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Baltimore police commissioner nominee withdraws, renewing search for leadership on reform, fighting crime

Joel Fitzgerald has withdrawn from consideration for the Baltimore Police Commissioner's job. Fitzgerald is police chief in Fort Worth, Texas and has pulled out of the running to deal with serious medical issues with his teenage son.

Joel Fitzgerald, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s choice to become Baltimore’s next police commissioner, has withdrawn from consideration for the job, a decision that spells more uncertainty for a department that has now been without permanent leadership for more than seven months.

Officers continue to battle high levels of violent crime at the same time the Baltimore Police Department embarks on the second phase of implementing a civil rights decree, imposed on the city after years of discriminatory law enforcement. The federal judge overseeing the decree has stressed the need for stable leadership at the department, but Fitzgerald’s withdrawal likely means weeks of further uncertainty, at least.

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Fitzgerald withdrew after his 13-year-old son suffered a medical emergency late last week that prompted Pugh’s team to cancel a round of public meetings and Fitzgerald’s appearance Monday at a City Council hearing. Fitzgerald said Monday in a statement that the condition required his son to undergo two rounds of brain surgery.

Pugh said Monday that she and Fitzgerald, the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas, discussed the child’s condition at length Sunday.

“I told him he should focus on his son,” the mayor said in a brief interview.

Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle remains in charge of the Baltimore department. Beyond that, it remains unclear how Pugh would go about filling what is widely seen as the most important job in the city, although two earlier applicants said they remained interested in the post.

The mayor’s office initially said she would hold a news conference Monday afternoon to share details about the process for picking a permanent leader, only to cancel the event shortly before it was to begin.

Members of the public who testified Saturday at a City Council hearing on Fitzgerald’s nomination urged him to withdraw or for the council to reject him, saying the selection process was opaque and the mayor hadn’t allowed enough input from residents.

Going forward, council members and activists said Monday that Pugh needed to guarantee greater transparency. Councilman Zeke Cohen called for a fresh start.

“My strong recommendation is that we start over with a transparent, community-based process where the voices of people who sat through that hearing are heard, where council members have access to the full vetting file of the candidate and we can get the very best person in the world to come serve our great city,” said Cohen, who sits on the council committee that weighs mayoral appointments.

Fitzgerald had a long career in the Philadelphia Police Department and was later chief in Allentown, Pa., and Missouri City, Texas.

His statement Monday emphasized support he has received from Fort Worth residents, which he said increased once people learned he could leave for Baltimore.

“There is literally nowhere I go in this city of almost 900,000 residents where someone doesn’t approach me to say first, ‘Hey, Chief, your Eagles stink, and by the way, you’re still needed and loved here in Fort Worth,’” Fitzgerald said.

“I will now focus on my child’s next bout of brain surgery, and being home with family, my Fort Worth Police Department family … and this awesome community.”

Fitzgerald had faced close scrutiny in Baltimore and a bumpy public rollout. While council members expressed sympathy for his son’s health, several said that after Saturday’s hearing, Fitzgerald faced enough opposition that the council’s appointments committee would not have recommended his confirmation to the council as a whole.

“The votes [weren’t] there,” committee chairman Robert Stokes said. Stokes said as things stood, he would have voted against Fitzgerald.

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Fitzgerald was not in Baltimore when he was named, and during his first public visit to the city, he announced that — in a break with past nominees — he would continue in his Fort Worth job until the Baltimore City Council voted on whether to confirm him as commissioner. Fitzgerald initially declined to release a copy of his resume, and four council members announced they wouldn’t support him unless Pugh shared the results of a background check. The mayor’s office ultimately showed council members a redacted version of the material.

Pugh also later released Fitzgerald’s resume, as part of submitting his nomination to the council. The Baltimore Sun and The Morning Call of Allentown found he overstated his accomplishments in Fort Worth and Allentown on the document, including misrepresenting his role in the introduction of body cameras in those cities.

Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Pugh’s team bungled the appointment.

“When you tally up how the administration has had more fumbles in this process than the Ravens had in the first half yesterday, in addition to the unfortunate circumstances around Dr. Fitzgerald’s son — who I hope who has a full recovery — I think this was inevitable,” Scott said Monday.

The Fort Worth city manager called the process Fitzgerald had been subjected to in Baltimore “awkward.” That city’s mayor called it “unconventional.”

Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that aided Pugh in her search last year, said many cities have to balance finding qualified candidates who might not want to risk leaving their current jobs, while also providing transparency and community input during the search process.

In Fitzgerald’s case, Wexler said, “You had a backlash, where the public feel they hadn’t been informed.”

“These processes have become increasingly complicated,” he said. “The public has a greater sense of wanting to be involved.”

The Baltimore Police Department has been without a permanent leader since May, when Commissioner Darryl De Sousa resigned after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Pugh named Fitzgerald as her choice Nov. 16, following months of searching.

On Monday, two days before the beginning of a General Assembly session at which lawmakers and the governor are expected to consider extra funding for the city Police Department, Gov. Larry Hogan said Fitzgerald’s nomination was mishandled.

“The state’s trying to provide as much assistance as we possibly can,” he told WMAR-TV. “They’ve got to figure out a way to get their act together, and it starts with leadership at City Hall and leadership at the Police Department.”

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Pugh had assembled a list of five other possible candidates who were interviewed last fall by a panel of experts in Florida, according to sources familiar with the interviews. Kevin Ward, one of the five and a former chief of staff to Bill Bratton when they were at the New York Police Department, said Monday that he remains interested in the job. Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper of the Baltimore Sheriff’s Office said she was also still interested.

Tuggle initially applied for the permanent job, but withdrew his name ahead of the panel’s interviews. The Police Department did not respond to questions Monday about him.

Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore community activist and part of an independent team monitoring the civil rights decree, said that list could be a starting point for finding a new nominee. Kelly said that he favors New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who was recommended by the expert panel, although Harrison did not apply for the job.

“Call in the next two candidates that were part of the initial interview process,” Kelly said. “Hold a public hearing to let them address residents and the community, as well as the City Council representatives, to present what strategies they plan to use, answer the questions that came about at the Saturday hearing, and make sure the process is transparent and accessible, and the final choice is community-informed.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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