Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald is a contender to be Baltimore's next police commissioner, officials in Texas confirmed, marking the first name to emerge from the city's secretive selection process.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said she was still vetting candidates and would not confirm Fitzgerald's candidacy, saying she was on track to name the new commissioner by the end of the month.
“I’m not revealing names of where we are,” Pugh told reporters later Friday. “We are vetting candidates. I am excited about where we are. ... We have police chiefs from around the country who are interviewing.”
Instead, it was officials in Texas who confirmed — through a sequence of bizarre events — that Fitzgerald was in the running. Dallas-area media outlets reported Friday morning that Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said Fitzgerald was taking the job, but Price's office later walked back the comments, saying she had been reacting to an unconfirmed social media post in Baltimore asserting Fitzgerald was Pugh’s pick.
“It snowballed from there,” said Laken Avonne Rapier, a spokeswoman for Price.
But Rapier went on to confirm that Fitzgerald had nevertheless been in discussions about and interviewed for the Baltimore job.
Fitzgerald, a Philadelphia native who spent almost two decades with the Philadelphia Police Department, did not respond to requests for comment.
Baltimore officials have said little about their process for selecting a commissioner, who would be the fourth person to hold the title this year alone. But Pugh has recently said the pick is likely to be a department outsider.
In recent years, the department has struggled with unprecedented violence while endeavoring to regain the community’s trust following the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the federal racketeering case against members of the rogue, now disgraced Gun Trace Task Force. The department is under a consent decree, with a federal judge monitoring its progress at reform.
After a drop in crime to start the year, a surge in violence has the city on pace to top 300 homicide victims for the fourth year in a row.
Top City Council officials said early Friday they were in the dark on Pugh’s selection process. In tweets and interviews, local leaders complained about the lack of transparency in the commissioner selection process
“For a department that is struggling with integrity and trust, this is not a positive sign if Ft. Worth Chief Joel Fitzgerald ends up being the actual selection for Commissioner of the BPD. We deserve better than how this is playing out,” state Sen. Bill Ferguson wrote in a tweet.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer simply wrote in a tweet, “Thank you @MayorBetsyPrice for announcing who the next @BaltimorePolice commissioner will be.”
Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, said that he has asked the mayor’s office repeatedly for information on finalists for the job, but neither Pugh nor her team have provided any names. The council must confirm the police commissioner.
Saying little about her next steps in the selection process, Pugh said she will discuss her choice of a finalist with the council.
Scott said he was not familiar with Fitzgerald but he knew some elected officials in the Texas community and would be researching his history “as much as humanly possible,” given the stakes in Baltimore amid surging violence. Scott said he wanted to know whether Fitzgerald’s track record was one of effectively reducing violence using community policing and if he has ever had to deal with a consent decree, as Baltimore must.
Lester Davis, a top aide for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young,” said when the mayor makes her selection, Young and a delegation from Baltimore — including community members and council members — would travel to the new commissioner’s previous community and research his or her background. Davis said he could not confirm whether Pugh had offered the job to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald spent 17 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, spending much of that time as a narcotics officer.
Since then, he has served as police chief in Missouri City, Texas, and Allentown, Pa., and has been mentioned as a finalist or candidate during the public selection process for numerous other jobs.
"I had the feeling when I first met him that he would be a great hire," Allentown’s mayor said as Fitzgerald departed for Fort Worth in 2015. “I had hoped that we would have him in Allentown a while longer.”
In Fort Worth, a city of 870,000 people that has 1,700 sworn officers and experienced 70 homicides last year, he navigated controversies that included two local ministers calling for his removal after he reassigned two high-ranking police commanders when body camera footage was leaked, according to the Fort Worth Fox affiliate.
Also last year, a survey of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association showed 84 percent of respondents indicating morale had declined during Fitzgerald's tenure, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
His department has been recently dealing with tragedy, after Officer Garrett Hull was shot and killed in September.
Police reform advocates pin hopes on Baltimore’s next police commissioner to resolve the “infighting” and “political turmoil” cited by recent high-level departures who described significant dysfunction within the department.
When he left for Allentown, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen credited him with bringing “a lot of new and innovative ideas to Missouri City. He is known nationwide for his efforts, and a lot of people have been trying to hire him over the years. Allentown just touched home," according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Allentown Police Department under Fitzgerald’s watch was plagued by complaints of police brutality, and viral videos of an officer wrestling a street singer to the ground led to public protests, the Morning Call reported. Police overtime spending topped $2 million in Allentown during his tenure, and the city was hit with at least eight lawsuits alleging police misconduct.
Fitzgerald's son also went on trial during his time in Allentown after allegedly pointing a loaded gun at two undercover detectives. He was found not guilty, and accused the officers of racial profiling him. His lawsuit is pending.
Baltimore’s selection process has not been public, which many community groups have said is the wrong approach and that the public should have had more input.
City Solicitor Andre Davis said previously that more than 50 applications have been received, and a panel of three law enforcement experts from around the country is helping in the search.
Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who has been leading the department since May, expressed interest in the job but withdrew his name from the process last week.
Many in Baltimore were left confused Friday morning as to where the city stood in its search for a new police commissioner, after reports in Texas suggested a police chief there had gotten the job, but Mayor Catherine Pugh refuted that. The confusion was sadly nothing new, critics said.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hired Davis after firing Anthony Batts in July 2015 amid backlash over Gray’s death and the riots that followed.
Tuggle, a longtime DEA agent who was brought into the department as a deputy commissioner making $180,000, has been earning $189,000 as the interim commissioner. City salary records show De Sousa was earning $210,000, while Davis was paid $212,000.
The next commissioner faces numerous challenges from increases in violence in recent weeks to implementing reforms mandated under a federal consent decree.
U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the process, has lamented the importance of the role at recent hearings on the progress of the decree, and has called the job the most difficult law enforcement job in the country.
The department needs a leader “who is bold, strong and capable of inspiring the community but also conforms with this reform initiative,” Bredar said at a recent hearing.