The Baltimore City Council plans to spend the next two months getting to know Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s choice for police commissioner before voting on his nomination in late January.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young asked the mayor to allow a delayed vote to give members a chance to thoroughly vet her selection, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald. Pugh has agreed, though she said she might have Fitzgerald begin his job in an acting capacity before the confirmation vote.
Council members are eager to demonstrate stringent scrutiny of Fitzgerald at a critical time for the city and the Police Department. He would be the fifth leader in four years of an agency in the midst of near-record levels of violence, federal civil rights reforms and a massive corruption scandal.
Pugh said in an interview Monday that she was still determining when Fitzgerald will start and said she wouldn’t rule out waiting until the council holds its final vote. For now, Pugh said, she is working to understand the details of the council’s plans.
“This is very different from what any other mayor has had to go through with a commissioner,” said the mayor, who was once a city councilwoman. Pugh, Young and the 14 other council members are all Democrats.
A delegation of council members is consulting with civil rights groups in Maryland and intends to travel to Texas next month to conduct interviews with Fort Worth community members. The council will then hold two hearings in January and a final vote by Jan. 28, Young’s office said.
The council asked Pugh to hold off on formally nominating Fitzgerald until Dec. 6, its last meeting of 2018, allowing the group to vote in late January and still meet city charter requirements.
“We would have had a time schedule that wouldn’t have allowed for the council's robust process to unfold,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.
Young is scheduled to lead the city delegation on Dec. 9 to Fort Worth, where Fitzgerald has been chief since 2015. The group plans to meet politicians, business people and community leaders in the Texas city to learn about his work there.
Pugh named Fitzgerald, a 47-year-old Philadelphia native, on Friday as her choice of police commissioner.
City solicitor Andre Davis said Monday that Fitzgerald had accepted an offer letter from the city but that officials were still negotiating a contract.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said hiring Fitzgerald as an acting commissioner would pressure the council to approve his nomination, and said she’d hope Pugh would wait until after the final vote.
“It’s important for us to have a true vote, a true vote around ‘yes or no,’” Clarke said. “That’s very difficult if the candidate’s sitting behind the desk.”
But some have been clamoring for the mayor to move faster to restore permanent leadership to a department that will have gone without a permanent commissioner for eight months if the council approves Fitzgerald at the end of January.
Pugh’s last commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May after just four months on the job when federal prosecutors filed tax charges against him.
“Lack of leadership definitely makes a huge impact,” said Gene Ryan, past president of the police union. Officers on the streets “are looking for leadership,” Ryan said.
The federal judge overseeing civil rights reforms at the Police Department has stated the importance of stable leadership, and officials had promised in court to name a new commissioner by Halloween. When that date passed, some council members questioned how much longer the department could continue under interim commissioner Gary Tuggle, whom some have called a “lame duck.”
Pugh said Tuggle is willing to continue leading the department during Fitzgerald’s confirmation process and that she is comfortable with him in the position. In the meantime, the Police Department is continuing to focus on reducing crime, the mayor said. Baltimore is on pace this year to surpass 300 homicides for the fourth year in a row.
“There’s a team of folks that are working really hard,” Pugh said.
Young said the council is undertaking an unprecedented review of Fitzgerald’s tenure in Texas after facing criticism for not digging deeply enough into De Sousa’s background.
“I came up with it because of criticism we have received in the past,” Young said. “I want to be sure that we as a council do our due diligence as well so that we can have a great understanding of Mr. Fitzgerald’s background.”
The council has been working with the ACLU of Maryland, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the church group BUILD to identify people to interview when they travel to Texas.
Then, in the week of Jan. 7, the council plans to hold two full days of hearings. One will be an opportunity for members of the public to testify about Fitzgerald and the second will allow council members to question him.
A final vote would then have to be held by Jan. 28, the council president’s office said.
Fitzgerald’s supporters praised his time in Fort Worth, but critics shared their negative perceptions of him when word of his nomination spread over the weekend. They questioned his handling of a high profile controversy over the arrest of a black woman who had called police for help.
Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, told The Baltimore Sun Monday that his members’ dissatisfaction with Fitzgerald flared at the time of that incident, but said the chief is generally well liked by officers.
Ramirez said Fitzgerald was effective at building relationships in the community, efforts he credited with making officers’ work easier, and was never perceived as being soft on criminals.
“I personally think he’ll be a tremendous fit,” for Baltimore, Ramirez said.
Young said he wanted to have the chance to talk to people directly rather than rely on reports.
“People say a lot of negative things about me that’s not true,” Young said. “So I’m not going to go by what I hear.”