Less than two months after Mayor Mitch Landrieu elevated 7th District Cmdr. Michael Harrison to interim New Orleans Police Department superintendent after the abrupt retirement of Ronal Serpas, the mayor announced Tuesday night that Harrison can keep the job.
Landrieu removed the “interim” tag from the homespun 45-year-old career NOPD officer at a Night Out Against Crime event in Algiers.
The second-term mayor suggested on Aug. 18, the day Serpas announced his departure, that the chief’s job was probably Harrison’s to keep.
While he did not undertake a formal nationwide search this time — as he did four years ago before appointing Serpas — Landrieu insisted, “I always look across the country. I also wanted to give the guys inside the department a chance. I feel very good we got the best in the country.”
Harrison was a surprise choice to step in for Serpas, who drew the ire of rank-and-file officers for several moves, including the creation of a new tier of commander posts that allowed him to pluck some district leaders — including Harrison — from the lieutenant ranks, bypassing higher-ranking officers.
Unlike Serpas, who left the NOPD to lead two other police agencies before returning to head the embattled local department, the relatively low-profile Harrison spent 23 years rising through the ranks before Landrieu tapped him for the top job.
At the time, Landrieu said that Serpas’ departure after four tumultuous years “falls beautifully into the strategy to begin to develop the city for a new generation of leadership, and I believe that, at this time, Cmdr. Harrison represents what that looks like.”
Harrison, who has been making the rounds of churches and community groups with the mayor, said he’ll focus on relationships within and outside law enforcement, “building the ones that were never built and repairing the ones that were broken.”
Flanked by his wife, Harrison said, “I think I’m the poster child that there’s no more glass ceiling.”
The announcement was met by applause from a range of elected officials, from City Councilman Jason Williams, who called Harrison “the perfect person for the job,” to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
“He’s reached out to everybody. That’s the mark of a great leader,” Gusman said.
Backed by several district commanders, the new chief laid out five priorities under his watch for a department that has seen its ranks shrivel by about 30 percent in four years and that must continue to undertake a vast slate of court-mandated reforms under the federal consent decree that Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed more than two years ago.
He said he aims to build manpower in the department, reduce crime and murders, revive a community policing initiative that has waned with the manpower shortage, comply with the demands of the consent decree and build more career development avenues within the force.
“We are rebuilding the NOPD from the top down,” he said.
At the same time, Harrison acknowledged that a pledge by Landrieu and Serpas to field five new recruit classes this year is a thing of the past, noting that the recently launched second recruit class will graduate early next year.
Harrison, a 1987 graduate of McDonogh No. 35 High School, joined the force in 1991. He was named a detective in the major case narcotics section four years later, then rose to 8th District sergeant in 1999. He moved to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau as a supervisor in 2000, and in 2009 he was named an assistant commander in the 7th District, which encompasses the vast bulk of New Orleans East.
Harrison served as commander of the Special Investigations Division from January 2011 to 2012, managing the NOPD’s criminal intelligence, narcotics, vice and gang enforcement units. He later was promoted to district commander by Serpas, earning $78,000 in that post.
He got a raise to $150,000 when Landrieu promoted him to lead the department.
Since then, Harrison has shifted his leadership team with the promotion of longtime 6th District Cmdr. Robert Bardy to head up the Field Operations Bureau as a deputy superintendent.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group, said he assumed from the day of Harrison’s interim appointment that he would become the permanent chief.
For Harrison, Goyeneche said, being a policeman is more a calling than a job. But he cautioned that Harrison will be only as effective as the resources and support he’s afforded in his new role.
“Mike Harrison bleeds police blue,” Goyeneche said. “I think with him you’re getting somebody that’s totally committed to the Police Department.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head said she believes the rank-and-file officers have confidence in Harrison.
“I think he is going to have a real calming effect on the officers that are on the force right now,” Head said. “I think having a permanent police chief is important for stability as the department is building back its ranks.”
Staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this article.