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Baltimore police commissioner to leave contract early

Commissioner Harrison said he planned to breathe, to make himself available to help the new police commissioner and to spend time with his family


Richard Worley, a 25-year member of the force, will take over as acting commissioner immediately.

Kevin Richardson

By Emily Opilo, Darcy Costello
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is stepping down from leading the city police force, officials announced Thursday, and Mayor Brandon Scott has nominated a veteran of the city department to replace him.

Richard Worley, a 25-year member of the force, will take over as acting commissioner immediately, officials announced during a hastily scheduled news conference at City Hall. The mayor said Thursday that Worley also is his nominee for the post permanently.

Harrison, whose last day leading the agency was Thursday, said he has no job offers and has not interviewed for any other positions, instead saying he planned to breathe, to make himself available to help the new police commissioner and to spend time with his family. He has served as the city’s police commissioner since 2019.

Officials on Thursday stressed that finding a replacement from within the ranks of the Baltimore Police Department was always Harrison’s intention.

Asked why the move was made now, Scott said: “What better time than right now?”

Worley, the mayor said, is a “fellow son of Baltimore” and served as his constituency’s district commander during his time on Baltimore City Council. Scott praised his ability to interact with both rank-and-file officers and members of the community, as well as his work ethic.

“I know there’s one other person, for sure, that’s sending emails at 2 a.m., and it’s this guy,” Scott said.

The announcement comes days after Harrison unequivocally denied during a budget hearing before the Baltimore City Council that he was leaving for the open police chief position in nearby Washington, D.C. He hedged, however, when council members questioned whether he would remain in his current position until the end of his contract in March 2024.

“There may be a consideration that I may have to consider,” Harrison added on Tuesday after Councilman Eric Costello pressed for an answer. “If and when it comes, I may have to make that consideration.”

Costello told The Baltimore Sun after the announcement that he was “disappointed” by how it played out because he asked a “very direct” series of questions at Tuesday’s budget hearing. He said before reviewing a budget of BPD’s magnitude, for an agency that plays a critical role in the city, it’s important to “understand the commitment of leadership to our city.” The mayor has proposed a $594 million spending plan for the police force.

Still, Costello said in a statement posted to Twitter that he was confident Worley would make the “meaningful changes necessary” to ensure the city’s communities are safe.

The mayor and Harrison said during Thursday’s news conference that they had numerous conversations over weeks about the police department’s future. In those, it “became clear to both of us that this was the right time to make this transition,” said Scott, a first-term Democrat who will be up for reelection in 2024. Scott inherited Harrison who was selected for the role by former Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The director of the Mayor’s Office for Neighborhood Safety and Engagement also is leaving city government at the end of the month, leaving two large personnel holes in the implementation of the mayor’s violence prevention plan.

Harrison, a Louisiana native, moved to Baltimore in 2019 from New Orleans where he spent 27 years rising through the ranks. He was the pick of a city search panel but Pugh’s second choice. She first announced she was selecting Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, but selected Harrison after Fitzgerald withdrew.

He has led the city’s police force as it struggled with stubborn gun violence, recording more than 300 homicides each year since 2015, and consistent shortages of patrol officers.

He’s also guided Baltimore through its federal consent decree reforms, which are ongoing six years after the city reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address unconstitutional policing practices. The department has trumpeted successes seen under the consent decree, though onlookers have acknowledged the reforms may not be felt as much on the street by residents.

Harrison estimated Tuesday the city could exit its complex consent decree within “a couple of years.” Staffing shortages and difficulties improving technology have hindered reform efforts, but Harrison pointed to a new records management system and a new system for flagging problematic officer behaviors, now out for bid, as signs of progress.

Scott said Thursday that the city’s consent decree efforts would not “miss a beat,” noting that Worley has been involved in that process. Both the consent decree monitoring team and the judge overseeing the city’s work were the personnel shift, he said.

“We will continue the great work that we’ve been doing there, and leading in that way, and hopefully getting the consent decree to end as quickly as possible,” Scott said.

Worley, who grew up in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood and played college baseball in Oklahoma, began his career as an officer in the Western District and rose through the ranks to become deputy commissioner of operations. During a major shake-up in department ranks in 2021, Worley, then a colonel, moved from chief of patrol to taking over the department’s Criminal Investigations Division.

He said Thursday that, in policing, leaders don’t often become a commissioner at the city or agency where they first began.

“I’m lucky enough to hopefully do that now,” Worley said.

Chuck Wexler from the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that has assisted Baltimore over the last two decades, called being known in the city a positive for Worley, who also had the chance to learn under Harrison.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos, too, called Worley “one of our own.”

“He has been a trusted officer and commander in several districts, so he knows this city like the back of his hand,” Ramos said.

Harrison told reporters Thursday he believed the department should “continue to follow the pathway that has been set” and prioritize incorporating the “entire community” into its future plans.

Worley echoed that sentiment, saying the department should “continue what we’re doing.”

“We’re having success this year,” said Worley, pointing to crime numbers that are lower so far this year than last.

Worley’s current salary is $207,949.95, while Harrison collects $287,540.55 annually, Baltimore Police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said.

Worley’s nomination will have to be introduced as legislation in Baltimore City Council and be voted on by the Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee, followed by the full council.

Councilman Mark Conway, the chair of the council’s public safety committee, said Worley is respected, and that he’s looking forward to getting a better understanding of his vision for the department during the confirmation process.

“With crime and violence declining in some areas but still at unacceptable levels, our city can’t afford anything less than a fully focused department,” Conway said in a statement.

Under the terms of Harrison’s five-year contract, his resignation would require 90 days’ written notice. He would not be eligible for severance play but would receive accrued salary until the effective date of his resignation, along with the payout of any leave.

Spokespeople for the mayor did not respond to a question about Harrison’s final day with the city or confirm whether Harrison had resigned. A news release said Harrison “officially noted he will be departing the role.”

State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who took office in January, called Harrison’s work to reform the agency “one of the most impressive displays of leadership our city has seen in its troubled history of mass incarceration and abuses of power.”

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, too, praised Harrison for “bringing stability” to the agency “at a time of great transition and reform.”

“Moving forward, Baltimoreans deserve stability, collaboration, and strong leadership in their BPD Commissioner,” Ferguson said. “In many years of working with Interim Commissioner Worley, I am confident he will continue these tenets.”

The Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing Baltimore Police said in a statement on Twitter that it communicates “well” with Worley and that it hopes he focuses on retention and recruitment. The FOP also took a parting swipe at Harrison, saying a commissioner’s responsibility is to protect citizens from “violent criminals,” not “holistically plan for decades of social work.”

The deputy district public defender for Baltimore, Alycia Capozello, meanwhile, said in a statement that the work to establish trust in policing in Baltimore isn’t finished.

Capozello said the next commissioner must not reinstate widescale arrests for low-level offenses, noting that the federal consent decree expects greater accountability and policing that addresses community needs without relying overly on arrests and prosecutions.

“The perspectives of all community partners and criminal justice stakeholders, including the Office of the Public Defender, should be given consideration,” Capozello said.

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