Most new mayors see themselves as disrupters, so it speaks volumes about outgoing New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison that LaToya Cantrell didn’t talk much about disrupting NOPD during her 2017 campaign for mayor.
Cantrell and her rivals did promise to conduct a national search for their own police chief, which is kind of a boilerplate campaign plank, but they never outlined what they thought Harrison was doing wrong. And while crime is always an issue in New Orleans, there wasn’t much of a groundswell from voters for significant change in the department itself. Instead, talk of disruption — of bringing in a turnaround specialist and reinventing an agency top to bottom — centered on the trouble-plagued Sewerage & Water Board.
When Cantrell was sworn in last year, she quickly set aside talk of looking elsewhere, and instead stuck with Harrison. There were nips and tucks to crime-fighting strategies, including a reimagining of the old NOLA for Life program launched under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu. But there was also a tacit acknowledgment that plenty was already going right.
Just how much is getting lots of attention this week, now that Harrison has announced his retirement and accepted an offer to lead Baltimore’s police department.
That Harrison’s successes have remained somewhat under radar until now probably owes much to his unassuming personality and resume. Harrison is unfailingly polite and generally low-key. Previous chiefs brought in to turn the department around, people like Richard Pennington under Marc Morial and Ronal Serpas under Landrieu, had led other major departments. When Harrison was promoted from within to replace Serpas, some wondered whether the mayor was looking more for a lackey than a leader.
But a leader is what the city got. That much is clear in the reaction to Harrison’s imminent departure.
There was this from City Councilman Jason Williams, the council’s criminal justice chair: "I have known Michael since he was a young officer with black hair and I was a young lawyer with hair. He is a wonderful man and has ushered our city through an extremely precarious time.”
And this from Landrieu: "I thought he was a great chief for the city. He did, I thought, a spectacular job of taking us through the rigors of the consent decree," Landrieu said, referring to the city's 2012 civil rights agreement with the federal government, which called for deep structural changes.
And even this from U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing compliance with the federal agreement: "Chief Harrison's appointment marked a turning point in the NOPD's progress toward compliance with the consent decree. His commitment to constitutional policing for the City of New Orleans, and his leadership team's commitment to the same goal, has made all the difference. The police department he leaves behind is well prepared not only to maintain the reforms achieved thus far but to continue to excel."
And that’s not even taking into account a steep reduction in murders in 2018 and other bright spots, such as big improvements in the sex crimes unit following a damning inspector general report. Harrison also advanced sincere outreach to victims and communities that interact with police. At the height of tension over violence during police traffic stops, for example, Harrison recorded a calm, respectful video advising drivers of their rights and responsibilities and explaining how police approach these situations. I remember thinking at the time that it was pitch-perfect.
There will inevitably be talk of whether Cantrell let a star get away, and that’s fair. She kept Harrison on and backed him in public but didn’t make a long-term commitment, talking recently of subjecting him to unspecified metrics.
But it’s also entirely plausible that Harrison looked at Baltimore’s deeply troubled department, which is in the much earlier stages of similar consent decree, and saw the chance to really turn things around — just as Pennington, a mentor, did in New Orleans.
He’s walking into a Sewerage and Water Board-level mess, and he won’t have the advantage of built-in trust with the rank-and-file this time around. But if he succeeds, he’ll more than earn the type of accolades he’s belatedly getting back home.