Interview: NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison

The chief of the New Orleans Police Department on the federal consent decree, NOLA For Life and the rising crime rate

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When Michael Harrison was tapped to become the permanent chief of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), he'd already been serving as interim chief for almost two months, after his predecessor, Ronal Serpas, suddenly stepped down.

  Harrison, 45, a New Orleans native, was a veteran of the NOPD with a masters in criminal justice from Loyola University, a cop who had worn many hats on the job: a stint in the public integrity bureau, commander of the special investigations division and commander of the Seventh District. He inherited a force with many problems, including the ongoing federal consent decree, police union unhappiness and a violent crime rate that was going up (though the murder rate went down slightly in 2014).

  We also asked him about his views on community policing, body cameras and how NOLA For Life could be said to be working when the violent crime rate is rising.

Chief, you've been in the NOPD since 1991. How would you say you differ from your predecessors, especially Ronal Serpas and Warren Riley, in terms of style and substance?

HARRISON: All of us got our start in the NOPD. All of us started the same way — born and raised here in the city. Our personalities are very different and so our management styles will be very different. I personally got to see the good, the not so good ... and I had a chance to learn from both of them. Our goals are the same: Make the department a better department, make the officers better officers, provide the best quality police services that we can provide.

How would you describe your style?

HARRISON: I'm big on management, but I'm also big on the people side of management. I am always trying to get the most out of people, make them as good as they can be and make me as good as I can be. I probably spend more time listening to what the people who work for me and the citizens have to say, to figure out what it is they are saying they need, what they're saying they want, how they view us — and then you'll see me offering solutions rather than imposing what I think they need.

Year-to-date, we're seeing decreases in robberies, decreases in shootings. Now, there is an increase in murders — but crimes of opportunity, we're showing decreases in that.

Give us one example of something you think sums up how you approach a problem.

HARRISON: It's the essence of community policing. For a long time, we provided police services that we thought the community needed in a way we thought we should deliver it. My philosophy is — and I think it's in line with what community policing really is — we ought to deliver the police services they tell us they need and then agree to deliver it in a way that we mutually agree we should deliver it.

Statistics show big jumps in armed robberies, rapes, assaults and auto thefts in the last year. At the same time, the murder rate declined by about 20 percent. You credit the drop in murders to the Mayor's NOLA For Life program. If that's true, why haven't other violent crimes gone down?

HARRISON: I think NOLA For Life is a really good murder reduction strategy. And I do credit the drop in murders to that because we did see a decrease in gang-related and group-related violence as a result of that program. I personally had an opportunity to sit with 50 young men who went through that program and who signed up for a different way of life. I went to a banquet where I found all 50 of them were either full-time students or full-time employees or a combination of both. They are the proof that this works. I give them great credit for that.

  There are other reasons why crime is up, why crime goes down. It has to do a lot with our manpower, which we're working to build up. We're in a world-class recruitment campaign to hire as many as we can hire to get to our target number of 1,600 [officers]. It has to do with the amount of vehicles we have on the street and our ability to deploy like we want to deploy to affect those crimes of opportunity, to have a visibility and a deterrent effect to armed robbery.

  For example, in December we created a task force of eight people when we had a spike in armed robberies right before Christmas and right after Christmas. That task force had some success, so we doubled the size of it. We have 16 people around the city to deploy in areas that we know are crime hot spots. We use technology to figure out where those crime trends are, how they move, and then we deploy to that. Since then, you've seen a decrease. Year-to-date, we're seeing decreases in robberies, decreases in shootings. Now, there is an increase in murders — but crimes of opportunity, we're showing decreases in that.

Criminologists have said that it's not so much NOLA For Life, but it's actually better EMS, better emergency room treatments, that brought down the murder rate. What's your response to that?

HARRISON: I'd say it's a combination of it all. I won't discredit any of that. I think we're all becoming smarter. We're all becoming more efficient. We're all becoming more effective. NOLA for Life is a great strategy. As we have rapid response to people who are injured, that has an effect.

  We're just one part of the murder reduction strategy. There are all types of parts built into NOLA For Life: prevention, intervention. We're just one part. We're doing everything we can to make sure we provide the resources to the community, the police officers to the community, putting them in the right places, asking them to do the right things and holding them accountable for the work that they do to ensure that everybody is performing to expectations. We believe if we do our part, we'll have a positive effect.

You mentioned recruiting. Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin has said the goal this year is to add 150 new officers. Last year NOPD added about half that many, according to the Civil Service Commission. How will you double that number this year?

HARRISON: We've made changes to our recruiting strategy. Number one, we have world-class advertising right now. Our marketing campaign is very robust, and it's going to become even more robust. We're seeing people from as far away as New York City applying.

  Number two, we've modified the application requirement by eliminating the education requirement. That information gets lost in translation, but we've tried to message it as much as we can that it's not a requirement for hire, it was a requirement for application. We've seen an exponential increase in applications since we've done that. It's still a very rigorous process. Only 3 percent of all applicants make it to the hiring process. ...

  This is a great place to be right now. We're bringing in many resources to make this a good place to be. Fewer people are asking to leave at the rate they were leaving. More people are asking to come back than before. For example, there are three people who are training in the academy this week who are reinstatements. Soon they will hit the street.

One of the big criticisms of Chief Serpas was that cops were leaving in droves. How have you addressed that?

HARRISON: Since I've become the chief, I've asked commanders whenever anybody wants to leave or advises us that they're leaving, that I'd like to speak to them personally. In my first two months, I met with six from the Special Operations Divisions. Several of those officers stayed. Several left. And the ones that left, it was because they enjoyed working with the police department [but] they lived out of parish and it was a better financial move for their family.

  As I go around, officers are telling me that they've considered leaving but now they want to stay. I think one of the reasons is we're making this a great place to work. The mayor has given us everything we need to give the officers what they need to do their jobs to be efficient and effective. We're putting out another hundred vehicles. We just ordered another hundred that will be here in May or June. Four hundred new cars will hit the street in a short period. We bought all new computers for all of the districts. We bought an extra hundred body cameras. We just bought 350 new Tasers. We upgraded our infrastructure. All of these things are happening right now on top of a 5 percent raise, which was the first raise we received in eight years. And officers are really rethinking NOPD.

  It's really not about money because NOPD was [until recently] the highest paid [law enforcement agency] in the state. Now we are the second highest behind the State Police. So it's never really been about the money. It's really about working conditions, maybe the relationships and all the sidebar issues that cops have. But I've been going out there talking to them one-on-one and just showing them, No. 1, that I care about them, and No. 2, I want to be an advocate for them. I want to show them that I support the work that they do and that when they do good work, we're going to shout it from the rooftops. We haven't had an awards ceremony in a long time, and we are planning an awards ceremony to award all of the officers who are going to receive medals of commendation and merit. That's going to come real soon for everybody who did meritorious work in 2013, and then also we'll have one for 2014.

Whatever the citizens are doing, we need to be doing. As long as we stand there and block the traffic, they view us as the police and not the community.

  So morale is improving. Performance is high. High performance is usually an indication of high morale, when you see officers out there really showing up every day, doing what's expected of them.

In your opinion, is it worth removing the 60-hour college credit requirement for new recruits, to get more bodies on the street, or would that represent a reversal of progress? Studies show cops that don't have some college wind up being more likely to use force or have problems with civilian encounters.

HARRISON: I've seen those studies, and I understand them. I don't think it's a reversal. This was a criteria for application, not a criteria for hire. So as we interview people and find recruits, the best candidate will get hired. The smartest, the best, the bravest, a combination of it all, those are the candidates we're going to hire. All we did was open the applicant pool.

When can residents of the French Quarter expect to see NOLA Patrol people on the street?

HARRISON: The training will take about six weeks. If we can get that training started before the end of March, it will be six weeks. We're trying to expedite it as fast as we can. We were hoping mid-April, but it could be late April, early May.

A September report by the Independent Police Monitor found that body cameras or dash cameras were being deployed in just one out of three cases, and the December report by federal monitors found that the department regularly fails to record and review video even when the technology is available. What's the penalty, if any, for officers turning their cameras off?

HARRISON: This is a new technology. We went through a large learning curve. I'm seeing disciplinary investigations come to my desk because officers failed to turn the cameras on. The penalty for the first offense is a one-day suspension. I've given out, I believe, 14 of those so far. There are some more in the pipeline. There's 64 investigations total right now. I've seen 14 come across my desk, 13 for first offense and one for a second offense, for which I gave an employee a five-day suspension.

A video is such a vital piece of evidence. Do you think a one-day suspension is enough for failing to turn the video on?

HARRISON: On the first offense — just forgetting to do it — we've met with the Department of Justice, our consent decree monitors and the federal judge about that. That punishment fits that offense, for forgetting to turn the body camera on. We don't know what the future holds, but for right now that punishment fits that offense.


Are you satisfied with the progress of implementing the federal consent decree?

HARRISON: I am. I'm proud of the work that we're doing with the consent decree. I'm proud of the way the police department and our management team and our officers have embraced it. We're getting positive reviews from the consent decree monitor, the Department of Justice, and [U.S. District] Judge [Susie] Morgan who oversees our consent decree. We're on task and on schedule with some. There's a lot of work to be done. We feel we have a good team in place, and it's making us a better police department.

The Inspector General blasted the Sex Crimes Unit some months ago for dereliction of basic duties — dereliction that occurred before you became chief. A task force was formed to investigate those cases. Have there been any developments? What's the status of NOPD's internal investigation of the Sex Crimes Unit?

HARRISON: There are two things working. The investigation of past cases through the task force led by Commander Paul Noel, and there's an internal investigation led by [Public Integrity Bureau Deputy] Chief [Arlinda] Westbrook into the allegations of mishandling of those rape cases. That was a scathing report. It opened a lot of eyes and it brought concern to all of us.

  [Second District] Commander [Paul] Noel is leading the task force. We meet every Monday for him to give me an update and then we talk again on Friday about whatever successes they've had during the week. They're investigating a group of cases, some of which have already been adjudicated, some of which they've turned over to the district attorney's office, some they're still working through. But they had to triage them all to figure out how to prioritize what to look at first. They're having success with that, but that's a long, hard process — to go back and investigate all of those cases. More have come in since we mounted that task force.

  The internal investigations are going well. Chief Westbrook meets with me every Monday and we talk throughout the week about the work that they're doing. We found some deficiencies. There was work that was being done — some of it was not good work, some of it was a lack of work or we found some where there was no work. It's a combination of it all.

  Anybody who has failed to perform, anybody who performed less than [up to] expectation, anybody who didn't have the right temperament to do that type of work or anyone who didn't treat a victim with the dignity and respect the victim should have been treated with, those are not folks we want in that unit. We made some early changes, and there are more to come. In my opinion, the internal investigation is progressing nicely, and I believe we will be able to satisfy the community that not only are we investigating those people, but we also are looking at supervisors who may have had culpability. That will go as high as it needs to go. No one is exempt from it. Anybody who is responsible for any wrongdoing, they'll be disciplined.

What do you say to women who have been brave enough to report this sort of thing only to have this either not investigated or investigated improperly or not treated well?

HARRISON: They've been victimized more than once, and we want to assure them that we are rebuilding the Police Department and the systems of accountability that won't allow this to happen again.

  Just recently we agreed to move all of our sex crimes detectives and supervisors into the Family Justice Center and to work from that facility. They'll be working hand-in-hand with the advocates. The relationships are really good there. It's a long, hard process. It doesn't happen overnight. We're moving ahead, but we want to assure citizens that we're actively investigating all the cases that came in. There's more information that I'm not at liberty to get into right now because it's ongoing. But all of us will be standing together to present our findings, along with [the Inspector General], who will be able to validate that we did what we said we would do.

You began our conversation by talking about community policing. What does community policing mean to you?

HARRISON: Community policing means that officers have to [change] the way we think about delivering police services. For example, when a church is giving away food to hungry folk, we put on an apron and we give away food. When a community is cleaning up a playground, planting trees, we don't block the traffic and watch them plant trees. We get on our hands and knees and plant trees. When a neighborhood decides to clean up an empty area that has trash, we don't block the traffic and let them pick up the trash. We put on some gloves and go pick up the trash. We're the community. It's called sweat equity. We have to put in the same sweat equity as everybody else.

I'm seeing disciplinary investigations come to my desk because officers failed to turn the cameras on. The penalty for the first offense is a one-day suspension. I've given out, I believe, 14 of those so far.

  Whatever the citizens are doing, we need to be doing. As long as we stand there and block the traffic, they view us as the police and not the community. We were at Sampson Playground not long ago with NOLA For Life Day, and they were planting trees, and we were putting benches around the basketball court and digging holes and pouring concrete. Cops were carrying big bags of concrete. A guy walked up to me and said, "It's about time." That's what community policing is — putting in the same sweat equity as everybody else and not just being the police while everybody else does all the work.

We want to be harsh on crime. We want to be soft on people. I think we've mixed that up over the past years..

One of the cornerstones of NOLA For Life is the premise that young black men are at particular risk. A lot of young black men don't trust the police. What do you say to them to earn their trust and respect after Henry Glover, after Danziger, after Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin?

HARRISON: Those are very unfortunate incidents that happened here and around the country. We have to earn their trust. It won't just happen by me asking them to trust us. It starts with what I told you earlier. It starts with not giving citizens what we think they need, how we think we should give it to them. When I meet with the commanders, I'm asking them to go out and bring your officers with you and ask people: Tell me what you need and let's figure out how we can give that to you. It brings the officers and the community members to the table, and it starts a dialogue and people begin to tell us about us.

  Some of it is not going to be so good. But if we listen constructively, we can go back and figure out how to approach them. Now, when it comes to crime and when it comes to people who are out there trying to hurt us and trying to hurt members of the community because of their violent acts, we're not going to be soft. We want to be harsh on crime. We want to be soft on people. I think we've mixed that up over the past years.

Do you have sons?

HARRISON: I have a son. He's 21.

Did you have "the talk" with him?

HARRISON: I've had talks with him many times. It's a unique situation having a son grow up in your home when you're a police officer.

Sure, but it may not be that unique if he's driving alone and gets pulled over.

HARRISON: But he is my son. He grew up in the city. So I've had that talk with him. I've mentioned the relationship between police and young black men, that there are people who will stereotype you and there are people who will view you as a black man and not just a man. I've had to talk to him about the way you respond and the way you talk to law enforcement when you're approached. My conversation with him was early on before he even started driving. And just like any young man, he didn't pay attention at first, but he learned. And then I told him, "Son, if the police come up to you, the absolute best thing to do is say, 'Hello, officer, my name is Michael Harrison II. I attend such-and-such school. I'm on my way there. You probably want to know the next question, how are my grades? I've got four A's, a B and two C's. I play in the band.'"

  When you tell the officer that before the officer has a chance to ask one question, you've de-escalated the police officer. He learned that. Does every parent do that? No, probably not. That's what I taught him to do. It was a de-escalation technique. Will everybody do that? No. But I've had "the talk" with him.

  I don't know that he's had negative experiences with police. I didn't have them when I grew up. I was stopped by police, but I don't recall having any negative experiences. If they asked me questions, I answered them. It's probably what made me want to be a police officer. I was always in awe of the police.

New Orleans had 156 murders in 2013 and 150 last year. Meanwhile, according to the Uniform Crime Reports, violent crimes were actually up more than 25 percent. And if the murder numbers from the first two months of this year continue at their pace, murders will be up in 2015.

HARRISON: Murder is always a great concern. We do not want to have this high of a murder rate. The crime rate and the murder rate are two separate rates. Although murder is in the crime numbers, the crime rate can be looked at very differently. A lot of the crime rate had to do with manpower. There were crimes of opportunity. People were preying on victims at different times in different locations. As we grow we smartly deploy resources, and if you look at crime now, we're seeing three consecutive weeks of decreases. We hope to continue that trend.

  Of the murders that happened this year, I think somewhere around 13 of them were cleared by warrant, exception or arrest. Quite a number of them were domestic in nature and occurred indoors by known assailants, family members or loved ones. But it's always a great concern. One is way too many. We're doing everything that we can. We're an active participant in the NOLA For Life program. Our Street Gang Unit and our Multi-Agency Gang Unit, they're working to identify gangs, and we've had great success with that. To date, we've had 11 gangs with 116 gang members, I believe, indicted. Many of them have already been convicted. So we're seeing a decrease in gang and group-related violence that leads to murder. We're happy about that, but yeah, we're concerned about this increase in murder as well.

When can citizens expect a significant drop in violent crime?

HARRISON: There are a lot of things that are working together at the same time: our community policing effort, growing the department, giving training to all of our officers, training to all of our supervisors, and then every day dealing with crime deployment and crime strategies.

  We anticipate that this quarter will see a decrease in crime overall, a decrease in violent crime and a decrease in property crime. And while I don't want forecast too far, we're utilizing every strategy available to us to make sure officers are where they need to be, deployed to where crime is to prevent it, to deter it and to apprehend those who commit it. That's the commitment we make to the community.

— This interview was conducted at NOPD headquarters on Friday, March 6. Some of the questions and answers were edited for clarity and concision.


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