Pugh Makes a New Choice for Police Commissioner
In barely 24 hours, Baltimore lost its lead on one new police commissioner, but gained another. Joel Fitzgerald, the chief of police in Fort Worth, Texas, was out and Michael Harrison, Police Superintendent from New Orleans was in.
After confirming Monday that Fitzgerald had withdrawn from consideration, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced Tuesday that Harrison will be Baltimore’s Acting Commissioner in a few weeks. She said he will then begin meeting with community groups and others before the City Council holds confirmation hearings.
It all happened with dizzying speed and a few contradictions.
Baltimoreans learned about Fitzgerald’s decision to withdraw in a tweet from Fort Worth Police Monday morning.
Pugh issued a statement later in the morning confirming the Texas announcement and called an afternoon press conference to discuss the sudden change. Then she cancelled that.
Her office emailed a press release Tuesday morning announcing her new choice and she called WYPR’s Midday at noon for a brief interview.
“I think he has the capacity and ability to not only reduce violence but also is very familiar with the consent decree – the consent decree that we are currently under,” she said.
Both cities’ police departments have been operating under federal consent decrees to clean up corruption and unconstitutional policing.
New Orleans entered its consent decree in 2012. Harrison, a 28-year veteran of the New Orleans force, took over as superintendent in 2014. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, reports there has been “a marked change” in the way that department operates.
The Baltimore police began operating under a consent decree in 2017.
Both cities also have struggled with rising murder rates. But under Harrison’s watch, homicide numbers in New Orleans dropped to their lowest in close to fifty years.
In 2018, there were 145 homicides in the city of 400,000.
Baltimore, a city of 600,000, saw 304 homicides in that same period.
In her statement, Mayor Pugh announced she had informed City Council President Jack Young she would submit Harrison’s name to the council for confirmation.
She said Harrison “has achieved clear, compelling and consistent results in reducing violent crime, implementing a federally-mandated consent decree, increasing police recruitment, introducing advanced technologies” and implementing “21st century constitutional policing” in the New Orleans department.
According to Pugh’s office, Harrison, 49, has informed New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell he has decided to retire from that city’s department to take the Baltimore job.
The announcement comes weeks after Harrison told the New Orleans Advocate he had “declined to apply” for the Baltimore job, but “was again approached” about his interest in the job.
The Advocate reported that Harrison “ultimately asked not to be considered” for the job because of his “commitment to achieving our goals at NOPD.”
Pugh said Harrison will participate in meetings with community leaders, neighborhood associations and other citizens before she formally submits his nomination to the council.
Harrison said in a statement he is “honored” by Pugh’s choice and that he looks forward to “getting to Baltimore in the coming weeks to engage broadly with residents about the challenges to public safety and confidence in their police department.”
In a statement issued later in the morning, City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety comittee, said he respected the mayor’s decision, but thought the city should have had “a more open, inclusive and transparent process.”
He said Baltimore needs “a proven crime fighter with the ability to concurrently reform and restructure the Baltimore Police Department," and that at first glance, Harrison “seems to meet those standards.”
Pugh's nomination of Fitzgerald was on shaky ground to begin with as her selection process was shrouded in secrecy and city council members, who would have to confirm the nomination, balked when they heard of his selection.
He had been scheduled for a series of meetings with city council members and community leaders over the weekend and Monday, but suddenly withdrew Friday because his 13-year-old son needed emergency surgery.
Monday morning, Pugh’s office issued a statement that said Fitzgerald’s son needs further surgery and that he had withdrawn from consideration for the job.
She said then she respects Fitzgerald’s decision to withdraw “to devote full attention to his son who is now facing a second brain surgery tomorrow to remove a mass that was discovered late last week.”
In a statement released late Monday morning, Fitzgerald said he decided to withdraw after reflecting on “the tremendous outpouring of heartfelt support I received here in Fort Worth over the last few months.”
He said residents expressed their support to him “even before this medical emergency occurred with my son, but it was reinforced thereafter knowing there was a possibility I could leave.”
He said the support never wavered and may have intensified in the last week.
“There is literally nowhere I go in this city of almost 900,000 residents,” the Philadelphia native said, “where someone doesn’t approach me to say first, ‘Hey Chief, your Eagles stink, and by the way, you’re still needed and loved here in Fort Worth.’”
Fitzgerald said he would “now focus on my child’s next bout of brain surgery, and being home with family, my Fort Worth Police Department family...and this awesome community.”
Later in the day Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke issued a statement noting that the city “has been very patient and supportive” of Fitzgerald as he has been involved in the “awkward approval process” in Baltimore.
And while city officials support him as he is dealing with a family emergency, they “look forward to working with him to understand his desire to fully commit to the work here in Fort Worth.”