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Eyes - and Ears - Wide Open; Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Tours The City

Mary Rose Madden

Baltimore’s Acting Police Commissioner, Michael Harrison, has been making the rounds, meeting face to face with residents and elected officials at community forums in all nine police districts.

It’s a rare opportunity for residents to get a direct line of communication to the Police Commissioner. And hundreds of Baltimoreans took advantage.

Harrison told a crowd at Wildwood Elementary School in Edmonson Village Tuesday he was there to listen and learn.

“My mission is to hear from you. This will guide many of my decisions," he said.

Derek Ellis, who lives nearby, welcomed Harrison to what he called “this struggling, but proud city.” But, he said, he worries that he sees crime all around his neighborhood and yet the officers on patrol don’t seem to be actively sniffing it out.

“I see a lot of officers sitting at their posts,” he said.

Harrison said he’s gotten that question every community forum he has attended. Why are cops sitting in their cars while the neighborhood around them is crime-ridden?

The department's response "is not as robust as it needs to be,” Harrison told the crowd.

He offered no excuses but reminded people that officers need backup when they approach a dangerous situation and the department is short-handed.

He conceded he hadn’t read a recent staffing study filed in federal court last fall. But the mayor, he said, will be releasing a strategy for recruitment soon.

Several victims of crime stepped forward, including a mother whose son was murdered.

“I’ve been fighting for nine years to get justice for my child,” she said. “You only one cold case homicide detective and I have a problem with that.”

Harrison acknowledged the department has "a lot that has to be corrected," but he said, if things are done right, "there are people who should be answering your questions.”

He said he wants to give the residents a direct line of communication with their district’s commanders, so they always have a way to tell someone with authoirty in the police department what they see in their neighborhoods.

Later in the week, M.O.M.S., Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, unveiled a mobile billboard that week with a similar message for Mayor Catherine Pugh, who sat in the front row at the forums.

“Mayor Pugh, stop pot arrests, solve murders instead,” it reads.

But city police have said they can’t solve crimes if witnesses don’t come forward. And residents have said they don’t trust the cops, often pointing to mistreatment they’ve witnessed or experienced first-hand.

Those complaints are detailed in a 200-plus page U.S. Justice Department report that led to the consent decree the Baltimore Police Department is operating under.

The consent decree, which calls for major changes in the way the police department operates, was on Ricardo Manders’s mind at the Edmonson Village forum.

“In regards to the recent reports of your officers and their disdain for the consent decree: a substantial amount said either they didn’t understand or they didn’t agree with it,” Manders said.

He wanted to know specifically how Harrison plans to get skeptical Baltimore cops on board with the changes that are federally mandated.

The change has to start at the top, Harrision said.

“We need to build our leadership team. That’s how we get people to understand what the consent decree is – by making sure people who can lead understand," he explained.

Once the leaders have clear directives, their officers will get it and “buy-in,” he said.

“It’s a makeover of a police department to accept 'best practices.'"

Many in the crowd of 200 at Polytechnic Institute on Cold Spring Lane Thursday night wanted to know how the commissioner would train the Baltimore officers to de-escalate tense situations. They also asked how he plans on being transparent with the community when many state laws keep some police records secret.

Harrison said transparency and accountability are the essential to his model of policing.

Harrison tried to assure residents he’s up for the job. As an officer for  the New Orleans Police Department and then the chief of the department for five years from 2014-2019, he said he’s well prepared for the challenges ahead.

And as far as the consent decree goes, he's been there and done that.

"New Orleans was in a place where Baltimore is now,” he said. "And I can do this again.”

Baltimore residents expressed their high expectations after years of frustration, pain, fear, and disappointment with their police department.  

And then, at the end of the day Thursday, twelve people had been shot in the city, four of them fatally.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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