Baltimore mayor names Fort Worth top cop Joel Fitzgerald as police commissioner

Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, has been chosen as Baltimore’s next police commissioner, taking the helm of a department in the midst of sweeping civil rights reforms and violence on pace to surpass 300 homicides for the fourth year in a row.

Fitzgerald, 47, will start work as acting commissioner after Thanksgiving, Mayor Catherine Pugh said. He will need to win the approval of the City Council if he’s to stay.

“He has an understanding of our consent decree,” the mayor said. “He is well versed on training and community engagement, and he’s a police chief who’s led a large police force.”

Fitzgerald — described as a “reformer” in a biography released by the mayor’s office — arrives at what is widely viewed as a critical moment for the city, which also continues to face fallout from the federal racketeering convictions of eight city officers in what many consider the worst corruption scandal in the department’s history.

He’ll become the city’s fourth police commissioner this year.

Pugh and her team now have the job of building public support for Fitzgerald. His appointment follows a secretive search for candidates by City Hall in which residents were told next to nothing and the City Council was denied information about candidates.

Members of the council, stressing the importance of the pick, have vowed a thorough review of Fitzgerald.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Friday that Young and three other council members plan to travel to Fort Worth to meet police officers, activists and business people to personally vet him.

“We will be holding a robust public hearing process that the citizens can be proud of,” Davis said.

Fitzgerald’s nomination continues a law enforcement career that began in 1992 in his hometown of Philadelphia, where he rose through the ranks of the police department, becoming a lieutenant in a narcotics unit. He left in 2009 to become chief of the Missouri City Police Department, a small force in a suburb of Houston. In 2013, he became the police chief in Allentown, Pa., before leaving in 2015 for Forth Worth.

He did not return a message seeking comment Friday.

Despite his experience — praised by Pugh as an important reason for his selection — Baltimore will present Fitzgerald with a new challenge. The city has almost 2,500 police officers — about 1,000 more than Fort Worth. And Baltimore, with 342 homicides last year, had the highest rate of killings of any big city in the country. Fort Worth had just 70 homicides last year, according to FBI data.

Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said that while an outsider like Fitzgerald won’t be closely tied to the department’s existing problems, he will have to get to know Baltimore.

“There’s going to be a learning curve,” he said.

In Fort Worth, Fitzgerald has dealt with some of the most difficult aspects of leading a large police department. The city saw protests after a viral video captured a white officer getting into an argument with a black woman and drawing his Taser before arresting her and her two daughters. And in September, a Fort Worth officer was killed in the line of duty.

During Fitzgerald’s tenure in Allentown, the city faced at least eight lawsuits alleging police misconduct, and city leaders questioned $2 million in annual overtime spending — a figure Baltimore often burns through in two weeks.

Fitzgerald arrives during a period of unprecedented turnover at the Police Department. U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the city’s Justice Department consent decree, publicly warned city officials in July that progress could stall without a permanent leader in charge of the department.

Commissioner Kevin Davis was fired in January and replaced by Darryl De Sousa. But De Sousa resigned in May after he was charged with three counts of failing to file federal taxes. Gary Tuggle was then named interim commissioner and expressed interest in keeping the job, only to later withdraw his name from consideration.

Davis made at the end of his tenure a salary of $212,000. De Sousa made $210,000,

A government salaries database by the Texas Tribune showed Fitzgerald made $205,000 in 2016, the latest year the data was published.

City Hall officials say they welcome the opportunity to introduce the Fitzgerald to the community now that his name has been released. Pugh lauded him in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun, saying his career has demonstrated that he can build relationships with community leaders and deliver sustainable change.

“I am convinced that we have a unique opportunity to build on our progress to reduce violence and accelerate our efforts to create a safer city and re-establish community trust in those sworn to protect and serve,” the mayor wrote.

But officials continued to face questions over the process of selecting him. City Solicitor Andre Davis, who was closely involved, said a panel interviewed seven candidates but declined to say who sat on the panel and what Pugh’s precise role was. In the op-ed, Pugh described “extensive discussions” with Fitzgerald.

Andre Davis said Pugh opted for a confidential process so that the city could attract chiefs of other large departments — the kinds of candidates the mayor wanted to hear from, but who officials worried would not want to publicly signal their interest in finding a new job.

Baltimore Police Sgt. Michael Mancuso, the new president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, said the mayor had not consulted with the police union about the decision.

“I think that we’ve been waiting to see if she was going to include us in the process, but she has not,” he said Friday. “We weren’t included.”

When reached by a reporter Friday afternoon, Mancuso said it was the first he was learning about the mayor’s decision and that he had recently heard about possible internal candidates being named to the post.

Mancuso said he now plans to reach out to the Fort Worth police union to learn more. He could get a poor report: Officers there were polled by the Fort Worth Police Officers Association in 2017, and 84 percent said morale had declined during Fitzgerald’s tenure, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Fitzgerald’s name leaked into public view last month after the mayor of Fort Worth appeared to confirm that he was departing for Baltimore after reviewing a Twitter post, only to have a spokeswoman later say he was actually only a candidate for the job.

Pugh had not planned to officially announce her pick Friday, but confirmed that Fitzgerald was her choice after news began to spread of her selection.

Fitzgerald has three children and three grandchildren, and his wife, Pauline Fitzgerald, is a homicide detective in Texas. He has an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Villanova University, and he has master’s and doctoral degrees in business administration.

In the wake of De Sousa’s abrupt departure in May, the mayor’s team faced questions over how closely he was vetted. Andre Davis said a private firm that specializes in conducting background checks of law enforcement officers investigated Fitzgerald ahead of his selection — a review that included a look at his confidential personnel files.

Scott, the councilman, said if Fitzgerald agreed to release those records it would build trust with the community. Davis said he did not expect that to happen.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

More: Joel Fitzgerald, pick for Baltimore police commissioner, is no rookie to managing scandal in the ranks »

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