*This interview is the fifth installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.
Michael Harrison is the Baltimore Police Commissioner. Commissioner Harrison has worked in law enforcement for more than thirty years, leading the New Orleans Police Department for four years before coming to Baltimore in 2019. Inheriting these two departments during tumultuous times, Harrison is the only police chief to ever lead multiple departments while under a federal consent decree. Commissioner Harrison is also the president of the Police Executive Research Forum Board of Directors and a determined advocate for progressive policing legislation.
Sam Trachtenberg & John Fullerton: Maryland recently passed a sweeping reform package—
Michael Harrison: They didn’t go far enough.
ST & JF: How so?
MH: Maryland has some of the strongest police officer bills of rights in the whole country. I advocated for the legislature to give me the autonomy and authority to terminate employees when I see violations of law or serious infractions. The legislature did away with the Maryland police officer’s bill of rights, but what replaced it still only allows me to terminate somebody only after they’ve been convicted of a crime. The officer’s trial may be a year or two down the road, and while I can suspend that officer, I can’t terminate them. Recently, there was an officer in a nearby county charged with murder. That department can’t fire that officer.
This is my second go-around leading a police department in a federal consent decree. I’m the only chief who has ever taken on two federal consent decrees. I’m advocating for reform—the kind of reform that chiefs really need in states like Maryland to be able to allow us to do what Chief Arradondo did in Minneapolis when he fired that officer [Derek Chauvin] immediately. I can’t do that. I have to wait until they’re actually convicted.
ST & JF: What do you think is the future of police unions in Baltimore?
MH: I think the unions will remain the same. Remember, unions advocate for the individual officer or the collective group of individual officers. The unions are still going to have a strong input, a seat at the table, and will advocate on behalf of their members. But I think that communities are now aware of what unions have been allowed to put into their contracts. They know how unions have created barriers to public trust and obstacles to well-performing police departments because of some of the things they’ve advocated for.
ST & JF: Do you think police unions have grown to be too powerful and, as a result, minimize police officer accountability?
MH: In some places, yes. While I can’t speak for every place, I can certainly speak for my city of New Orleans, where I spent twenty-eight years in the police department, and for Baltimore, where I’ve been for the last two and a half years. I can also speak to what I’ve read about, heard about, and talked about with other chiefs. The answer to that is yes—but not everywhere.
ST & JF: Over the course of your career in policing, have you ever found yourself enforcing laws that you disagreed with?
MH: I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever disagreed with the law other than in the early 1990s when I worked narcotics. At that point in time in Louisiana, distribution of heroin—even if it was your first time, and it was one $10 bag—was punished with a life sentence. I may not have fully agreed with that law, but I was the undercover guy making those cases to catch drug dealers. As I became more educated and wiser, I realized that that was not a good law. It was eventually overturned in the mid-1990s.
Other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with the law. I’ve disagreed with the law saying I had no discretion, that I was compelled to make an arrest, and that failure to make that arrest could constitute a crime being committed by me.
If I take you back thirty years ago when I was a young officer arresting a person who had committed a serious crime, the problem is that I was taking a family’s breadwinner out of the home—their only income. I knew that that arrest would cause him to lose his job and send the family deeper into poverty. I felt that I was harming the family by making the arrest, but I took an oath to serve and to do my job. Anyone with a conscience—anyone who’s connected to a community and really wants to see a community doing well—is going to have those conflicts of the heart.
ST & JF: How do you teach your officers about the history of bad policing in Baltimore?
MH: That’s a good question, but that’s a hard one because you’re teaching it to three very different groups of people. You’re teaching it to new officers who are probably very open-minded and willing to learn it. You’re also teaching it to officers who have been here a short while who have seen bad policing but have now seen how young, innovative, newer officers are open to a new way of policing. But then you have the third group—the more seasoned veterans who have been around for a long time—who have performed the wrong way for many years.
The days of the PowerPoint presentation and lecture style with one instructor in front of a classroom is over. The education [of the history of bad policing] has to be very dynamic, it has to be very interactive, and you have to really get people into a room together and show them the error of their ways. You have to show them how the wrong type of policing has caused us problems and changed the perception of police. And then you can show them the correct way to police and how that will change perceptions and build relationships rather than tear them apart.
I tell all of my graduating classes the same thing: build relationships that were never built, improve good relationships, and work to repair broken ones. And so every decision should be doing those three things and anything that you do that’s not doing one of those is harmful.
ST & JF: Credit to Danielle Outlaw, who we interviewed over the summer, for this next question: What responsibilities fall on the community that is being policed to get involved in reform efforts and bridge the gap between the law enforcement and themselves?
MH: Danielle is a good friend, and she’s really a good friend and a really good police commissioner. I think getting involved is the most important thing for community members when it comes to reform. It helps manage their own expectations of what reform is and what police should and shouldn’t be doing. People who are more engaged are often more informed and less combative. When they do protest issues, they’re very well informed and have a good knowledge base of what it is they’re demanding from police and how to accomplish it.
ST & JF: Baltimore remained largely peaceful during the protests after the death of Geroge Floyd last summer, but that wasn’t the case everywhere. What did your police department do differently than others to facilitate that?
MH: I’m new to Baltimore. I’ve only been here two and a half years. What I’ll say is that, in 2015, Baltimore experienced protests in a very different way. It was more than just protests; it was mass looting, large-scale rioting, things burning. It was so bad it made its way into our consent decree as a mandate to retrain our department on First Amendment protections and how to deal with First Amendment protests. We purchased the right equipment so that every member of our department is equipped to handle those situations. Secondly, we trained our department using 21st century, best practices of how to handle protests. A lot of input from local and national experts went into the policy creation and the training.
I also want to give credit to a number of community members, activists, and faith leaders who I talked to about the protests. We had local pastors and activists who were out there working with the police department to keep the crowds calm. When the crowd looked like it was escalating to violence or throwing objects, it wasn’t the police; rather, it was the community who deescalated them and cautioned them that if they continued, they would be brought to the police. We all wanted to keep Baltimore from having a repeat of 2015. The people did not want to see their city burn again.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.