In a flourish of bureaucratic understatement, the ad seeking candidates to become Baltimore’s next police commissioner described the job as “a challenging position.”
But Joel Fitzgerald, the Fort Worth police chief named as Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick to lead the Baltimore department, said he wasn’t put off by the honest description of the work ahead.
Knowing the city’s recent history — the 2015 death of Freddie Gray of injuries suffered in police custody, a resulting court-backed civil rights reform plan, the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal and escalating violence that has yet to ebb — Fitzgerald said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that he thought most chiefs “would jump at the chance to be part of the healing.”
It’s remained unclear Saturday precisely when Fitzgerald would start in Baltimore. His nomination will have to be upheld by the City Council. But in seeking to become chief in the fourth city in the past five years, Fitzgerald said he’s committed to Baltimore for the long term.
“All I want is stability and being able to see this through,” he said. “I am willing to stay and be there for a long period of time.”
Fitzgerald, 47, gave his first interview by phone Saturday since being named as commissioner Friday. He was in Fort Worth giving out Thanksgiving turkeys with retired NBA players. In the span of half an hour, he repeatedly stressed the importance of repairing the relationship between the police and the community and said he’s the man for the task.
It’s a theme Fitzgerald has emphasized throughout his career, leading a string of ever-larger police departments over the last decade. In that time he has won admirers who gushed about his successes in interviews Saturday and detractors who were equally as harsh in their criticism of his failings.
Jerry Wyatt is a city councilman with a three-decade political career in Missouri City, the Houston suburb where Fitzgerald first became a police chief in 2009. Wyatt said Fitzgerald quickly got to grips with the responsibilities of leadership, increasing officers’ visibility in the community and driving down crime to the point that Missouri City gained a reputation as one of the safest places in the country.
“Y’all going to get a good police chief,” Wyatt said. “I love me some Joel. That’s how much I think about him.”
Michael Bell, a pastor who was on the committee that interviewed Fitzgerald for the Fort Worth job, said he started out as a promising leader in Fort Worth. But, Bell said, Fitzgerald bungled handling of a high-profile arrest involving a white officer and a black woman and undermined efforts to repair ties between minority residents and the police.
“Joel Fitzgerald was a disaster for our community,” he said.
Fitzgerald was raised by his grandparents in West Philadelphia, an area that he said isn’t too dissimilar from some of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. He joined the city’s police department in 1992 and earned an undergraduate degree from Villanova University in 1996. Much of his early career was spent in drug enforcement, experience Fitzgerald said should help him relate to regular officers in Baltimore.
The work brought a brush with controversy. In 2007, when Fitzgerald was a lieutenant, he was involved in a raid on a house that turned up drugs and led to the arrest of a man and his parents, as well as an effort to seize their home. The charges against the parents were dropped, and the man’s mother sued Fitzgerald and other officers on his team, alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution. A Philadelphia judge ruled in favor of the officers, and an appeals court upheld the decision.
“The facts surrounding this matter vividly demonstrate the difficult path of those enforcing the law and protecting the public,” the appeals judges wrote in their opinion.
Fitzgerald declined to discuss the specifics of the case but said that all police officers face episodes in their careers that are called into dispute.
“I don’t see that as being any mark on the character of the police officer,” he said.
The woman who brought the case declined to be interviewed.
Fitzgerald began seeking police chief jobs as early as 2005, according to news accounts, when he was reported to be in the running for a post in Bay City, Michigan. He failed to secure two other chief jobs before landing the Missouri City post in 2009.
Wyatt said that he expected that Missouri City would be a stepping stone for Fitzgerald. When Fitzgerald left for Allentown in 2013, Wyatt said he was glad to know that Fitzgerald had put people in place who could build on his successes.
“We all hated to see him leave, but we also understand when a person is trying to build their career,” Wyatt said.
Dan Bosket, a former president of the NAACP branch in Allentown, said Fitzgerald arrived as the city's first black police chief at the right time. The city's minority population was growing and Bosket said community leaders were seeking to boost diversity in the police department. Bosket said Fitzgerald encouraged officers to interact with the community proactively rather than just respond to calls, an approach that has outlasted his time as chief.
"He's had an tremendous impact," he said. "The officers that are here learned a lot from him and his leadership style."
As he pushed to implement reforms, Bosket said Fitzgerald did face some resistance from partners outside the police department, something Bosket chalked up to people's natural unwillingness to change.
"When you're trying to make changes, people resist," he said.
When a white officer named William Martin arrested a black woman called Jacqueline Craig and her two daughters in a drama captured on the officer’s body camera, the chief was caught in the middle. Fitzgerald disciplined the officer but too lightly for the activists, while also punishing a pair of senior commanders after an investigation into the leaking of the camera footage.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that there were some divisions in the city, but said on the whole his relationships with residents and his own officers — who are represented by an association but not a union — were both strong.
“We’re never ever going to make everyone happy,” he said.
Bell, a senior pastor at Greater St. Stephen First Church-Baptist, said at first he was excited to have an African-American man leading the police department at a time of racial strife in a city where black and Hispanic residents form the majority.
“He interviewed well,” Bell recalled. “Joel was able to smile at the right time. He seems to be able to answer the questions that were asked.”
And Bell said Fitzgerald embraced a so-called 3E plan — “equity, equality, everybody” — that Bell and other religious leaders developed to foster better relations between police and the community.
But Bell faulted Fitzgerald’s handling of the officer.
“He appeared at a press conference and he characterized William Martin’s behavior as rude, not racist,” Bell said. “That was problematic. That was a red flag.”
Bell’s impression of Fitzgerald deteriorated from there. After learning that Fitzgerald would be departing, he said, “We’re glad to see him go. Bye.”
Baltimore will be the biggest department that Fitzgerald has run, and the city has far more serious crime problems than the others in which he’s worked. But he said the violence can be turned around with the right approach. Fort Worth had 70 homicides last year compared to Baltimore’s 342, and Fitzgerald said, “It’s not because everybody’s angels.”
City leaders and the federal judge overseeing civil rights reforms in Baltimore say that police who are fair and respectful will be better at solving crimes — a view Fitzgerald echoed. Building community relationships will lead to tips from residents, Fitzgerald said, and he wants officers out meeting people in person to gain their confidence.
“A great deal of goodwill needs to be re-established,” he said. “I’m going to dedicate myself to that.”