Pursuing Transformation in the “Tug of War” in Policing: Leadership Insights from Baltimore Commissioner Michael Harrison
An Insight from the 2022 Public Safety Summit
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In the course of more than three decades in law enforcement, Michael Harrison, the Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, has had to navigate a wide array of challenges. After joining the New Orleans Police Department in 1991, he gradually climbed through the ranks of the organization before becoming the department’s Superintendent in 2014. In that role, Harrison helped the agency navigate a federal consent decree at a time when the Department of Justice had referred to the organization as “the most troubled department in America.” Then, in 2019, he became the Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, which was also operating under a federal consent decree but represented a very different type of challenge. Whereas he had been an internal candidate in New Orleans who had to lead transformation among longtime colleagues, he was now “the outsider” in Baltimore who was being brought in and had to build trust to effect change in a broken system. Across these experiences, Harrison observed a “tug of war” in policing in which leaders have to navigate a variety of competing forces involving community groups; local, state, and federal elected officials; department personnel and unions; and a range of priorities. At the 2022 Public Safety Summit: Leading into the Emerging Future, Harrison identified a series of strategies involving a leader’s mindset, external stakeholder relationships, and department culture that one can use to manage these difficult dynamics and effect positive, sustainable change.

Here are the seven core insights on transforming public safety organizations amid the “tug of war” in policing:

  • Exhibit Humility: Harrison noted that many people like to see police chiefs (and leaders in general) who exhibit “competence and confidence.” The problem with that equation, Harrison argued, is that “competence plus confidence actually equals arrogance.” The other key ingredient, the Commissioner explained, is humility because “competence plus confidence plus humility equals trustworthiness.” As a result, Harrison believes that humility—a quality that is frequently and easily overlooked—“is needed more than anything.” This helps leaders navigate the “tug of war” in policing because other stakeholders are more confident that a humble leader is focused on the public good, rather than individual aggrandizement. In short, humility bolsters trust.
  • Become A Servant Leader: A corollary of exhibiting humility is becoming a servant leader. This is “a non-traditional leadership philosophy…that places a primary emphasis on the well-being of those being served.”[1] Although Harrison did not explicitly use this phrase, the ethos of servant leadership permeated his remarks. “All of my decisions,” the Commissioner emphasized, “are what’s best for the city, not what’s best for the individual.” This mindset is valuable because it reinforces a leader’s credibility and helps inspire others to embrace a similar approach.
  • Be Candid: When Harrison worked in the New Orleans Police Department’s Internal Affairs division, he learned the importance of being candid about the department’s shortcomings. “I got to see firsthand that the allegations against our members were true, and it wasn’t just some myth and some erroneous allegations.” This influenced Harrison’s approach to leadership by capturing the importance of honesty, even if that proves difficult. “It really shaped and toughened me,” the Commissioner said, “because doing that kind of work you lose a few friends. You have to not worry about who likes you. … It’s a period of loneliness.” Harrison was similarly honest about challenges when he became the department’s superintendent. “I was willing to say how bad it was,” Harrison said, “and we were the most troubled department in America.” This helped to establish legitimacy and build trust with stakeholders who felt that the organization needed to change while also signaling to department personnel that he was committed to pursuing transformation.
  • Stay Poised: Harrison described how he has found it imperative when operating in a “tug of war” to manage his emotions and stay poised. This involves making a crucial but subtle distinction “between that which feels bad and that which is bad.” “I’ve learned to notice the difference,” Harrison elaborated, “and I don’t let any of it show. I believe in a concept called confidence and calmness in a crisis. … My team may get rattled, but I never let them see any of that affecting me.” This composure helps Harrison make better decisions and steady his team in difficult times when the tug of war in policing can be most intense.
  • Develop Self-Awareness: Harrison is adept at remaining poised in part because he is self-aware. He is attuned to his emotions and where his skills lie while also recognizing where he might need talented staff who complement him. “You have to have the self-awareness of yourself,” Harrison said, “…and understand how to work within your own strengths and your own limitations, and then obviously, how to bring on the best and brightest people to support you in your vision….”
  • Socialize Change: One challenging aspect of leading a department in need of change is building support for transformation with community stakeholders (e.g., business, faith, and non-profit groups). Harrison grasped that, for the most part, these organizations do not feel threatened by reform itself but instead are more concerned with what they might have to give up in the process. “It’s not change people have a problem with,” the Commissioner elaborated. “It’s what’s lost with change: convenience, money, status, and power.” To mitigate against this potential resistance, Harrison has learned to socialize change by engaging stakeholders early in the process, soliciting and attempting to integrate their feedback, and sharing credit for new ideas and innovations. This helps to build consensus and ensure that people feel like they are gaining from the process, rather than losing out. It also allows a leader to maintain integrity in the tug of war of competing interests without alienating key stakeholders. “You have to figure out who you really are,” Harrison said, “what you stand for, and how strong you’re willing to stand in the face of people pulling at you in different directions.”
  • Build A Support Structure: Amid turbulent periods, and when grappling with competing forces, Harrison has learned to draw on support from a peer group of police leaders from across the country. On difficult days, he will often call a chief in another city and use the conversation as an opportunity to compare strategies and find encouragement while also providing the same support to colleagues when they are having a difficult time. “We make each other feel better,” Harrison said. This emotional support is a critical reminder that the “tug of war” can take a toll and that self-care and support are important, even for leaders at the top of an organization.

“Right is right, even when no one else is doing it, and wrong is wrong, even when everyone else is doing it.”

Michael Harrison
Baltimore Police Commissioner


 Amid his 30-plus years in policing, and while leading multiple departments under consent decrees, Harrison has had to navigate numerous difficult situations, ranging from confronting colleagues while working in internal affairs to managing conflicting interests as commissioner. In the midst of these turbulent moments, he has remained committed to leading with integrity. “All of us,” Harrison said, “have to be willing to do the job without losing the job.” Looking ahead, he sees a potentially difficult period for policing in part because the profession is in flux, and there is a wide range of perspectives on the appropriate role of law enforcement. Nonetheless, he remains inspired, primarily because he believes that police chiefs and their departments are in a position to effect enormous positive change. The commissioner concluded:

There’s no greater time than now to, number one, be in law enforcement, even as an entry-level officer because it’s evolving, and it’s turning into something very different based on the expectations of the people we serve. And so this is the greatest opportunity to shape how we want the profession to be and where we want to see it go. At the same time, it’s the greatest opportunity for police leaders. Although we’re the most vulnerable, it’s the greatest opportunity for us to shape how we want it to go. Either we’re going to shape how we want it to go, or somebody else will.

“Competence plus confidence plus humility equals trustworthiness. The one thing that we usually don’t show but is needed more than anything is humility.”

Michael Harrison
Baltimore Police Commissioner


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