By Halloween, Baltimore officials told a federal judge, reporters and the public, they should be able to name a new city police commissioner. But as Mayor Catherine Pugh indicated last week it probably would, Halloween came and she had no name to offer up.
“Let me lay everybody to rest, first of all, there are no big announcements today,” Pugh said as soon as she arrived at the City Hall podium for her regular news conference. “We are still vetting. The vetting process continues.”
And with that, one of the few things that had been made public about the search process — the date at which it would end — became unknown again. All the mayor’s staff will say now is “soon.”
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said the choice needs to be made “as soon as possible.”
“In talking to officers in my district, police officials in the district, there is some concern about dysfunction without anyone at the top permanently in the position,” said Burnett, whose district is at the city’s far western side. “It just generates some confusion when they don’t have a clearly conveyed direction.”
The mayor has said she’s considering a short list of candidates but won’t say how short the list is. Pugh did confirm Wednesday that Fort Worth police chief Joel Fitzgerald remains in the running, as a Texas news station reported that investigators were visiting that state to research his background.
“Mr. Fitzgerald, as you well know, is one of the candidates. There are candidates being vetted across this country,” Pugh said. “We want them thoroughly vetted, whoever it is.”
Pugh shared no other details about the process, saying she didn’t have information on a firm hired to do the investigation or how much the city paid it.
Some members of the City Council — who will hold a hearing on the nominee and who are planning to make their own trip to look into the eventual candidate’s background — said it was important to get the selection right, but also said time was of the essence.
The new commissioner will take the helm of a department tasked with fighting crime in the nation’s most murderous big city, while also implementing civil rights reforms, rebuilding the trust of residents and reining in runaway overtime spending.
Councilman John Bullock, who represents a large section of West Baltimore, said he hopes the mayor can name someone in the next couple of weeks.
“I’d rather it be done correctly,” Bullock said. “It’s important to get the right person at the right time for this job. Whoever comes in is going to have a lot to deal with.”
Burnett and Bullock questioned whether interim commissioner Gary Tuggle, who applied for the permanent post only to withdraw from consideration, can take the action needed to deal with the city’s problems.
“The fact he is a lame duck makes it challenging to make more long-term change,” Bullock said.
Tuggle could not be reached for comment, but Matt Jablow, a police department spokesman said Tuggle still has the authority to lead the department and is as committed to the job today as the first day he was appointed.
"He will remain committed until the day he leaves, whenever that is," Jablow said. "He is the commissioner and he is acting as the commissioner."
Fitzgerald is the only person publicly known to still be under consideration. WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, reported Tuesday that representatives working on behalf of Baltimore were in Fort Worth this week to probe Fitzgerald’s background. The station cited a police union official, who said he met Monday with an investigator, and other unnamed sources.
His name became public after it was reported on Twitter that he had been chosen. Aides to the Fort Worth mayor ultimately shot down that story, but confirmed Fitzgerald was a candidate.
Fitzgerald’s police career began in Philadelphia in 1992 and he has served as chief of several smaller departments. Should he be picked by Pugh, he’ll likely face questions over his handling of the leak of body camera footage in a brutality case and reports of low officer morale in Fort Worth.
The mayor and members of her team previously said they expected to name a commissioner by Oct. 31, but she said last week that she had not set a hard deadline.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the mayor holds all the cards. He said the law says an acting commissioner should only be in place for 90 days but gives the mayor the authority to waive that provision.
“Anybody can not like it as much as they want,” he said. “The truth is that we have no choice but to be patient because we’re on the mayor’s time schedule. That’s the way our law’s written.”
As the uncertainty continues at the top of the police department, the city continues to grapple with high levels of violence. The department’s statistics do show some gains compared to last year — homicides are down about 12 percent as is serious crime overall — but 2017 was also one of the city’s bloodiest ever.
Scott said the district commanders he’s spoken with are just trying to get on with their work, even as several captains fill in for jobs usually held by majors.
“Those folks have been busting their butts to deal with their violence,” he said.