Dwindling ranks, low morale, brutality complaints and public mistrust — it’s all beset the Baltimore Police Department in recent years. And city leaders have spent months searching for a new commissioner to quell the storm.
Their pick in Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald is no rookie when it comes to such work.
Last year, Fitzgerald found his Texas police department at the center of the national debate over race and policing. The scene was familiar: a white officer’s assertive arrest of a black woman, the body camera video that went viral, and protests on the courthouse steps.
The controversy tested the police chief, and Fitzgerald has said he learned from the experience.
“When something like this happens, I think I need to do a better job of getting right into the community and making sure that they understand where we’re coming from, what happened, and getting an explanation right from my mouth,” Fitzgerald told The Dallas Morning News last January.
Fitzgerald could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
The arrest happened in December 2016. City officials and police said Fort Worth Officer William Martin responded to 911 calls and found Jacqueline Craig accusing a neighbor of choking her son. The neighbor had said the boy littered in his yard.
Body camera video shows the scene escalate after Martin intervened.
“Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?” the officer asked the mother in the video.
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An argument broke out. It culminated with Martin drawing his Taser and arresting Craig along with her two daughters.
A local lawyer obtained the body camera footage of the arrest and posted it online. The video became an instant social media sensation and drew public attention to the arrest.
Weeks later, the officer met with Fitzgerald, the chief. Martin acknowledged, “it was a stupid question.”
A recording of their meetings was posted online by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper.
“I made a bad decision with my choice of words,” Martin said, “and all hell broke loose.”
An internal affairs investigation found Martin was disrespectful and used excessive force in the arrest. Fitzgerald suspended him for two weeks without pay.
In Fort Worth, protesters took to the courthouse steps to decry what they saw as another example of police brutality against African-Americans.
The police department launched an investigation to find out who leaked the video. Fitzgerald demoted two commanders accused of the leak. Both men denied such and have sued the city.
“We’ve seen the reactions of communities around the country where people of color have been subjected to, you know, police assaults in certain cases; use of force that has been excessive; and, quite frankly, that’s not what we want to say as to how we do business here in the City of Fort Worth,” Fitzgerald told the Dallas Morning News.
A career police officer, Fitzgerald was hired three years ago as the first African-American police chief in Fort Worth, a city that is majority white. He previously served almost two years as the first African-American police chief of Allentown, Pa.