The fact that people lined up in a 48-3 ratio Saturday to question if not outright oppose Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s nomination to be our next police commissioner shouldn’t lead him or Mayor Catherine Pugh to conclude that his is an inherently lost cause. The ingredients are all there for people to be concerned enough to show up at a City Council hearing to cast doubt on him — distrust in the Baltimore Police Department, frustration at high crime, some questions about his record. But is theirs an informed opinion about Mr. Fitzgerald’s merits? No. How could it be? They have no first-hand knowledge of the man.
And that’s the problem Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms. Pugh now confront if they want to see him confirmed as Baltimore’s next police commissioner, much less succeed in the job. Mr. Fitzgerald may have won Mayor Pugh over during her search, but he has not won over the City Council or Baltimore residents. He had no base of supporters in the council hearing because he has not been here to develop them. Indeed, one of the three people who testified in favor of him wasn’t a Baltimorean but a former colleague of Mr. Fitzgerald’s from the Philadelphia police department who drove down from Delaware to sing his praises. The man, Anthony Floyd Jr., knows Mr. Fitzgerald well and thinks highly of him. Maybe if we knew him, we would too.
Everyone who has been named a permanent Baltimore police commissioner in the last two decades has spent time working in the job in an acting capacity for at least a brief time, and in some cases for months, before their confirmation votes. Police officers, political leaders and the general public had a good idea by that time what they were like and how they would lead the department. We understand to a degree the reasons Mr. Fitzgerald has not done that. Given the stakes and the City Council’s determination to vet any nominee closely after the Darryl De Sousa debacle, he doesn’t want to quit his current job before he knows he’ll have this one for sure. And, as Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke observed early in the process, this arrangement relieves some pressure for the council to confirm him just for the sake of it.
But Saturday’s hearing should be a wake-up call to Mr. Fitzgerald and Mayor Pugh that they need to do far more to build support for his nomination. He was supposed to be here this weekend for a series of meetings and a pair of open houses, but he had to cancel because of a family medical emergency involving his 13-year-old son. We certainly understand that and wish his son a speedy recovery. However, it should now be clear that even this weekend’s planned events would not have been nearly enough to build the support needed to secure his nomination. At a time when we needed more open dialogue with a potential commissioner than ever, we have gotten less.
We maintain an open mind about Mr. Fitzgerald. As much as we have complained about the process, we are most concerned with making sure we get the right leader for the BPD, and if he’s it, we want him. We’re just not sure if he is. Some of what we have been able to find out about him is promising — a commitment to training around implicit biases and de-escalation and an emphasis on building connections between the police and community on an officer-by-officer level. Some of what we know raises questions — among other things, we’d like to hear from him about his handling of some controversial incidents in Fort Worth and Allentown, Pa., and we need reassurance that he intends to devote as many years to this job as it requires.
The trouble is, neither we, nor our colleagues, nor the general public has had any real opportunity to pose those and other questions to him. The lesson of Saturday’s hearing is that Baltimore’s default, particularly in this moment, is skepticism about a new leader for the police department. If Mr. Fitzgerald wants the job, he needs to fight to overcome that.
We’re not asking for a different standard than past mayors and police commissioners have been held to. As we noted on these pages last year, extensive public vetting has been the norm for Baltimore police commissioners, and deviations from that have led only to regret.
Mr. Fitzgerald was nominated to the job in November, and he has largely squandered the time since. Now the clock is working against him; the original plan for the full council to vote on him at its Jan. 14 meeting is now an impossibility, given his inability to attend the weekend’s planned events. It’s not even realistic at this point for Mr. Fitzgerald to conduct the kind of outreach he would need by the Jan. 28 deadline for council action. Since he would be automatically confirmed if the council does not vote by then, we expect members would find they have no choice but to reject him. To avoid that spectacle, Mayor Pugh needs to reset the clock by withdrawing his nomination and resubmitting it, if she so desires and his family situation permits it. Mr. Fitzgerald’s confirmation is still possible, but he needs to come and win it.
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