We extend our greatest sympathy to Joel Fitzgerald and his family as they deal with the major illness of a child, and we respect his decision to withdraw from consideration as Baltimore’s next police commissioner to focus on the recovery of his 13-year-old son, who was rushed to the hospital last week with a mass in his brain. We can’t imagine many other parents who wouldn’t make the same choice.
The controversy that had developed around his nomination may have nothing to do with his withdrawal, but it is nonetheless instructive. A Baltimore City Council committee got an earful from Baltimore residents at a hearing last weekend not so much because people had substantive objections to Mr. Fitzgerald as they had misgivings about the process by which he was selected and their inability to get answers to questions about his record and policing philosophy.
Mayor Catherine Pugh now has the opportunity to reset the process and conduct a search for a new commissioner that will foster public optimism about the future of the police department rather than bolster existing skepticism and distrust. Mayor Pugh now knows what the expectations are from Baltimore residents and the City Council, and she should act accordingly. She doesn’t necessarily need to start over from scratch, but she does need to inject much more transparency into the process.
The easiest and most effective way to do that is to make public the finalists for the job before she makes her next selection. That is something other cities do, and it is not too much to ask.
Next, make the resumes of the finalists public. The candidates should be proud of what they have accomplished in their policing careers. If they have something to hide, we don’t want them for the job. And while we’re on the topic of resumes, how about somebody in the city fact check them? It didn’t take long for two reporters to find embellishments in the one submitted by Mr. Fitzgerald.
Finally, anyone who wants to be Baltimore’s police commissioner needs to be willing to come to town and engage with residents before they’re confirmed. Previous Baltimore commissioners have done that, and it makes a difference in their ability to win confirmation and lead once they start the job.
We know it may sound like a lot and that a candidate may feel like they are jumping through a million hoops to get the job. But Baltimore has reason to be extra scrupulous given recent history.
The last commissioner left after he was indicted in federal court for failing to file his income taxes for three years. Another served time in federal prison for misusing public money, while another left after a domestic violence complaint.
Police corruption also flourished under commissioners of the past. A federal investigation revealed abuse at the hands of cops dating back years. (It was something that citizens in poor, African American neighborhoods had complained about way before that.) Several cops who were part of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force have gone to prison for racketeering and other offenses for, among other things, shaking down drug dealers for drugs and cash.. All of this happened under somebody’s watch, even though no commissioner was ever punished for it.
It’s hard to trust a system that hasn’t worked so many times in the past.
A new police commissioner needs to understand all of these dynamics coming in if they want to be successful. They need to be able to help a city move past all of this and heal.
Mr. Fitzgerald clearly didn’t get it. He may have been perfectly suitable for the job of commissioner, but he created a lot of suspicion and distrust by refusing to answer the simplest of questions; by refusing to open himself up.
Mr. Fitzgerald was chosen from a pool of six finalists, including acting commissioner Gary Tuggle. At least one of those candidates, Kevin Ward, the recently retired chief of staff to former New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton, told The Sun on Monday that he remains interested.
We are glad people weren’t turned away by the process. The public wants a qualified police chief. They are eager for someone to end the homicides and shootings, and rebuild trust with the community.
Advice for anyone who still has the guts to want the job: Be prepared for intense scrutiny, and don’t take it personally. Thorough vetting of police candidates is nothing new in Baltimore, so have a thick skin. The final candidate will have a lot tougher scenarios to deal with as commissioner than a rigorous interview process.
City officials should not drag their feet in choosing someone new. They now have a template to work from. Learn quickly from the pitfalls from the first round and get the department back on track.
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