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As Fort Worth officials criticize Baltimore police chief search, expert says it's a 'difficult balancing act'

Joel Fitzgerald has withdrawn from consideration for the Baltimore Police Commissioner's job. Fitzgerald is police chief in Fort Worth, Texas and has pulled out of the running to deal with serious medical issues with his teenage son.

In the wake of Joel Fitzgerald’s withdrawal as Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nominee for police commissioner, officials in his current city of Fort Worth, Texas, criticized the vetting process.

Fort Worth city manager David Cooke deemed what Fitzgerald had been subjected to as “awkward.” Mayor Betsy Price called it “unconventional.”

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Even last week, the Rev. Kyev Tatum, a Fort Worth minister and strong supporter of Fitzgerald, said, "I wouldn't send my worst enemy through that process.”

Conversely, local activists complained that Pugh’s selection of Fitzgerald, police chief in Fort Worth, as fatally lacking in transparency and community involvement from the start.

Chuck Wexler, the longtime executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, which helps cities conduct police leadership searches, said the process that played out in Baltimore is not uncommon. As the search for the city’s next police commissioner begins anew, Pugh must promote transparency while attracting top talent, he said.

“It’s a difficult balancing act,” Wexler said. “You had a backlash where the public feel they hadn’t been informed,” giving the candidate an uphill challenge to earn the support of the community, he said of Fitzgerald’s vetting.

“These processes have become increasingly complicated. At the same time I completely understand” the community’s need for greater transparency, he said. The larger question, he said, is, “At what point do you get the community involved?”

Pugh announced Fitzgerald in November as her choice to lead the department, but many community advocates said they were dissatisfied with the selection process that did not offer public input or a chance to evaluate candidates before he was named. Others said they simply did not know enough about Fitzgerald to fully support him before he was scheduled to come to several community meetings last weekend.

On Monday, Pugh said Fitzgerald had withdrawn from consideration for the job because of a medical emergency involving his son, leaving the mayor to again take up the search for another candidate.

Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a leader of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said he hoped the mayor would use the opportunity to listen to the community.

“Our position is that has been a botched process, really a failed process from the beginning. There’s a lack of transparency, lack of community engagement,” which is required under the Justice Department consent decree that is supposed to bring sweeping policing reforms, including greater transparency, to Baltimore, Connors said.

He said the blame fell on the mayor who created the process, which he said has made the city a “laughingstock” to the entire country.

While some candidates might be deterred from coming to Baltimore, he said the next commissioner has a low bar, that “there’s not somewhere but up.”

Connors said he wanted to see the mayor out in the community, listening to residents before naming her next candidate.

“The mayor just needs to take a step back and do a lot of listening — listen to what are people telling her they need to see,” he said.

It’s unclear what the mayor’s next move might be. She canceled a news conference Monday discussing her plans. The city had received more than 50 applications, and several candidates continue to express interest in the job.

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Speaking last week after a Baltimore city council report had been released, Tatum said he was concerned that reports on the vetting weren’t showing Fitzgerald at his best.

Tatum said Fitzgerald had defused a racial powder keg in Fort Worth and that he hoped he would stay in his job there. “I just don't want his character to be assassinated,” Tatum said.

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