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What we still need to know about Joel Fitzgerald

A Baltimore City Council report offers conflicting views on police commissioner nominee Joel Fitzgerald.

It’s not surprising that the interviews members of the City Council conducted with political, community and law enforcement leaders in Fort Worth about police commissioner nominee Joel Fitzgerald didn’t produce a conclusive answer about whether he’s the right person to take over Baltimore’s troubled department. He has strong supporters and strong detractors, just as any police commissioner of a major city would. But the trip to Texas wasn’t a waste of time; it gave a sense of just how different is the context in which Mr. Fitzgerald is operating and underscores the need for council members and others to press him for specifics about how he would address the problems Baltimore faces.

The transcripts Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office released from the interviews he and other council members conducted suggest we shouldn’t put too much stock in what any one person in Fort Worth says about Mr. Fitzgerald, good or bad. Indeed, some of the things people said during the interviews were blatantly untrue. For example, one of Mr. Fitzgerald’s boosters said that Fort Worth had 300 homicides a year before Mr. Fitzgerald got there and now has 70; The 70 homicides is right, but the 300 isn’t even close: Homicides actually rose slightly to 70 after Mr. Fitzgerald arrived. His detractors said he implemented no new initiatives to foster community oriented policing, which is only remotely true if you ignore the fact that the previous police chief there had abandoned a neighborhood beat structure for patrols and Mr. Fitzgerald restored it.

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In general, the people Baltimore’s council members talked to had their own reasons for supporting or opposing Mr. Fitzgerald that don’t have much to do with Baltimore. The political leaders of Fort Worth maintain a degree of deference to law enforcement that simply doesn’t exist here, and complaints about the way Mr. Fitzgerald’s officers dealt with armed people walking around Fort Worth say a lot more about Texas than they do about Mr. Fitzgerald.

Nonetheless, the interviews do point to some things council members and others in Baltimore need to ask Mr. Fitzgerald about when he’s here for a round of community meetings this weekend and for confirmation hearings after that.

  • Several people in Fort Worth talked about a neighborhood policing initiative Mr. Fitzgerald championed, in which officers walked beats and developed relationships with residents and business owners. That sounds promising in a city like Baltimore where police-community relations are fraught. Would Mr. Fitzgerald seek to implement something like it here? And how would he accomplish it in the context of the BPD’s existing structure and short-staffing in the patrol division? Would he eliminate some other initiative to make it possible?
  • One Fitzgerald backer spoke glowingly of the Fort Worth department's use of plainclothes officers to conduct drug buys, leading to immediate arrests. Does Mr. Fitzgerald think that would work in Baltimore, in light of the BPD’s legacy of abuses and corruption in plainclothes units?
  • Some of those the council contingent interviewed discussed Mr. Fitzgerald’s emphasis on beefing up training in general, and specifically requiring courses in de-escalation tactics to avoid the use of force and in overcoming implicit biases. That’s certainly welcome news. Are there other ways in which Mr. Fitzgerald would seek to improve training for BPD officers? How do his ideas fit with the requirements of Baltimore’s federal consent decree? Is there any tension between the drive for more training of new officers and the need to increase the pace at which the BPD brings new police on the force?
  • City administrators in Fort Worth made some criticism of Mr. Fitzgerald’s ability to manage the department’s budget, at least initially, but they did credit him with some reductions in overtime spending. What policies and practices would he put in place to curtail the massive overruns in the BPD’s budget in recent years?
  • Community members in Fort Worth gave diametrically opposite accounts of Mr. Fitzgerald’s views on body cameras and officer discipline. What does he believe should be Baltimore’s policy for when body cameras are turned on and off and when footage should be released to the public? How would he reconstitute Baltimore’s internal affairs division and otherwise increase public trust in officer accountability?

So far, we have not heard much from Mr. Fitzgerald about what he thinks needs to be done in Baltimore, but that needs to change. We’ll grant that he has only spent a limited amount of time here and won’t be able to understand much of what he’ll need to know until and unless he’s actually running the department. But surely he must have some thoughts by now about what Baltimore needs from its next commissioner. It should be clear to him that we as a city have gone to significant lengths to find out as much as we can about him. He needs to show that he’s done the same about Baltimore.

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