What we need to know about Joel Fitzgerald before he becomes Baltimore's next police commissioner

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack" Young is promising an unusually thorough and public vetting process for Joel Fitzgerald, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nominee to take over as Baltimore police commissioner. That's essential. Although Mayor Pugh says she consulted widely before making her choice, few if any on the council, in community groups or in the police department appear to have been clued in to the process. Given the dire state of police-community relations and the persistently high rate of violent crime — even by Baltimore’s ordinarily deplorable standards — we need a new leader who can step into the job with the community’s and department’s full support from Day One.

With that in mind, here are a few questions we need answered before Mr. Fitzgerald gets the job permanently.

Why do you want the job?

In an interview with The Sun’s Ian Duncan, Mr. Fitzgerald said he wanted to be “part of the healing” in Baltimore. But if he’s read anything about the situation here, he knows that he’s walking into what is almost certainly the toughest job in American policing. Baltimore has burned through police commissioners at a ferocious pace, and the chances of failure would be high for anyone at a time when the city faces the simultaneous challenges of reforming the department and driving down runaway violent crime. We don’t need someone with a messiah complex, but we do need someone with the confidence and experience to reboot this department and to provide its officers and the community with a shared mission. Why does he think he’s the right man for the job?

How will he build support in the department?

In the wake of the Freddie Gray riots, the Department of Justice report on city police practices and the ensuing consent decree, and a revolving door for the department’s top leaders, BPD’s rank and file is reeling. Officers need a leader who can inspire them to embrace a new model of policing that enlists the community as a partner in preventing and solving crime. Yet the Fort Worth Police Officers Association polled its members in 2017, and 84 percent of them said morale had declined under Mr. Fitzgerald’s leadership. Why was that the case, and how would he prevent that from happening here?

Will he hold police accountable?

The question of police discipline is at the center of Baltimore’s fraught relationship with the BPD. The lack of substantial consequences for any of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest, the lax internal controls that allowed a criminal enterprise to flourish within the Gun Trace Task Force, and the ongoing legal dispute over the Civilian Review Board’s access to files related to alleged misconduct all add too the atmosphere of distrust. The deal Mayor Pugh negotiated with the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police to place civilians on trial boards will help the next commissioner, but it’s not enough. We need a commissioner who will hold officers to the highest standards and do so in a consistent, open and transparent way. Mr. Fitzgerald has some explaining to do on this score, too. He faced intense criticism in Forth Worth over a case in which a white officer got into an argument with a black woman who had called 911 and then arrested her and her two daughters. The officer was suspended for 10 days, and Mr. Fitzgerald’s remarks about the case appear to have intensified the public outcry rather than calming it. What’s his side of that story? While he was commissioner in Allentown, Pa., the department was hit with multiple misconduct lawsuits. How did he address the underlying issues that led to them? What’s his view of the non-disclosure clause Baltimore writes into its own misconduct settlements?

Who are you bringing with you?

Turning around a department like Baltimore’s is more than any one person can do. Recent reports of infighting and dysfunction make clear that the problem isn’t just the lack of permanent leadership at the top. It's also the lack of cooperation (if not the outright hostility) among other commanders in the department. Even beyond the poisonous internal politics, there are clearly bad habits that need to be excised from the department. The Department of Justice report found a pervasive problem of mid-level commanders clinging to the zero-tolerance philosophies that so badly exacerbated the mistrust between the department and the community in the first place. Mr. Fitzgerald (or anyone else) can’t possibly succeed without bringing in a cadre of new leaders who can provide consistent direction to the department over the long haul. Who would be part of his team?

How will you build trust with the community?

Baltimore may share some similarities with the West Philadelphia neighborhoods where Mr. Fitzgerald grew up and got his start in policing, but it’s very different from all of the places where he has served as chief. He can’t walk into this city and imagine that he knows what its communities want and need. Mr. Fitzgerald reportedly met with community groups and made himself accessible in Fort Worth, and we assume he would do the same here. But we need to know that he won’t just go on a get-to-know-you tour of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and then retreat to police headquarters. We need to hear a clearly articulated strategy for sustained engagement with the community.

How long will you stay?

Mr. Fitzgerald has gone through police departments almost as rapidly as we've gone through police commissioners in the last few years. He told Mr. Duncan that he is “willing to stay and be there for a long period of time.” Why should we believe that? He has clearly been climbing the career ladder since he left Philadelphia, and any hint that he views this job as just another rung will be disastrous to officer morale and community trust. Acting Commissioner Gary Tuggle says he thinks the department needs someone who can commit to at least five to seven years. We’d guess that’s about right. Mr. Fitzgerald needs to convince us that he’s done moving around.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°