Will Joel Fitzgerald tell Baltimore what we need to hear?

When police commissioner nominee Joel Fitzgerald has dodged the question of just how long he would be willing to stay in Baltimore, he has noted that an election is coming in 2020, and he could find himself ousted by a new mayor. True enough, and it speaks to the larger point: that Mr. Fitzgerald may be wondering about Baltimore’s commitment to him just as much as we’re wondering about his commitment to us. Given that we’ve had four commissioners in the last three years (three permanent, one interim), one might be tempted to view his caution as prudence.

But with the glaring exception of former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s hiring and then prompting the resignation of Ronald L. Daniel as commissioner within two months, shortly after Mr. O’Malley’s inauguration, Baltimore has not been fickle in its support for police chiefs. Since Mr. O’Malley, no new mayor has sought to install her own police chief upon taking office. During the last mayoral election, we asked all the major candidates whether they would keep then-Commissioner Kevin Davis. Nearly all said yes without qualification.

It hasn’t been politics that has forced out Baltimore’s recent police commissioners. In some cases, it has been scandal of the commissioner’s own making — Darryl De Sousa’s failure to file his tax returns, domestic violence allegations against Kevin Clark (that echoed earlier ones from New York), the misuse of public funds by Edward Norris that set the stage for his falling out with Mr. O’Malley (and a subsequent prison term). In others — Leonard Hamm, Anthony Batts, Mr. Davis — it was the inability to quell major surges in violent crime that led mayors eventually to replace them. One, Frederick Bealefeld, retired.

We have, by now, a realistic understanding of what a new police commissioner can and can’t do. We don’t expect a new commissioner to cause violent crime to drop overnight — indeed, our experience has been that such promises come with unintended consequences: rampant civil rights violations, for example, or out-of-control rogue units. We want someone who can modernize the department’s training, professional standards and use of technology. We want someone who will be an enthusiastic partner in the transparent, measurable implementation of the department’s federal consent decree. We want someone who will will have his officers’ backs but also hold bad cops accountable. We want someone who understands that connecting with the community involves more than schmoozing the City Council and the Greater Baltimore Committee. Above all, we want someone who feels the toll of violence in this city as viscerally as its residents do, someone who has more than just a professional stake in making Baltimore safer, someone for whom this will be home. We are demanding of our police commissioners, but we are also willing to commit to one who commits to us.

And that’s why Mr. Fitzgerald’s vague answers about how long he might stay here — along with his own record of moving from chief jobs in Missouri City, Texas (2009-2013) to Allentown, Pa. (2013-2015) to Fort Worth, Texas (2015-present), plus publicly disclosed applications for other positions — makes us wary. Is he really in this for the long haul, or is he looking for a springboard to an even bigger department — say, nearby Philadelphia, his hometown and the place where he spent 17 years on the force before taking his first chief’s job? Given the City Council’s stated intent to vet any nominee for this job closely, we understand Mr. Fitzgerald’s reluctance to give up his current position and come here on an acting basis before the confirmation vote. In some respects, it may even be a good thing; as Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke observed, it may help the council come to an objective decision about his nomination.

But the fact that he remains in Texas makes it difficult for him to develop any kind of relationship with Baltimore and its residents before the council has to decide whether to give him one of the most important posts in the city. We need someone who will make fixing Baltimore’s police department his life’s work, not a stepping stone, but it’s hard to discern Mr. Fitzgerald’s intentions while he’s running another police department 1,397 miles away, in a city that appears not to be actively searching for a new chief and where some people are openly hoping the Baltimore job will fall through. Mr. Fitzgerald could ameliorate the situation, though. He could give us his assessment of how long he thinks it will take to put the Baltimore Police Department on the right track. Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle says five to seven years. Does Mr. Fitzgerald agree? And is he willing to go on record pledging not to leave of his own accord before then? We can’t hold him to it, of course, but if he does move on, he would at least have to answer to the residents of the next city for the promises he made to us.

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