If Joel Fitzgerald is confirmed as Baltimore’s next police commissioner, he will face a monumental task: rebuilding public trust in an agency reaping the effects of years of unconstitutional practices and reeling from a massive corruption scandal. He knows this. In his first news conference in Baltimore since his nomination by Mayor Catherine Pugh, he said he would “work with the community hand in hand to develop the kinds of rapport and relationships necessary to move the city forward.”
In our experience, the best way to build that kind of rapport and relationships is through openness and transparency. That’s doubly true in the situation he’s stepping into. The last permanent police commissioner was forced to resign because he had failed to file tax returns for three years (something he evidently mentioned to no one, not even the mayor). The one before him justified days of civil liberty violations in a West Baltimore neighborhood where a homicide detective was killed by stating as fact things that were in doubt at the time and now appear outright false. Top commanders are riven by dissent, and the department’s spokesman resigned rather than be dragged down by the dysfunction. To the outside observer, the agency that’s supposed to be keeping us safe and protecting our rights looks instead like a snake pit of deceit and personal agendas.
So what does Mr. Fitzgerald do?
He declines to so much as release his resume.
Really? Just what about his employment and educational history does he not want us to see? Is there a reason why it was acceptable to enter it into the public record when he applied to be the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas, but not here? Has something changed about his resume, or has the process here played out in a way that makes him think secrecy about something so mundane is not just accepted but expected?
We know where Mr. Fitzgerald has worked (and in several cases, places he’s applied to work in recent years), and we know where he went to school, so we don’t imagine his resume would tell us much new. But his refusal to release it is symbolic of a process that has so far been opaque where it needs to be transparent.
We appreciate that the City Council intends to conduct its own evaluation of Mr. Fitzgerald, and that Mayor Pugh recognizes the value of that effort sufficiently to hold off on naming him acting commissioner until that process is complete. We’re not sure how the residents of Forth Worth feel about having a chief with one foot so far out the door, but Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is right that the situation helps prevent Baltimore City Council members from feeling undue pressure to vote for confirmation.
The real question, though, is whether council members will get the information they need to make an informed decision. Their fact-finding trip to Texas will be helpful, along with the public hearings they plan to hold in January. But the Pugh administration’s refusal to allow council members to see the background investigation it conducted on Mr. Fitzgerald is deeply problematic.
It’s not a matter of whether we trust the mayor to evaluate the contents of that file appropriately, though given a string of high-profile vetting failures in the administration earlier this year, questions about that would be fair. The issue is whether this process sets a new tone of openness at the police department that is an essential ingredient to rebuilding the community’s trust. Refusing to allow council members — who must go on record giving their advice and consent to the nominee — to see all available information is a step in the wrong direction.
City Solicitor Andre Davis says the material is protected from disclosure to the public or even the City Council because it is a personnel record. State law gives an elected or appointed official who supervises the person of interest the right to view otherwise shielded personnel files, but given that the Baltimore Police Department is technically an agency of state government, City Council members arguably don’t count. (Members of the city’s General Assembly delegation might be a different story). But the law also allows the person of interest access to his or her own personnel records, and that means Mr. Fitzgerald could share his with whomever he wishes.
Mr. Davis is worried about the theoretical possibility that a court could rule that giving the dossier to the council would make it a disclosable public record, but he is ignoring the certain harm that will come from refusing to do so. Mr. Fitzgerald could solve that problem — and do himself an enormous favor in terms of his ability to get confirmed and succeed in the job — by letting council members see the document.