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Amid high expectations, new Baltimore police leader sworn in

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Michael Harrison was sworn in Tuesday as Baltimore’s new police commissioner, inheriting a dysfunctional force that’s long been distrusted by many in this starkly divided city where misconduct by officers and chronically high rates of violent crime are just some of the many systemic failures.

The former leader of the New Orleans police force took the oath of office in an ornate City Hall chamber about 14 hours after the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to confirm him. Harrison took over day-to-day leadership last month as acting commissioner.

Harrison said he’s eager to help create a safe city and improve the Baltimore Police Department, which is under a federal consent decree requiring sweeping reforms. The 49-year-old career law enforcer and ordained minister promised to be an upstanding police commissioner for city residents and an effective leader for his Baltimore police colleagues.

“Having had a wonderful career in New Orleans I really thought that I would just end my career there. But God had bigger things for me to do,” said Harrison, standing beside Mayor Catherine Pugh during Tuesday’s ceremony. Harrison’s wife and mother also were present.

His formal authorization couldn’t come amid higher expectations within City Hall.

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Pugh described Harrison as “the right person at the right time and in the right place” to remake the city’s beleaguered police department and restore public trust. In his Tuesday remarks, Harrison said he’s looking forward to doing his part to realize Pugh’s vision in transforming Baltimore “into the city it should have always been, what it needs to be right now: The greatest city in America.”

While there’s little expectation among many citizens that Harrison can swiftly overcome the deep problems that have proved intractable for his immediate predecessors, there is hope that he will be a leader able to make steady advances.

Harrison faces a daunting to-do list in Baltimore, one of the poorest major cities in the country and one of its most unequal. The city’s 342 homicides in 2017 translated to 56 per 100,000 people, well above that of any other big U.S. city. Last year, the city again saw more than 300 homicides.

Recent years have been particularly tumultuous for the city’s police department. Harrison is the city’s fourth police leader during Pugh’s roughly two-year mayoral administration and the 14th since the mid-1990s.

Maryland’s biggest city is struggling to implement a federal consent decree mandating sweeping reforms after U.S. investigators detailed longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing and excessive force. As commissioner, Harrison will be key in making sure reforms encompassing some of the most fundamental aspects of police work — use of force, searches and arrests — finally take root in majority-black Baltimore.

Since he took over leadership of the New Orleans Police Department in 2014, Harrison saw steady and significant successes transforming that formerly scandal-plagued force in its efforts to implement a federal consent decree there. The two cities with blue-collar roots share roughly equivalent racial and income demographics. There are also quite a few similarities between where the New Orleans police department once was and where the Baltimore force finds itself these days.

Perhaps Harrison’s biggest challenge will be to boost public trust. He’s already spoken to numerous residents across Baltimore as part of a charm offensive in recent weeks. But he’s got a long way to go to mend the department’s dismal reputation. In many city communities, public opinion worsened against the department in 2015, when a 25-year-old black man’s death in police custody triggered massive protests and riots. And confidence in police plummeted further last year after it was revealed that corrupt Baltimore detectives resold seized narcotics, conducted robberies and falsified evidence.

Harrison insisted that he will not tolerate corruption or misconduct.

“I promise to be the leader and the commissioner that the citizens and residents deserve, that they pay for and that they expect,” he said Tuesday.

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