His name was leaked on twitter ... and then it wasn’t. On Friday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh finally, officially confirmed that Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald will be the city’s next police commissioner.
In an opinion column published in The Baltimore Sun, Pugh said Fitzgerald “is known for his hands-on approach, his ability to listen and establish effective, trusted partnerships with community leaders, residents and essential stakeholders who are also working to bring about positive and sustainable change.”
Many in Baltimore, including the head of the city’s police union, say they were left in the dark regarding the vetting process for Fitzgerald. Next to nothing was released about the search process before Fitzgerald’s name was released publicly.
A few people contacted in Fort Worth, Texas, were unequivocal in their disregard for their former police chief. Said one retired police sergeant: “You couldn’t find a more unqualified person to move Baltimore police forward.”
Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Church in Fort Worth, rooted for Fitzgerald when he was being hired as police commissioner for Fort Worth in 2015. Well spoken and confident, Fitzgerald “seemed to have an answer for everything,” Bell said. “I drank the Kool-Aid.” But, said Bell, Fitzgerald proved to be “all front porch, like a movie set.”
When crisis hit the department, for example, after a police officer’s shooting of an unarmed man, Bell said Fitzgerald proved an ineffective manager, firing the officer involved only after charges had been brought against him.
“Joel has an unwillingness to dismiss even rogue officers,” Bell said. “I’m glad he’s gone.”
Kevin Fitchett, a retired police sergeant from Fort Worth, said Fitzgerald was hired to improve the fractured relationships between the police department and the minority community, but instead exacerbated existing problems by being slow to punish police officers accused of misconduct.
In a case that caught national attention, a Fort Worth police officer arrested a woman and her children after they had called 911. The officer involved was suspended for just 10 days.
Fitchett, a former president of the Fort Worth Black Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he was stunned that Baltimore had selected him for the job of police commissioner, given Fitzgerald’s record. “You couldn’t find a more unqualified person to move Baltimore police forward under the circumstances that currently exist.”
In her opinion column, Pugh touted Fitzgerald’s “reputation as a reformer and “disrupter” of the status quo.” She said he had encouraged greater training in technology and required de-escalation training for all sworn officers, and said his policies “have been recognized as “best practices” among leading law enforcement agencies across Texas and beyond.”
Mike Mancuso, president of the Baltimore police union, said in a statement posted to Twitter that the union had not been informed of the pick before it was announced publicly, had not been part of the selection process, “and as a result, know only as much about Chief Fitzgerald as can be found via a web search.” Mancuso said union reps planned to travel to Fort Worth, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia, where Fitzgerald has worked previously, to meet with union and law enforcement officials.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said in a statement that Pugh and Baltimore’s city council should open the confirmation process, allowing residents to meet Fitzgerald “to determine if he meets the qualifications residents detailed in a letter to the Mayor in August.”
Ifill emphasized that the incoming commissioner “has a responsibility to build trust between officers and the residents they serve.”
David Keshl, the president of a neighborhood watch group in Allentown, recalled Fitzgerald coming to his organization and others like it for advice when he first started as chief. Fitzgerald kept up ties with those groups — which Keshl called the police's eyes — throughout his tenure.
"You could call him anytime and he would get back to you," Keshl said.