New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, a Mitch Landrieu appointee whom Mayor LaToya Cantrell has decided to keep on at least for the time being, was nearly tapped this year to lead Baltimore’s Police Department.
Harrison was one search panel’s top choice out of 51 contenders for Baltimore's next police chief after that panel interviewed him in October, the Baltimore Sun first reported.
Although the panel recommended Harrison to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Pugh ultimately picked Joel Fitzgerald for the job, she told the Sun.
If the City Council confirms his appointment, Fitzgerald, now the chief of police in Fort Worth, Texas, would be the fifth commissioner in four years of the Baltimore Police Department, which has been wracked by scandal and turmoil.
Harrison confirmed his involvement on Friday, saying that he “declined to apply” but “was again approached” and “participated in discussions about my potential interest” in the job.
“While I am humbled to be sought after to lead the Baltimore Police Department, I ultimately asked not to be considered for the position because of my commitment to achieving our goals at NOPD,” he said, listing the department’s current objectives.
Harrison's flirtation with taking the reins of another major city police department came as he faced an uncertain future in New Orleans.
Cantrell announced during her mayoral transition that she would open a national search for a new chief, while inviting Harrison to compete. Then, ahead of her May inauguration, she switched course, announcing Harrison was her choice for the job.
Notably, however, she did not make a long-term commitment, saying instead that she would come up with benchmarks by which to grade his performance and then decide whether to keep him permanently.
Cantrell’s office did not respond Friday to a request for comment on Harrison's work to this point.
However, the mayor told The Advocate editorial board in late October: "I retained the police chief, and he is the superintendent of police for the city of New Orleans. And he has my 100 percent support, as someone I rely on daily to lead the public safety effort in the city. And I believe that our relationship is getting stronger literally by the day, as we learn one another, our styles."
It is rare for a police chief to survive a mayoral transition in New Orleans, where violent crime is a perennial voter concern.
But observers say Harrison has made major strides in reforming a force that is now six years into a consent decree with the federal government aimed at ending longstanding unconstitutional practices. He has also built broad support among business and civic leaders, some of whom were initially lukewarm about his appointment to the top job.
"The New Orleans Police Department, under his leadership, is being viewed as a success story and not the horror story it had been," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The improvements include dozens of new policies that dictate officer responses to everything from car chases to abandoned boats. Police have also cut down on time spent responding to minor offenses, in order to better respond to violent crime.
The force still struggles, however, with lengthy response times to calls for service in some neighborhoods and with the handling of calls related to domestic violence.
Harrison, a New Orleans native, rose through the department’s ranks, joining the force at age 22 in 1991 and advancing to commander of the 7th District in 2012. That was the last position he held before Landrieu named him in 2014 as interim successor, then successor, to former Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
A recent University of New Orleans quality-of-life survey gave Harrison relatively strong marks, finding that more than half of voters approve of his performance.
But Baltimore, apparently, has had him on its radar. Harrison said a group in charge of finding Baltimore’s next police commissioner first approached him in the summer and asked him to consider applying for that job.
He attributed their interest in him to his role as an executive board member of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a national organization of police chiefs and sheriffs, and his working relationships with several other national professional police groups.
Baltimore, like New Orleans, has high levels of crime and is under a federal consent decree to implement police reforms.
“Although I declined to apply, those in charge of the search made Baltimore officials aware of my body of work in New Orleans,” he said.
He said he was approached again in early October, while he was attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Orlando. The panel interviewed him and five other law enforcement officials. It then recommended Harrison as its top choice, with Fitzgerald as a second option.
That was a few weeks before Cantrell expressed her "100 percent" confidence in Harrison to The Advocate, and Harrison said he eventually decided he wasn't interested in leaving New Orleans.
“We still have more work ahead of us if we are to reach our goals and cement the NOPD as the national model of evidence-based policing and data-driven police practices,” Harrison said. “I am proud to continue leading our department in these efforts under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s leadership.”