Baltimore has had four police commissioners since 2015. How long will the next have to stay to ensure reform?

Joel Fitzgerald has been nominated by Mayor Catherine Pugh to be the next Baltimore police commissioner. If confirmed by the City Council, he'd be the fifth person to hold the job since 2015.
Joel Fitzgerald has been nominated by Mayor Catherine Pugh to be the next Baltimore police commissioner. If confirmed by the City Council, he'd be the fifth person to hold the job since 2015. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Mayor Catherine Pugh wants him to sign a five-year contract. Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle says the position deserves someone willing to invest up to seven years. A former big-city chief says nearly a decade in office — and a handoff to a seasoned deputy — ensured reform where he worked.

How long is long enough for Joel Fitzgerald, Pugh’s nominee to head the Baltimore Police Department, to make changes that reduce violence and carry out a court-ordered consent decree to reform law enforcement?


Fitzgerald hasn’t been specific, beyond saying he’s committed to the job.

“All I want is stability and being able to see this through,” he said in an interview the day after Pugh announced last month that he was her choice. “I am willing to stay and be there for a long period of time.”


The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a leader of the influential church group BUILD, said he wants to hear more.

“We need to know from him what he means by long term,” Connors said. “I don’t think we have a number, but we know it’s going to take years to change the culture at the Police Department.”

Rocked by high crime and the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Baltimore has had four police commissioners since 2015.

Policing experts have been tracking declining police chief tenures around the country since the 1990s and say that nowadays, political leaders are quick to hold department leaders accountable. The Police Executive Research Forum says the average big-city chief stays in a job about 3 to 4 years.

Leaders in Baltimore say that might not be long enough to turn around a department shaken by corruption and high crime while implementing the court-ordered civil rights reforms.

In both public and private conversations, Fitzgerald has underscored that how long a commissioner lasts is really a question for the mayor.

Pugh’s nomination of Fitzgerald calls for him to serve a 5-year term, but that’s not binding, and Pugh said Monday that the city is still negotiating a contract with Fitzgerald.

Pugh has said she’s been mulling a $260,000 salary — much more than previous Baltimore police commissioners have made — and financial incentives that would increase in value the longer Fitzgerald stays.

Mayor Catherine Pugh met Joel Fitzgerald at a May conference in Tennessee, speaking with him for about an hour and tagging him as a promising potential candidate. She would speak to him a number of times in the coming months before making him her choice this fall.

Councilman Ed Reisinger said that when he met Fitzgerald for the first time last month, Fitzgerald mentioned that if the City Council confirms him, he plans to buy a house in Baltimore.

But, Reisinger said, Fitzgerald also had an eye on the next city elections, telling the councilman that, “in two years — 2020 — if there’s a new mayor, he could be gone.”

Former Washington, D.C., police chief Charles Ramsey said having a good relationship with the city’s political leaders is essential to sticking around. He served nearly a decade and handed off to a high-ranking commander in his department, a tenure and a transition that helped reforms of the department take hold.

“In two decades, they had two chiefs,” he said. “That kind of stability in leadership was key.”

Tuggle withdrew his application to become the permanent commissioner in Baltimore, saying he thought the job deserved between 5 and 7 years — time he didn’t feel he could give.

Ken Thompson, the monitor overseeing the civil rights reforms, said Tuggle’s assessment seems right.

Until now, the consent decree team has largely focused on rewriting policies. Thompson said that work was the relatively straightforward part of the job, and implementing changes will be more difficult. And he said he wouldn’t be able to even estimate an end date for the consent decree process until late 2019.

In football terms, Thompson said, it’s still early in the first quarter.

Joel Fitzgerald, named as Baltimore Police Department commissioner, needs to win a majority of 15 City Council votes to secure the job. Where do council members stand on Mayor Catherine Pugh's choice to lead the department? The mayor started the nomination process on Dec. 6.

“Lamar Jackson hasn’t even gotten warm yet,” he said, referring to one of the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterbacks.

The judge overseeing the consent decree also has stressed the importance of leadership. In a July hearing, U.S. District Judge James Bredar warned that without consistent leadership, progress on reform could be under threat.

“When there is repeated transition in leadership, a lack of stability in leadership, when that circumstance prevails, there is a profound danger of chaos and confusion down in the ranks,” Bredar said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he expects it will take at least 3 years for a new commissioner to have an impact. He calls a 4-year tenure the “bare minimum.”

Scott said by that point, he would hope a commissioner would have made significant strides to meeting the terms of the consent decree, had success bringing down crime rates and would be making other structural changes at the department. Only then, Scott said, would it be time to consider handing leadership over to someone else.

Saying that he is looking to be on the job for the long term, the new commissioner emphasized rebuilding the trust between police and the community, and said he has done so before.

Fitzgerald has served as chief for three cities, with his longest tenure so far being nearly five years. That was in in his first stop, starting in 2009, when he left his native Philadelphia to lead the suburban Missouri City, Texas, department. He left there to become chief in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he worked for less than two years. He started his current job in Fort Worth in October 2015.

Fitzgerald has said his career has not been unusual and that he’s left each department in better shape than he found it.

In Baltimore, the period since Gray’s death and the subsequent rioting has been turbulent.

In July 2015, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Commissioner Anthony Batts as crime levels began to climb to the heights they have yet to come down from. In January 2016, Pugh removed Batts’ successor, Kevin Davis, again citing crime rates. Pugh’s pick, Darryl De Sousa, resigned months later after being criminally charged with failing to file federal tax returns.

In the same period, the city entered into the federal consent decree and an FBI investigation laid bare the corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force, one of the biggest corruption scandals in the department’s history and a case that continues to unfold.

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