BALTIMORE — The Baltimore City Council released background interviews conducted to learn more about Joel Fitzgerald, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nominee to lead the Baltimore Police Department as its new commissioner.
A four-person delegation traveled to Fort Worth, Texas early in December to interview those who worked closely with Dr. Fitzgerald in order to gather more information ahead of confirmation hearings.
The team conducted more than 15 hours of interviews with more than 30 people including police department members, elected representatives, government officials, community members and business leaders.
To gather public comment, a licensed court reporter was used to create transcripts of two meetings of community members that were held at local churches in Fort Worth. The transcripts from those meetings were included unedited in the City Council’s report. The full report can be viewed online.
Of particular note were the relationships between local residents and the police forces Fitzgerald lead. Mayor Betsy Price says he stepped in a time that was very difficult. Ret. Sgt. Kevin Fitchett said the previous chief was proven through outside investigations to be racist in his applications in dealing with Fort Worth Officers and with the community.
“Since Fitzgerald’s arrival, I can safely say the relationships between the community and police has definitely improved,” said Roy Hudson, the former president of the Fort Worth Black Law Enforcement Association. “In 23 years, he’s the most community-oriented chief we’ve ever had. I think that as a whole we’re light years ahead of where we were.”
"He's adopted a literacy initiative because he does believe in investing on the front end versus divesting on the back end and allowing police officers to go in the schools and work with students; teaching them how to read," Pastor Glenn Lewis said.
Fitzgerald reintroduced beats, focusing on neighborhoods, and restrengthening ties between the community and police department, Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa said. Fort Worth Police Officer James Dunn says the homicide rate has decreased since Fitzgerald took the job three years ago, and Price says that crime was down in 2017. Hudson praised Fitzgerald for emphasizing training by extending the length of the police academy and mandating an eight-hour de-escalation course for all officers. Other proactive steps taken included having officers wear body worn cameras at all times and having that footage reviewed by an internal team focused on transparency and accountability. He also created a new rank to help with oversight of each district.
"I’d keep him if I could. I’m not real happy with how this has shaken out," Price said.
"He’s not afraid to be in the community. Joel talks a lot so you have to rein him in but he’s not afraid to face the heat," Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said. "I don’t want my chief to leave. I like my chief. We all have issues. Do I think he’s doing a good job in Fort Worth? Yes. Do I think he’ll do a good job in Baltimore? Absolutely. I’m just a little selfish."
With the support comes lots of criticism, with detractors saying Fitzgerald is thin-skinned and long-winded to a master manipulator.
"Chief Fitzgerald will look at you dead in your face and tell you a lie. He will tell you a lie so convincing," Dr. Michael Bell said.
Some supporters also highlighted flaws, saying he hasn't connected with the community well and he doesn't understand the political side of the job, getting out in front of conflict.
"You have to have some PR people or some skills to sort of manage that perception in the overall community and I don't think he's done a good job of that here," Hudson said.
During a panel with community and religious leaders and current and former officers, the group denied his success with community policing and race relations.
"His only job was to make things better in the police department racially between the police department, officers and black community and he made it worst. During this time he did not come up with any policing ideas that I can give you an example that would make this man qualified to be your next chief," Fitchett said.
"Fitzgerald was alienated not only with the police officers but members, by and large, with the black community. The morale on the police department is the lowest I've seen in 18 years. He's fiscally incompetent, he has ran the budget into the dirt," said Vance Keys, a Police Captain in Fort Worth.
Fitzgerald demoted Keys and Keys says the chief has a history of mishandling internal affairs and officer discipline.
"We have officers who have gotten DWIs, 10 that are still working in this department. We have 11 officers that are under felony indictment that are 12 still employed," Keys said. "I think he's trying to escape. He's not leaving because he's done a great job in Fort Worth and it's time to move on; he's leaving because he's under pressure."
The City Council scheduled two public hearings ahead of their vote to confirm Fitzgerald. Saturday, Jan. 5 at 10 a.m. at City Hall the public is invited to give feedback about the nominee and next Monday, Jan. 7 at 5 p.m. at City Hall the city council will question Fitzgerald. Mayor Pugh is hosting community meet and greets with Fitzgerald on Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Jewish Community Center at 5700 Park Heights Avenue and 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Morgan State University’s Business Center at 4200 Hillen Road.
Prior to his nomination as Baltimore’s new Police Commissioner, Fitzgerald led the departments of Fort Worth, Allentown, Pa., and Missouri City, Texas. His law enforcement career began as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department.