you have your experience with that. You’ve met [U.S. District] Judge [James K.] Bredar?
HARRISON: I have.
KUEBLER: Talk to me about that process. That process has been fits and starts, again with leadership changing so rapidly here in the last year-and-a-half, has a lot to do with that. … You talked about technology earlier, a lot of that is what this consent decree is going to unravel as it rolls out. How do you balance the consent decree with what you want to do here. Are they one and the same. Take me through how you worked through it in New Orleans and what kind of lessons you can now use here that you think will work in this city.
HARRISON: When I started in 2014 as the chief [in New Orleans], we were talking about dealing with violent crime and the consent decree as if they were two separate things, and they are. But we knew on a day-to-day operation as big as the New Orleans Police Department and now the Baltimore Police Department, you really have to talk about them together, because both have to be done at the same time all the time. And so, while it would be great in this ideal world to pause from violent crime to work on the consent decree, or to pause from the consent decree to work on violent crime, we’re not in that world. We have to work on both at the same time, so we’re actually building a plane while it’s 35,000 feet in the air. And we’re implementing consent decree reforms and reforming the department, much of which will have to do with the purchase and building and implementation of very good technology. We don’t have that yet, we’re working to get a lot of that, because a lot of the systems you heard me talk about are going digital and moving away from paper processes, so we can truly be accountable and people can really know what we are doing and if we are meeting those benchmarks because there’s technology to fact check that instead of just taking our word for it. So we need to build systems. It’s going to be very expensive, and it will take time. I think what we’re doing now is building a machine that informs us and building the steps to implementation. In a consent decree, it’s not just implementation, we have to build the machine that allows you to do the implementation. So right now we’re in those building steps if you will.
I meet with Judge Bredar on Friday. We’ve met twice before, once in his office, once at a community meeting, and from every indication he’s eager to meet with me and I’m eager to meet with him to talk about how we go forward and what lessons I’ve learned in New Orleans to do that. One of the biggest lessons is making sure people believe that we actually need reform and believe that we have the capacity to reform. Finding those people who have that belief and the skill set to accomplish it, is what I must do in order to satisfy the consent decree, but they have to also believe that we can tackle the violent crime problem, that there is a violent crime problem and we can tackle it while doing consent decree reforms. That’s a core group of individuals, and trust me, everybody doesn’t possess that skill set. I have to go find that group of people and charge those people with making sure we move this ball forward with consent decree reform.
KUEBLER: You keep coming back to the belief of the community within this department to reform itself. That’s a very important metric and that seems like your thesis.
HARRISON: My charge with the New Orleans Police Department, and I’ve made that my charge here, is to never do anything because the consent decree makes us do it. And I charge any commander, anybody in this department to not do that, or there will be a price to pay for doing that.
We want to be good because it’s good to be good. We want to change because change is needed. We want to be a great police department because it’s the right thing to do. We want to utilize best practices because there the best practices. And we want to move away from the old way of doing things because there’s a better way to do it. Now changing people’s minds means getting them out of their comfort zone. Some people don’t want to move out of their comfort zone. But that’s what leadership is all about, and that’s why its important to have the right leadership team that will buy in but have capacity, the skills, the tenacity, and the courage, to take that on. Culture change, and moving people away from what they’re comfortable with to what we should be doing. And most people are uncomfortable because it’s unknown and unfamiliar, but it’s going to take that dynamic group of people.
And yes, we’re going to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and we want to be able to say that we self corrected. And it’s all about leadership, and owning it, and taking it on our own shoulders. Yes we’re mandated by the federal government to reform, and we will. And to a large degree we’ll give them credit for it because the consent degree is here and it’s not going away. But man wouldn’t it be great if our leaders could accept this, embrace this, and at the end of the day, we said that we turned our department around and that the country recognizes the type of talent that we have and the cultural shift that we made because we owned it, and they feel good about it.
KUEBLER: Last question. Why did you take the job? ….
HARRISON: Does Baltimore not need someone who can help it change? Do you not think you deserve it? I ask you the question, ‘why not?’
I also asked @BaltimorePolice Commissioner Michael Harrison, with the turmoil of this department, the immense challenge and the public struggles of the city of #Baltimore, why leave home? Why take the job? His answer... @WMAR2News pic.twitter.com/fNrl1HMBI0— Brian Kuebler (@BrianKuebler_) March 13, 2019
KUEBLER: OK….I accept that answer
HARRISON: Unless you’re inferring Baltimore doesn’t deserve it.
KUEBLER: I am not inferring anything. I’m just saying….There’s mismanagement in this city that has choked away talent for a long time. …You gotta ask, why lean into this?
HARRISON: It’s an opportunity that was presented to me. As you know, I did not apply in the original search, because I had just committed to New Orleans, and the real answer is I had just committed to New Orleans with a mayor who had just won an election, and asked me to stay on as the chief, so I made that commitment in May, and then this search came a month or two later. And I was happy because things were going well, and I was at the highlight of my career, but the question becomes professionally, what are the next steps in your life? What’s the next chapter going to look like? And you’re being asked to do something, you didn’t go looking for it, you were recruited for it, and that made a big, big, big difference, and I was humbled and honored to be recruited, because many chiefs don’t ever get that opportunity. And it really…that’s a longer answer that circles back to, why not? I think I would have gone through life asking myself, what if I had taken it, and was able to bring lessons learned, and we were able as a city to turn it around? Or what if somebody else took it and wasn’t able to do it? I think I would have beat myself up in both ways.