A year ago, Michael Harrison was just one of several commanders angling for a vacant deputy chief job in the New Orleans Police Department.
He was a well-liked, 23-year veteran who had navigated the department’s dark Hurricane Katrina period with a clean record. But he also kept a pretty low profile: He was a lieutenant, leading the distant 7th District in New Orleans East.
Then came the call. When he met with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he thought he was in line to be deputy chief. But then the mayor told him that Superintendent Ronal Serpas was retiring and Landrieu wanted to catapult Harrison all the way into the top spot to replace him.
“I was excited. I was humbled,” Harrison recalled. “I was even surprised.”
Over a weekend of conversations last August — Harrison declined to reveal what was said or even where they met, citing a promise to the mayor — the two agreed that Harrison would step aside willingly after an interim period if asked. That Monday, the mayor dropped the public bombshell. Harrison, a man few New Orleanians had heard of, was the city’s new top cop.
Harrison wasn’t the only one surprised by Landrieu’s choice. His swift rise took observers off guard, some of whom noted that he had far less experience and education than Serpas — a man with a Ph.D. who had previously run two major departments.
That said, with a year under his belt, Harrison appears comfortable leading a big-city department, and he wins cautious appreciation from both a police union and a police reform monitor for his collaborative attitude.
Through misconduct scandals and the line-of-duty deaths of Officers Daryle Holloway and Vernell Brown Jr., he has managed to wax optimistic about the department’s future. But storm clouds have been gathering on the horizon, in the form of the department’s stalled hiring push, slow progress in fulfilling a federal consent decree, and a spiking homicide rate.
The greatest challenge Harrison now faces is the murder tally, which declined slightly in 2013 and 2014 but so far this year has shot up sharply. While the NOPD likes to point to an overall reported crime rate that dropped 8 percent in the first half of this year, in a city so bedeviled by violence, the murder rate tends to overshadow other crime statistics.
At this point in 2014, there had been 91 homicides. That number has risen 29 percent this year, to 117 killings.
The surge in violence has left children without fathers and scarred entire neighborhoods. It also represents a ticking political liability for both Harrison and Landrieu, who very publicly made reducing the murder rate the central focus of his administration.
“The crime data is always important, but the perception of the people is what matters, and right now everyone I think is very concerned about murder going in the direction it’s going,” said Serpas, now a professor at Loyola University.
Tamara Jackson, of the nonprofit victims’ group Silence Is Violence, echoed that sentiment. She said the murders are spreading fear through the city and fretted about how many of them the NOPD’s homicide section will be able to solve with a mere 20 detectives.
“If it was just based off the statistics, we would say we would need another chief,” Jackson said. But she sees a more complicated picture, citing the department’s staffing problems and New Orleans’ longstanding social ills.
“We can’t expect a miracle if you don’t have any resources to work with,” she said.
Harrison attributes the skyrocketing murder rate to domestic violence, drug deals gone wrong and simple bad luck, given that the number of nonfatal shootings recorded has actually dropped. He said the types of killings that are rising this year are difficult to prevent, and often all police can do is try to solve them.
“We have to put the homicide rate versus the overall (crime) rate in its proper context,” he said. “Because it’s a social issue. We’re asked to solve the problems of society through only a small toolbox that’s given to us. But as a city we’re tackling it from every angle.”
Harrison pointed to Landrieu’s NOLA for Life program, which combines sweeping gang indictments with “call-ins” of known violent criminals that combine the threat of further prosecution with an offer of help in getting on the right path.
Last year, Landrieu was able to argue that NOLA for Life was yielding results when the murder rate dropped — even as the number of nonfatal shootings rose dramatically. This year it looks like he will have no such luck.
Harrison acknowledged that another shift in tactics may be needed.
“That’s something that we’re looking at,” he said. “We’re always making assessments on how to improve what’s working, what used to work well, what’s not working so well and how to shift and regain the momentum we once had.”
Another looming issue for Harrison is the federal consent decree the department signed with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. Reports from federal monitors have praised Harrison’s willingness to work to resolve the department’s longstanding problems — but they have given him at best mixed reviews on his actual implementation.
In a court hearing in May, U.S. District Judge Susan Morgan said she was “disappointed” in the department’s progress thus far and warned it was time “to pick up the pace.”
As the NOPD tries to right itself, Harrison acknowledged that an explosive outburst against police misconduct like those that have occurred during his tenure in Missouri or Baltimore “absolutely could happen” in New Orleans. But he believes his own relationships, as well as the larger reform efforts, are working to mend fences between the NOPD and the community it serves.
Some critics complain that complying with the consent decree has further sapped manpower in a force that still faces a festering crime problem, but Harrison shrugs off that critique. “I can’t waste any time, thought or energy on what would have been. … 100 percent of my focus is on fixing the problems,” he said.
While Serpas had an abrasive reputation, at least one outside official said Harrison has taken a different tack in working with critics of the department, from the DOJ to community groups.
Deputy Independent Police Monitor Ursula Price said “he’s very liked and respected by both the community and officers. He had a big job ahead of him reforming the NOPD, but he has demonstrated that he is willing to educate himself.”
So far, Harrison also has enjoyed a largely easy working relationship with the NOPD’s two largest labor groups, the Police Association of New Orleans and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Both groups questioned whether he was too close to the mayor when he was installed. And their suspicions were heightened when the department created a new deputy chief of staff position and filled it with an official from the Mayor’s Office.
“The evidence points toward a heavy involvement by the Landrieu administration,” Fraternal Order of Police Crescent City Lodge spokesman Donovan Livaccari said. “There is a significant perception by the men and women on the Police Department that that’s the case.”
Still, criticism from the unions — ferocious at times under Serpas — has been largely muted during Harrison’s tenure. One of their largest complaints, about pay, has been mostly settled with a 10 percent pay raise. The administration believes that salary boost also will help with recruitment, although the department’s headcount is still stalled where it was last year.
“I’m thinking about Mike in comparison to commanders I’ve worked with around the country, and I think he’s as good as any of them,” Serpas said. “The truth of the matter is, if he continues to receive funding at the level and extent that they’re doing now — which they never did before — he has every chance to be successful.”
Harrison also has faced the same sorts of police misconduct issues that have dogged all of his predecessors over decades. Perhaps no issue symbolizes those challenges better than the sex crimes unit scandal.
In November, just weeks after Landrieu upgraded Harrison from interim to permanent superintendent, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux released a scathing report suggesting five detectives in the department’s sex crimes unit had habitually downgraded or outright ignored rape reports.
At the time, Harrison deferred to Quatrevaux and suggested that the officers could face criminal charges. This month, however, Harrison said that some of the worst-case scenarios outlined in the IG’s report had not in fact been borne out in an internal investigation, and that none of the officers was likely to face criminal accusations.
Some officers have privately grumbled that Harrison should have stuck up for those sex crimes detectives last year.
“They kind of had a knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing,” Livaccari said. He added, however, that the then-newly installed chief was not “necessarily in the best position in the world to be able to react in the way that we would have liked him to.”
While the department had a month to review a draft of Quatrevaux’s report, the chief said he was still largely blindsided by it. At that point, Harrison said, it was essential to let the Public Integrity Bureau’s investigation of the sex crimes unit run its course to reassure the public.
Harrison’s response to the sex crimes report and to the investigation that followed was markedly different from Serpas’ response to an earlier inspector general report that panned the same unit. When that report came out in May 2014, Serpas challenged its findings line by line.
“There’s no need for me to be defensive or to make the department defensive,” Harrison said. “If there’s something we can correct, let’s just correct it.”
Editor’s note: This story was edited on Aug. 21 to clarify Harrison’s comments about the NOPD’s findings on the inspector general’s report.