Baltimore Mayor Pugh defends De Sousa hiring, praises Fitzgerald, at church unity event with Jewish community

Hallie Miller
The Baltimore Sun

At the celebration of unity at Liberty Grace Church of God, honoring the partnership between its senior pastor, the Rev. Terris King, and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh capitalized on the moment to defend her hiring of Joel Fitzgerald to head the Baltimore Police Department before a diverse crowd.

This was the most scrutinized selection of a police chief ever in this city,” Pugh said before the congregation, composed of local politicians, members of the church and members of the Jewish community. “The next commissioner, we turned him upside down, we shake him out, we turned him back around and then we look at him again and make sure we got the right person for this city.”

She said Baltimore can trust in her ability to do her job and select good people for the commissioner role, citing her hiring of Darryl De Sousa as an example. De Sousa, who replaced Commissioner Kevin Davis, resigned in May after he was charged with three misdemeanor counts of failing to file federal income tax returns by federal prosecutors.

“When I hired Commissioner De Sousa, I knew I hired the right person. Now I can’t stand up for people’s personal lives, but I can tell you, no one was more strategic and focused,” she said. “I stand behind my decision.”

Pugh also said she and her administration will reduce violence in the city, which has been home to over 270 reported homicides so far this year. She added that since uploading the Baltimore police officer application online, the department has experienced 60 to 70 applications per week, up from about 50 per month before the online posting. She said the lack of personnel to process those applications has delayed more hirings.

“We can do better than this, but we have to invest in the city,” she said. “Sometimes change takes time, but it can happen.”

Pugh announced her selection of Fort Worth Police Chief Fitzgerald, 47, on Friday, and it’s unclear when he would start in the new role. The City Council must vote to confirm his appointment.

Fitzgerald’s tenure in Fort Worth, as well as prior roles as police chief in three other cities over the past five years, has been marked by both admiration by supporters who say he will lead Baltimore effectively and criticism from detractors. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun Saturday, Fitzgerald said all police officers face episodes in their careers that are called into dispute.

“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.”

After presenting the two spiritual leaders with mayoral citations, Pugh reiterated her commitment to governing all of Baltimore’s residents and highlighted some of the progress her administration has accomplished. This included investing in 28 new school buildings, providing free college education to eligible students at Baltimore City Community College and creating tax incentives for investment in as many as 42 areas of the city.

But despite progress in these areas, she said it’s not enough, and that more growth can stem from partnerships like Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Liberty Grace Church of God’s. The Baltimore church serves a predominantly black Baptist community in Ashburton, while over 1,300 families call America’s largest modern-Orthodox synagogue in Pikesville home.

“I should be everywhere my people are,” Pugh said, adding that while she’s made progress in securing more investment into the city, it needs more help. “I’m not the mayor of the rich, I’m not the mayor to just the poor, I’m not the mayor to just the homeless, I’m the mayor to all people.” she said.

King said the day represented an opportunity for both communities to recognize what each could do to help one another and the city.

“This is bigger than an interfaith day, but a celebration of unity,” King said, adding that the weekend before Thanksgiving “is the perfect time of year” to celebrate the love between two communities of faith.

“I never did this before,” said Wohlberg, who has served as Beth Tfiloh’s head rabbi for 40 years. “Orthodox Jews, when it comes to social action, are not at the forefront when our tradition demands it of us...To make Baltimore a shining light, it can’t be left to one part” of Baltimore.

Sunday’s celebration, the 40th annual, occurs amid a two-year rise in reported hate crimes throughout the state, with members of the black and Jewish communities targeted more often than other groups, Maryland State Police data show. Records show that African-Americans reported 177 incidents of hate or bias over the past two years, while Jews were the second-highest-targeted group of hate crimes, with 78 incidents reported over the past two years.

King and Wohlberg had not met until the pastor read “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila and learned that the building where his church stands used to house a synagogue.

Though neither man is sure it was Beth Tfiloh Congregation, they used the connection to jump-start their partnership. Members of the church credit King with finding an ally in the Jewish community that can help them network.

“His unifying with this institution is probably the greatest move he could’ve made,” said Carmen Alexander, a member of the church for 11 years and a Sunday school educator there. “It’s a great opportunity to put a net around the city, pull it tighter so everyone can get what they need.”

Pugh said while it won’t be easy, Baltimore can heal and flourish with everyone’s cooperation and support.

“I know with love and care, we can change our city,” she said. “It’s about loving each other, understanding that all of us have faults, that none of us are perfect, but that all of us respect each other.”

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