August 19, 2023

Michael Harrison reflects on his career in New Orleans and Baltimore


PERF members,

Michael Harrison has held two of the most challenging positions in policing: superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. He became a police officer in New Orleans in 1991 and rose through the ranks, serving as superintendent from 2014 to 2019. For the last four years, he has led the Baltimore Police Department. In both agencies he dealt with a high violent crime rate and a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

I’ve included a few highlights of our hour-long conversation below, and the entire discussion is available as a podcast.


Harrison with graduating New Orleans Police Department recruits in April 2015 (NOPD)

Chuck Wexler: Did you always want to be a police officer?

Michael Harrison: I don’t know that I always wanted to be a police officer. But after high school I was in the National Guard, and a number of my friends who were in the National Guard were police officers in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. I think I began to be interested around that time.

Wexler: What was the New Orleans Police Department like when you joined?

Harrison: I was 21 years old when I joined in 1991. I did not know about the rumors of corruption and the actual corruption and what people would say negatively about the New Orleans Police Department. I met a recruiter and talked to friends who were members of the department, and I saw it as a continuation of this military structure that I wanted and was helping me. I’ve always been a member of some type of organization that had strong discipline, so it gave me structure that seemed to fit me.

Wexler: Can you talk about the time when you saw corruption firsthand?

Harrison: After joining the department I worked through the proactive units and worked my way into a narcotics unit about four years into my career. I was working in the major case narcotics unit and was doing some undercover work. I was undercover in a club and saw the person I was supposed to have an encounter with talking to other police officers I recognized, and who recognized me. They were telling the drug dealer I was there to meet that I was a police officer. It was very eye-opening to me that members of my department were not just involved in wrongdoing, but would actually go to great lengths to point me out and, I would imagine, point others out as police officers. In my mind, they were not just jeopardizing the investigation I was working, but were jeopardizing my life and my livelihood.

Wexler: Was that a turning point for you?

Harrison: It was, because I quickly began to realize that there were people within our organization who were not true to the calling of policing and not true to the oath we took. I had to decide if I was going to continue to do the work in an honest way to rid the city of its drug dealers, which is what I thought I was doing. To learn there were officers working against me who were supposed to be on the same team, I had to make a decision about how I was going to handle that. Since they had no regard for my well-being, I had to decide that I was going to continue doing this work and see this through, and if any of them interfered or got in the way, they had no right to wear the badge.

Wexler: And you ended up uncovering some significant corruption, correct?

Harrison: Correct. We had officers in the department who were working for drug dealers and on their payrolls. I was in narcotics and later worked a case with the FBI. I knew one of the individuals in the organization we were trying to take down, and he approached me and wanted to bribe me to give him information. I told my supervisor, who was a lieutenant, and we told an FBI agent. The lieutenant and I were the only two in the police department who knew.

I went undercover to pretend to be a corrupt police officer to win his trust, so that we could infiltrate this drug organization that had police officers on its payroll. We caught not only the person who was trying to bribe me, but also the biggest purchaser of drugs from the main drug dealer in the whole southern part of the country. We took down the drug organization — including several police officers — and a big part of it was through this undercover investigation as a corrupt police officer. At that time, it was the pinnacle of my investigative career, and shortly after that I was promoted to sergeant.

Harrison meeting community members at a 2017 National Night Out event in New Orleans (NOPD)

Wexler: What was your experience like during Hurricane Katrina?

Harrison: Hurricane Katrina hit August 29, 2005, and I was a sergeant in the Public Integrity Bureau. The city was not prepared and never expected anything like that to happen, so we were literally in survival mode. I was fortunate to work for a commander who had relationships at the Hilton, so the Public Integrity Bureau worked and slept at the Hilton, because our office was totally destroyed under eight feet of water.

District stations were destroyed, hundreds of police cars were destroyed, and all communication was cut off. So we were having a meeting in the morning and a meeting in the evening in person to get instructions about what to do and where to go to rescue people. It was very chaotic, but there were people who rose to leadership levels and made things happen that otherwise would not have happened.

We had 1,500 police officers. When the storm hit, more than 450 either did not show or left and never came back. We were short 400-500 officers for weeks, until the city began to stabilize. Then people in the department began to trickle back into the city to find that they either did not have a job anymore or, if they came back within 14 days, they were penalized. Anything after 14 days was considered job abandonment and they were terminated. Those who came back within 14 days were allowed to keep their jobs, but the stigma of having left remained with them for many years.

Wexler: What were the lessons you learned from that event?

Harrison: Every executive should have a contingency plan to deal with when personnel should report, when personnel should leave, and when personnel should be allowed to go home. And they should have contingency plans to shelter in place and keep personnel at the station with food and amenities for days, if not weeks. And the police station may be the first place, but you should have an alternative should the station lose power or flood. Then you have to think about transportation. If there’s a catastrophe, we may not be able to use police cars; we may only be able to use extremely large, heavy military vehicles to get around.

So there’s a contingency for personnel, a contingency for facilities, and a contingency for equipment. Every leader should be thinking about a contingency plan to sustain yourself for a protracted period of days, if not weeks, with those three things: people, facilities, and equipment.

Harrison being sworn in as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)

Wexler: You had to implement consent decrees in both New Orleans and Baltimore. Is that a burden? An opportunity? A challenge?

Harrison: It’s all three. It is a burden, but it’s an administrative burden because the laws have not changed and the Constitution has not changed. We still have the legal right to do police work, and do it in the way the Constitution allows us to do it.

And it’s a challenge because it’s an agreement between the Department of Justice and our city to make a number of changes and reforms, and stick to those reforms, according to national best practice standards. The challenge is to do it in a large agency in a short period of time. And it really is about changing culture. Policy is easy to rewrite but culture is extremely hard to change. It’s both unlearning bad behavior and practices and relearning the correct way. And you still have to conduct daily policing operations, with the very same people who put the department in the consent decree.

And it’s an opportunity for the department to embrace it and become the department it was always supposed to be, and the department that people pay for, deserve, and expect. It’s a department that is community policing-centric and community driven, treats the community with dignity and respect, and applies national best practices to deliver policing services. It’s an opportunity to turn the department around and make it into that.

Wexler: Both cities have huge violent crime issues. Can you reduce violent crime and implement the consent decree at the same time?

Harrison: It can be done. We proved it in New Orleans, and we later proved it in Baltimore. Four-and-a-half years into my time as chief in New Orleans, it had become a model police department across the country both in reforms and in violence reduction. We had lowered the murder rate to a 40-year low. So violence reduction can be achieved while making reforms. Because the reforms actually build back that community trust you need to help you solve cases. People are more inclined to communicate with law enforcement to tell you when crimes are being committed and who’s committing the crime. So the consent decree doesn’t directly reduce crime, but it does change people’s perception. Over time, people will have more confidence in the agency and thus will participate in its community engagement. People are participating now, when at one time they did not.

Harrison at South Baltimore Little League’s opening day in April (BPD)

Wexler: How do you identify a rising star in an organization?

Harrison: Of course I look at the obvious things – education, credentials, temperament, knowledge, skill, and ability. But I also want to look at if they are conditioned to follow the status quo, even if the status quo is obviously wrong and bad. Are they willing to challenge the status quo, and think on their own and think outside the box? When they see something that is not correct, do they do whatever is necessary to correct what needs to be corrected, in spite of opposition, in spite of pushback, and in spite of how people might feel about them or view them? I look at all of that in a person to see if they have a willingness to take on a new way of thinking and a new way of operating.

Wexler: You now spend a lot of time mentoring other police executives. Why is that so important to you?

Harrison: It’s a big part of what I do, because it was a big part of how I learned from others who did this job before me and were doing it with me. That helped me evolve into the chief I became. I believe it’s a big part of the learning experience as an aspiring chief. And even once you become a chief, you still have to have a mentor. I still look to certain people who were mentors to guide me, even now in retirement.

Wexler: What’s next for you?

Harrison: They teach you how to go from zero to 100, but nobody teaches you how to go from 100 to zero. So it is an adjustment. I spent four-and-three-quarters years in New Orleans and four-and-a-half in Baltimore, for more than nine years as a major city chief. Now I’m embarking on consulting. I’m keeping my options open. We’ll see what happens in the next year or two, and if I get the itch again.

But right now I’ll be consulting and spending time with my family, making sure that my granddaughter is not growing up without my wife and me and we’re giving our kids some of the time that we missed while I was running two major police departments. And I’ll look at the profession with a different lens, and be helpful in a different way, as an expert, a consultant, and a friend to the profession.

Harrison speaking at the October 2022 PERF Town Hall Meeting in Dallas

During our conversation, Commissioner Harrison also discussed:

  • What he learned during his time as a district commander
  • Cultural differences between New Orleans and Baltimore
  • The importance of professional development opportunities

I encourage you all to listen to the entire interview above.

Thanks to Commissioner Harrison for taking the time to share his knowledge and experience, and for his years of service as PERF’s president.