Fort Worth has conflicting views on Baltimore police commissioner nominee Fitzgerald, report shows

Over the course of three days in Texas last month, a Baltimore City Council delegation vetting the mayor’s choice to become police commissioner heard widely different accounts of Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s leadership.

The first day, Roy Hudson, a police lieutenant and former leader of the black police officers’ organization, told the traveling council members that Fitzgerald “turned our department around as far as community relations.”

But the following day, the group, led by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, heard a different take from retired police Sgt. Kevin Fitchett, who said: “I have not seen him implement any community policing practices.”

The accounts are included in a 216-page report the delegation released Tuesday. The report doesn’t draw conclusions about Fitzgerald or whether he is a good fit for Baltimore — rather, it includes unedited transcripts and notes from the group’s meetings.

Councilman Brandon Scott, one of those who made the trip, said the interviews will play an important part in making a decision on Fitzgerald, but won't be decisive.

“We heard everything basically from great to good and bad to ugly depending on who we were talking to,” Scott said.

The City Council will vote on whether to approve Fitzgerald for the job and council members now may consider the material in the report as they prepare to question Fitzgerald at a public hearing Monday evening.

During the trip, Young and Scott, along with Council members Sharon Middleton and Robert Stokes, met with about 35 people. Their conversations delved deeply into what Fitzgerald had done to build the relationship between the police and the black and Hispanic communities, who together form a majority of city residents but make up only a small proportion of officers.

The interviews reveal little about how Fitzgerald’s time in relatively peaceful Fort Worth might prepare him to battle Baltimore’s rampant violence.

Young, Stokes and Middleton couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Fort Worth’s political leaders, senior government officials and police union leadership generally gave Fitzgerald positive reviews.

“He’s done an excellent job,” Mayor Betsy Price told the Baltimore group. “I hate to see him go.”

Several of those interviewed described a dispute between Fitzgerald and the city’s leaders over him not receiving a performance review or a pay raise, and said it could be a factor in his search for a new job. A note included in the group’s interview with the Fort Worth city manager and assistant city manager said Fitzgerald has unsuccessfully sought a “substantial pay raise.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has said she’s considering paying Fitzgerald $260,000 a year. That would be much more than his $205,000 salary in Fort Worth, although Texas has no state income tax.

Like the council, Pugh had vowed to thoroughly vet her choice for police commissioner after her previous pick, Darryl De Sousa, resigned after a few months on the job when he was charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Pugh hired a firm of private investigators to conduct its own review of Fitzgerald’s background, including interviews of people who have worked with him. But details of those interviews have not been released to the public or council members and it’s not known who the investigators met with.

The city council group’s first meeting on the Sunday they arrived in Fort Worth was supposed to be a roundtable discussion involving nine community leaders. But the transcript shows that Hudson dominated the event, giving the Baltimore group an overwhelmingly positive description of Fitzgerald’s efforts to hold officers accountable for misconduct and to encourage them to build relationships in the community.

Hudson said Fitzgerald has emphasized the role of dedicated neighborhood patrol officers and police getting out of their cars to meet with residents.

“We actually get out of our cars and we go door to door say ‘I’m Officer Hudson. I’m just in the neighborhood. Is there anything you need?’” he said. “You’d get a wealth of information.”

Hudson also described an initiative Fitzgerald brought back involving plainclothes officers buying drugs and quickly making an arrest. He said the unit was known as the “jump-out-boys.”

“If you’re standing on the corner, we’re highly trained, we’ll walk up and just buy something,” Hudson said. “That’s a delivery, that’s a felony.”

Scott said the use of the term “jump-out-boys” attracted his attention because it also has been applied to Baltimore’s troubled plainclothes units.

“Most definitely that stood out to me,” he said. “We know that doesn’t work here.”

At one point during the meeting, the leader of a minority community council said Fitzgerald had done little work with her organization. Hudson jumped in to defend Fitzgerald.

“He’s got a city to run,” Hudson said. “Sometimes he’s triple booked, he’s on everyone’s schedule.”

The following day, the group met with seven of Fitzgerald’s most vocal critics. They included Fitchett and Jacqueline Craig, a black woman who was arrested by a white officer in an incident that became the major flashpoint of Fitzgerald’s time in Fort Worth.

Craig’s description of the chief was succinct: “I think Fitzgerald is a bag of garbage.”

Fitchett said that Fitzgerald was getting credit for efforts that were already underway when he arrived in late 2015.

“There were no initiatives,” Fitchett said. “He continued stuff that was going on already, but he had to because it was working.”

The report’s release comes as Pugh begins a campaign to build support for Fitzgerald in the community and the council prepares two days of public hearings on his nomination.

On Friday, Fitzgerald is scheduled to meet with community association leaders. On Saturday, members of the public are invited to testify about him in front of the city council. Then on Sunday, the mayor has organized a pair of community meetings so people can meet Fitzgerald.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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