Michael Harrison: Fundamentalist Police Commissioner
Harrison is trying to shut down strip clubs in Baltimore. He did this before in New Orleans. His history needs to be part of the present-day story.
Commissioner Harrison preaching in 2017, as then Superintendent of New Orleans PD and "church elder"
A big story in Baltimore is that the politicians who lead District 46, including Senate President Bill Ferguson, Delegate Luke Clippinger, Delegate Brooke Lierman, and Councilperson Eric Costello, are pushing a bill to close down the "Block" at 10pm in order to curb crime, they say. The same politicians have not been opposed to bars and restaurants staying open during the height of Omicron spread, even in high-crime neighborhoods. Their thinking was that businesses and workers need to survive. Apparently, that concern is not extended to the owners and workers at the Block's strip clubs and sex shops, an industry that just gets going after 10pm.
There's been substantial pushback on social media to this bill. Many people have wondered if there is developer interest in the Block. That is what happened in Times Square in New York City, a story told by David Simon in the "The Deuce." The Baltimore Brew reported on developer campaign contributions to the involved politicians. Many have also pointed out that the Block is next to BPD Headquarters. If crime is so bad on the Block, then BPD is clearly not the antidote, they say.
Senator Ferguson shared a flyer in support of the bill on Twitter, insisting that crime was the real reason behind the shut down.
Ferguson was slammed for the ominous and tacky portrayal of people committing the crime of existing outside on a shady backdrop. He was also criticized for a comparison to Canton, a wealthy, predominately white neighborhood. And the footnote was also scrutinized, not just for its annoyingly absent open parenthesis.
It's quite a little footnote! The senator is asking us to multiply crime in other neighborhoods by a lot just because they are bigger in size, in order to provide a comparison to crime on the Block. That is not how neighborhoods work, Senator! In neighborhoods where the commercial area is small, all of the activity is contained, including crime. He wants us to believe that if the Block expanded another block, somehow crime would double.
Others on Twitter have put in the work to analyze some of the actual crime data, comparatively. Initially, the senator cited how Harrison reported "calls for service" being high on the Block, a talking point parroted in the press without investigation. Yet, nearly 40 percent of the calls for service are for disorderly conduct.
It has frustrated me to see another important part of the story left out of the reporting and advocacy: Harrison briefly shut down strip clubs in New Orleans before he left in 2018. He did this right before Mardi Gras, when dancers probably make their fortunes for the year. This became a major national story, as sex workers marched for their right to work. At the time, Harrison cited "sex trafficking" as the cause for raids on the clubs, but his multi-club sting turned up no evidence of sex trafficking. In fact, club owners told the media about times they had tried to let NOPD know about traffickers. This time, Harrison is citing "crime" in general, not trafficking, as a reason to shut down businesses. Same actions, different pretext.
I previously reported for the Baltimore Beat on Harrison's history of cracking down on sex work and moralizing statements on sex work. That story clarifies the legal difference between trafficking and prostitution, which Harrison and his allies would often conflate. I wrote that story after Harrison promoted a prostitution sting in South Baltimore in 2019, during which BPD arrested a bunch of Johns for solicitation. It was the first such prominent sting in a long time in Baltimore. After that story came out, I heard from multiple local public defenders who were warned by colleagues in New Orleans that Harrison had a heavy hand around vice crimes, sex work especially.
The NOLA strip club raids happened just before Harrison arrived in Baltimore and garnered negative national press. But Baltimore was so desperate for decent leadership, the local press didn't cover anything he may have done wrong before. Harrison arrived after the indictments of the Gun Trace Task Force, Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, and Mayor Pugh, which left Baltimore leadership in an obviously most dire situation. The positive press he got during his first year in Baltimore reminds me of Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize simply for being elected president after George W. Bush. The media continues to give Harrison's administration a ton of favorable press, especially the Baltimore Sun.
Harrison was recommended to Baltimore by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national consulting agency that the press often seeks out for expert opinion. He was elected the President of PERF's Board recently. PERF has a tendency to promote its own paid members and whitewash their reputations. (I wrote about this previously and spoke about it on a local radio show.) Harrison was marketed as a reformist Consent Decree commissioner, since NOPD had also been under a Consent Decree. He has been largely presented by the media as a technocrat, reformer, and serious crime professional, not a moralist. Crime and corruption haven't improved under his leadership, but I do give him credit for streamlining the organizational chart, if not the budget.
Harrison's religiosity and moralism gets a passing mention in the local press. He was reported saying that he felt "called" to Baltimore. "Ministry has prepared me for this," he said. Harrison was a deacon and church leader in New Orleans. He's smart and careful about what he says, but his moralism has crept into his policing. He said prostitution "erodes the fabric of society" and referred negatively to the "party atmosphere" on Bourbon Street. If Harrison were just a mainstream technocrat, as often portrayed, I doubt that he would go after New Orleans' main tourist industry. Based on past actions and statements, Harrison apparently has no appreciation of sex work as it exists either for pleasure or for survival; he doesn't seem to think it should be legal in any form.
To me, Harrison's brand of religious moralizing reads as anachronistic in Baltimore. It might have seemed more in place in the Deep South. There are powerful preachers in Baltimore influencing government; Marilyn Mosby's office lead prayer walks, unconcerned with the constitutional requirement to separate church and state. But Baltimore's brand of religiosity-in-power doesn't seem as judgmental as Harrison’s. Typically, Baltimore's preachers don't advocate using police powers to crack down on the disenfranchised out of belief that they are not living a righteous life. Mosby quotes bible verses to describe her current federal indictment, but she also announced that her office would stop prosecuting prostitution.
On Valentine's Day, Harrison appeared on his wife's internet talk show, which is explicitly very religious. Their moralism came through repeatedly. (He seemed less enthusiastic to be there than he was preaching before his NOLA congregation.)
It has been interesting seeing Thiru Vignarajah and Fox 45 take the populist position on the Block closures, in favor of keeping the businesses open, against the allegedly progressive Democrats leading the Assembly. It is also a sign of the post-Trump times, as the Democratic Party steadily transforms into the party of family values and pro-law enforcement. It's frustrating, however, that the debates about the closure of the Block are focused on either crime or small businesses and not the fate of sex workers. If the Block shuts down early, the alternatives for young professional dancers to earn the equivalent to support themselves and their families could put them in danger, especially during an ongoing pandemic—and especially when the local police leader cracks down on prostitution. Sex work is often a survivalist industry for people who are cut out of opportunities for other employment, including young low-income women of color, trans people, and the disabled.
I was recently contacted by Delegate Brooke Lierman, after tweeting at her and the other sponsors of this bill about Harrison and his history. I sent her a list of questions and we talked. She was not comfortable having an on-the-record conversation in response to my questions. I wanted to know if she knew about Harrison's history, if Harrison was behind this effort, and her understanding of the research and principles behind the bill. On the record, Lierman insisted that she does not share Harrison's views on sex work. She pointed out that she was a part of legislation I mentioned in the Baltimore Beat article that would protect victims of sexual assault by police. She worked on that legislation with a local advocate that runs an organization that helps sex workers.
So why, I asked, would she support this legislation? On that, she struggled to answer. She insisted that it wasn't her legislation; it was introduced by Delegate Clippinger. Being able to answer why you are co-sponsoring a bill should be easy, I reminded her. Finally, she offered what sounded like the prepared answer: She believes it will reduce crime based on similar legislation that passed by Senator Cory McCray in the past, where shutting down businesses worked. I asked if the principle was that businesses should be closed routinely to reduce crime. We know that there is a high correlation between liquor stores and crime, for instance. Baltimore Ceasefire's Letrice Grant once explained to me that the correlation is actually between liquor stores with a lot of signs in the window and murders, but the liquor board wouldn't take action to address it. Lierman responded "not necessarily" to the idea that the Block closures signal a principle about crime and business, but she declined to get into what principle was at work. Again, it shouldn't be hard to answer questions about a bill one is co-sponsoring. Ferguson's office declined to respond to any of my questions.
Meanwhile the house and senate will be holding hearings soon for testimony on their versions of the bill to shut down Block businesses early. Most of us may not be able to participate, because Ferguson has also shut down virtual access. In my disabled opinion, this is in violation of the Americans with Disability Act. Dozens of organizations are protesting the lack of virtual access, so hopefully it will open up in time to give commentary.
Now I am going to speculate.
A lot of us are speculating about what is behind this effort to shut down the Block, given leadership's incredibly difficult time communicating it in any way that makes logical sense. Developer money could be a factor and in the mix. It's hard for me not to see this as also about sex. Personally, I would not be surprised if Harrison wants to shut down the Block for the same reason he sought to shut down strip clubs in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, when they are the most profitable to local residents and the city as a whole. He has a moral opposition to their existence. And because Harrison's reputation is supported by PERF, the Consent Decree, and the Baltimore Sun—and because he is a slick politician, crime is up, and politicians want to appear anti-crime—he has led an effective propaganda campaign by hiding his own real intentions. I'm just speculating, but not based on nothing.