Baltimore residents to new police chief Joel Fitzgerald: Welcome. Now, come meet and work with us

This week, Tawanda Jones will hold her 278th “West Wednesday” vigil to remember her brother and how he died. She started the events, held on sidewalks or in front of government buildings, shortly after Tyrone West died in a scuffle with police in Northeast Baltimore — bearing weekly witness over a span of five years and four commissioners.

With a fifth about to take over the Baltimore force after a secretive and seemingly fumbled selection process, Jones doesn’t see West Wednesdays and her call for police accountability ending any time soon. She, and others who have agitated to reform a department reeling from internal and external woes, say incoming chief Joel Fitzgerald needs to understand the task at hand — and how residents must be part of the solution.

“I don’t have any hope until I see change from top to bottom,” Jones said. “I want to see what he’s about, what he’s going to bring to the table. Until I can get a good feel for him, until they start cleaning house, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh named Fitzgerald, chief of the Fort Worth Police Department, on Friday to head a force that has been through several years of tumult — the death of Freddie Gray after he was arrested in 2015 and the subsequent rioting; a U.S. Justice Department investigation concluding that officers routinely violated residents’ civil rights; the robbery and racketeering convictions of members of the elite Gun Trace Task Force, and to the suicide, according to a review panel, of Detective Sean Suiter that was initially investigated as a homicide.

And through it all, a string of police commissioners were hired and fired or resigned, each seemingly unable to right the course and quell a persistently high crime rate, or at least do so quickly enough for mayors who have been under pressure to reform the department and make the streets safer.

Activists such as Jones say no one person can fix all that ails the department. But some say they are hopeful that having someone in charge who doesn’t carry the “interim” label can provide the necessary leadership to begin the reform that they’d like to see — and that has been mandated by a consent decree the city entered into with the Justice Department to resolve the federal civil rights investigation.

And that can happen only if Fitzgerald partners with residents from the start, they said.

“Don’t sit in the ivory tower — go out, talk to people, listen to people in the community,” said Bridal Pearson, who chairs the city’s Civilian Review Board, the police oversight panel. “Start from the bottom up and not the top down.”

Pearson, whose board is in a legal battle with the city over access to police disciplinary records, said Baltimore’s lack of a permanent commissioner since May has hampered efforts toward improving accountability.

“I think not being able to form a relationship with a permanent leadership has been problematic for what we want to do,” he said.

Ray Kelly, who heads the No Boundaries Coalition of community groups in West Baltimore, agreed.

“This is Baltimore,” Kelly said. “He’s going to need community support. There has to be a certain amount of assimilation.”

Kelly said the appointment of a commissioner — who will still need City Council confirmation — can bring more accountability to the department.

“We need a person to direct our advocacy at,” Kelly said. “We need a person to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’

“This is our opportunity for a fresh start,” he said. “We have a brand-new commissioner. We can start the reform process together.”

Pugh came under heavy criticism for the secretive selection process, which blew up about a month ago when word leaked that she had chosen Fitzgerald. Pugh denied it, saying her administration was still vetting candidates, only to announce on Friday that indeed she had picked him.

Now Kelly wonders whether Fitzgerald’s name might have been purposely leaked to allow a public vetting of sorts before Pugh officially named him.

“The process has been this way for so long — we’re never privy to who will be commissioner until someone says, ‘This is the new commissioner,’ ” Kelly said.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which had been critical of the process as well, called Friday for openness in the confirmation process and allowing residents and stakeholders to meet Pugh’s nominee.

“The incoming Baltimore Police Commissioner has a responsibility to build trust between officers and the residents they serve,” the fund’s president, Sherrilyn Ifill, said in a statement. “The Commissioner should understand the need for quality community participation and prioritize conforming to the consent decree and improving public safety in the city. We look forward to participating in any public meetings with Fitzgerald in the coming weeks.”

Jones is among those rankled by the way the city handled the search.

“Rumors were circulating a few weeks ago. The mayor denied it and left us in limbo,” she said. “What’s the big secret?

“We’re the last one to know, but we’re the first ones to be affected.”

Since Jones began her activism on her brother’s behalf — the city and state paid other family members $1 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit — there have been four commissioners: Anthony Batts, fired by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in July 2015 as crime surged after the rioting sparked by Gray’s death; Kevin Davis, let go in January 2018 by Pugh as violence continued to rise; Daryl De Sousa, who lasted only until May, resigning after he was charged with three counts of failing to file federal taxes; and Gary Tuggle, who was named interim commissioner and, after initially expressing interest in staying permanently, withdrew himself from consideration.

That kind of instability has left those who want to see reforms in the department, such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, feeling stymied.

“We can’t make any progress without a leader that can be held accountable for changes,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of the organization composed of faith, education and community groups. “It’s stalled progress in a lot of different areas.”

Foster Connors points to what he calls decades of “ineffective policing that especially targets poor, black communities,” which has led to a climate of distrust. Fitzgerald will have to start trying to rebuild relationships between police and the community,” he said.

It’s a big job, but it’s not on Fitzgerald’s shoulders alone, Foster Connors said. He hopes the new commissioner will reach out to groups like BUILD.

“No one thinks one person can make all the changes,” he said. “It has to be all hands on deck.”

Gene Ryan, past president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said Fitzgerald will need to get everyone “on the same page.”

“The command staff, the administrative staff, the politicians — we have to win the community back. And we have to have the support of the clergy,” said Ryan, speaking as an individual officer and not for the union.

On March 11, Ryan will have served 36 years in the department, and he said there has never been a stretch as bad as the city and the agency have experienced since 2015. Before that year, the city had experienced record reductions in violent crime and homicides.

“Since 2015, things have totally fallen apart,” he said. “Lack of leadership definitely makes a huge impact.”

The officer on the streets “want to be led.”

“They want guidance,” he said. “If they don’t get it, I don’t know if anything is ever going to get any better.”

Ryan said he is not impressed by what he has read about Fitzgerald, and his multiple moves after a few short years in departments smaller than Baltimore’s.

“That’s not a good sign,” he said. “Things are a little bit different here than from the smaller towns he’s worked in.

“It’s a tough job,” Ryan said. “I wish him luck. It’s going to take a strong leader to get us back on track.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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