Mayor Catherine Pugh's choice for police commissioner said Monday that he plans to stay in his current job until the City Council holds a final vote on his nomination, meaning he wouldn’t get to work in Baltimore until late January.
“I am still the police chief in the city of Fort Worth, Texas,” Joel Fitzgerald said. “I intend to continue serving in Fort Worth.”
In remarks to reporters at City Hall during his first visit to Baltimore since being named Nov. 16 to the post, Fitzgerald said he is hopeful that after a day of meetings with council members Monday and more on Tuesday he “can engender the type of support necessary to get this nomination approved.”
The delay in Fitzgerald getting to work is a break from the way previous police commissioner nominations have been handled. The mayor has the power to appoint someone as acting commissioner ahead of the final vote, a step past mayors have taken.
But with the council planning its own review of Fitzgerald — sending a delegation in December to Fort Worth and holding hearings in the new year — Pugh has said the process is playing out differently this time.
For now, interim commissioner Gary Tuggle remains in charge at the Baltimore Police Department. He stepped into the role in May when Darryl De Sousa resigned after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Tuggle applied to become the commissioner permanently, then withdrew from consideration.
Fitzgerald, 47, has faced questions about the arc of his career — during which he has held chief jobs in three other cities since 2009 — because he would start in Baltimore after a period in which the police department has experienced regular turnover at the top.
Fitzgerald said the lengths of his previous tenures were not unusual for a police chief and reiterated he is committed to Baltimore for the long term. He declined to say precisely how long he is willing to stay, adding that a decision about the length of his tenure is a question for the mayor.
“I’m very proud to say I would leave whatever department out there that I’ve left in better condition than when I first started,” he said. “I would also tell you committing to the job and committing to this responsibility is something I very much look forward to. I would not have applied for this position had I not believed in my heart that this was something I was set out for and uniquely qualified to do.”
Spending about 20 minutes with reporters in the mayor’s ceremonial conference room, with Pugh looking on, Fitzgerald said he was still familiarizing himself with the police department and declined to share specific plans.
“I have to be given an opportunity to really delve into what's going on inside the organization,” he said.
But, in answering questions, Fitzgerald talked about the importance of building relationships with members of the community.
“The community deserves a lot more from the city of Baltimore and its police department,” Fitzgerald said. “I intend to work with the community hand in hand to develop the kinds of rapport and relationships necessary to move the city forward.”
If the City Council confirms him, Fitzgerald will face daunting challenges. He’ll take over a department shaken by a major corruption scandal that led to the conviction of eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force, undergoing major civil rights reforms under the watch of a federal judge and battling near-record levels of violence. Fort Worth is a far less bloody city, recording 70 homicides last year compared with Baltimore’s 342 killings.
Fitzgerald said other big cities have driven down their murder rates and that there’s no reason Baltimore can’t follow suit if it has the right leaders at the police department and the right partnerships with the community.
“Having 70 homicides last year is unacceptable. Having 342 homicides is highly unacceptable,” he said. “We need to change the way we do business.”
Veteran City Council member Mary Pat Clarke said last week that she hoped the mayor would hold off installing Fitzgerald until after the council vote, saying having him in place would put pressure on council members to approve him.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and three other senior council members plan to travel Dec. 9 to Fort Worth to meet community leaders and politicians familiar with Fitzgerald. In three years as chief, he has attracted vocal critics as well as ardent supporters in that city.