Behind the secretive Baltimore police commissioner search: How Joel Fitzgerald emerged as Pugh's pick

After months deliberating and reviewing resumes, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh whittled down 51 applicants seeking to become the city’s police commissioner to six who would be interviewed by a panel of police executives in Florida.

According to five sources familiar with the process, the panel made a surprising recommendation after its meetings: New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison — someone who hadn’t applied for the job, and wasn’t among the six first planned for interviews.

Multiple sources said the panel also commended Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald as a strong candidate. And he was someone the mayor had been considering for the job for months.

In an interview Wednesday with The Baltimore Sun, Pugh said she met Fitzgerald at a May police chiefs conference in Tennessee, speaking with him for about an hour and tagging him as a promising potential candidate. She would talk to him again a number of times in the coming months before selecting him in late October.

On Thursday, Pugh will submit Fitzgerald’s nomination to the City Council.

This account of how he emerged as her choice is based on interviews by The Baltimore Sun with more than half a dozen sources familiar with the process, many of whom requested anonymity to describe confidential discussions, and an extended interview with Pugh.

The choice of Baltimore’s commissioner is one of the most consequential decisions the mayor has had to make — and one of the most important in U.S. law enforcement at this time. That’s because Fitzgerald would take over the Baltimore Police Department at a time of persistently high violence and in the early phases of a federal consent decree that mandates the department make sweeping civil rights reforms.

Fitzgerald has said he sought the job because he saw an opportunity to help heal the city.

“The community deserves a lot more from the city of Baltimore and its police department,” Fitzgerald said when he was introduced to reporters at City Hall last week.

Pugh said she’s confident Fitzgerald is the right person for the job.

“We were looking for someone who had a record of violence reduction, reform, community engagement, and I believe that's what Fitzgerald demonstrated,” the mayor said.

The process of finding him has been shrouded in secrecy. It’s an approach that activists and members of the City Council have criticized — particularly because the consent decree mandates transparency. But the mayor says confidentiality was essential to attract the best candidates.

“People who are sitting police chiefs are under obligations to their cities and some could be in contract negotiations and you could jeopardize their positions — that’s what I was told,” Pugh said.

Pugh would not confirm the names of those who talked with the panel, nor the identities of the panelists themselves. But she agreed to discuss the process after The Sun confirmed the meeting in Florida, the names of those who were considered for the position at that stage, and their interviewers.

Just over a year into her first term as mayor, Pugh thought she had settled the question of who would lead the Police Department. She had fired Commissioner Kevin Davis in January and installed Darryl De Sousa, a veteran officer, as his replacement. But in May, De Sousa was charged with failing to file federal tax returns and resigned.

And so, Pugh began the search for a replacement, taking a hands-on role at almost every stage of the process.

The mayor consulted with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and Sean Malinowski, a Los Angeles Police Department official who has been working on a contract basis with the Baltimore Police Department, for ideas about what kind for candidate she should be looking for. Pugh said she also reviewed the consent decree.

Pugh traveled May 31 to Nashville, Tenn., where the Police Executive Research Forum, which volunteered to attract candidates to the search, was holding a conference. She said she spent the day meeting with about half a dozen possible candidates for an hour or so at a time. A few people stood out; Pugh said Fitzgerald’s decade of experience leading ever-larger police departments attracted her attention.

“That’s a good candidate,” Pugh recalled thinking. “I said, ‘Hope you follow through.’”

The city posted a job description in July, and by its closing date in mid-August, officials had a list of 51 hopefuls.

Pugh then had Malinowski, City Solicitor Andre Davis and Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young each narrow the pool down to 15 or so applicants. Fitzgerald ranked well, Pugh said.

After Pugh held further discussions, a short list of six people to be interviewed in Orlando emerged.

The panel gathered Oct. 8 at a hotel close to where the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference was being held, according to multiple sources. The sources said interviewees entering the room were greeted by the group Pugh had arranged to question them: Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, 1st Assistant Police Chief Lashinda Stair of Detroit and Malinowski, along with Pugh aide Karen Stokes and Drew Vetter, who was an aide to Pugh at the time.

“I wanted people from cities of similar issues,” Pugh said of the panelists.

Ed Jackson, inspector general for the Baltimore Police Department, and Kevin Ward, a recently retired New York Police Department official, told the Sun they talked with the panel. Sources said the four others who appeared were Fitzgerald; New Orleans’ Harrison; Sabrina Tapp-Harper, a major in the Baltimore sheriff’s office, and Melvin Russell, an acting deputy police commissioner in Baltimore.

Before the meeting, interim Baltimore Commissioner Gary Tuggle was on the list to be interviewed, the mayor said. But Pugh said that the weekend before the interviews, Tuggle told her he no longer wished to be considered. Tuggle has said he didn’t believe he could commit to the 5 to 7 years he believes the job needs to be done well.

Harrison became his replacement as the sixth person. Asked how someone who hadn’t applied ended up going before the panel instead, Pugh said, “I have no idea.”

Harrison leads a police department in a city that, like Baltimore, has high levels of violent crime and is under a court order to implement civil rights reforms.

Read more: Who is Baltimore police commissioner pick Joel Fitzgerald? »

In a statement to The Sun, Harrison said he had been asked multiple times “to participate in discussions” about his “potential interest” in the position by “those assisting the city of Baltimore in their search,” and was “humbled to be sought after” for the job.

But, he said he “ultimately asked not to be considered for the position” because of his commitment to the New Orleans department and its goals of “reducing crime, improving community relations, and achieving substantial compliance with our federal consent decree.”

And yet, by the end of the day of interviews, the panel told the mayor that Harrison was its top pick among the group, with Fitzgerald in second place.

Although one source said there wasn’t unanimous agreement, that source and several others said the panel generally believed Harrison had a better understanding of big-city crime and federal consent decrees such as those the Baltimore and New Orleans police operate under. And because of that, they believed he would be able to hit the ground running in Baltimore, while Fitzgerald would face a learning curve.

Some of those in the room, multiple sources said, doubted whether the mayor was taking their recommendation of Harrison seriously.

“She had landed on Fitzgerald and that was the end of the story,” one of the sources said.

Pugh declined to describe her reaction to the recommendation in detail, but said she was unwilling to consider someone who hadn’t submitted an application. The mayor said she thanked the panel for its help.

“I’m glad for any advice from people in this field,” Pugh said.

In the weeks after the Orlando interviews, Pugh said, she continued to solicit input about her choice, settling on Fitzgerald by late October — after his name had leaked as the next commissioner. Pugh said she offered him the job Nov. 8. The mayor made her choice public Nov. 16.

One of the challenges Fitzgerald faces in both his confirmation process and if he wins the job is convincing people who say they were turned off by the secrecy surrounding his selection process.

“When you are going through these sneaky, suspicious ways, I’m suspicious,” said Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association. “Fitzgerald might be a great candidate, but I don’t know.”

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