Mayor Catherine Pugh announced the appointment of Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald as Baltimore’s new top cop Friday after a lengthy, secretive search. Fitzgerald arrives with some baggage from his last job.
Word of Fitzgerald’s appointment began leaking Friday afternoon after Pugh penned an op-ed piece to appear in Saturday’s print editions of The Sun. In it, she wrote that Fitzgerald “is best suited to lead the way forward.”
Later Friday evening Pugh’s office issued a press release in which she said Fitzgerald “has been a reformer who understands the need for approaches and tactics to evolve, while refining strategies that are consistent with the tenet of 21st century policing.”
But Brandon Scott, chair of the city council public safety committee, still had questions.
“First thing to ask is, why is he the best man for Baltimore?” asked Scott.
Scott says Fitzgerald has to do more than implement reforms required by the federal consent decree.
“This is a critical moment for the police department and out city,” said Scott. “And what we need is some who can come in and deal with the crime in the city, the violent crime in the city, and get a handle on that.”
Baltimore Police Union President Mike Mancuso expressed his frustration in a tweet, saying he learned about the appointment through media outlets, and that the union “was not asked to be a part of the search for this important position and as a result, know only as much about Chief Fitzgerald as can be found via web search.”
Fitzgerald grew up in Philadelphia, got a Bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Business Administration from Eastern University.
He began his law enforcement career with the Philadelphia police department. He became chief of police in Missouri City, Texas, in 2009, moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2013 and took the Fort Worth job in 2015. He was seen as a reformer in those departments.
In Allentown, the local paper, the Morning Call, reported that Fitzgerald whittled the department’s overtime costs from $2 million in 2014 to $1 million in 2015.
But he came under sharp criticism from the Fort Worth Police Officers' Association as well as community residents for his responses to multiple incidents.
“There has been no one in this community that has said, ‘wow, we’re going to miss him,’” said Pastor Michael Bell from The Greater St. Stephens First Church in Fort Worth. Bell was on the search committee that appointed Fitzgerald chief in 2015.
“Joel Fitzgerald was a great interview,” said Bell. “He seems to check all of the boxes. He appeared to be the kind of guy who had all of the answers.”
Bell was also one of the first in Fort Worth to call for Fitzgerald’s resignation.
“One misstep after another.”
In one, he fired an officer involved in a shooting, even though charges against the officer had been dropped.
In another, a white officer tackled and arrested a black woman who called police because a white neighbor had allegedly assaulted and choked her seven-year-old son, but did nothing to the man who allegedly attacked the child.
Fitzgerald suspended the officer, who is still on the force, for 10 days without pay. Fitzgerald also demoted two senior officers accused of leaking body camera footage of the incident.
“During that time we learned that Joel Fitzgerald was not good at crisis management,” said Bell.
He urged Baltimore city leaders and community residents to question Fitzgerald, who must be confirmed by the City Council, closely.
“Ask his about what happened to his relationship to the community,” said Bell. “How did that unravel?”
A spokesman for the Fort Worth department said via email Friday that City Manager David Cooke has been notified that Fitzgerald is the final candidate for the Baltimore job, but that he has not submitted a formal letter of resignation.
Fitzgerald failed to return several calls for comment.
Scott says he plans to go to Fort Worth with Council President Young and other city council members to vet Fitzgerald and speak with community residents and leaders in early December.
“It’s the time for the council to have a big decision to make,” said Scott. “Because even though the mayor thinks this is the best person. We have to be sure.”
Lester Davis, spokesperson for Young, says the confirmation process, expected to begin in January, will be more robust than previous appointments with multiple committee hearings to allow more time for public comment.
If confirmed by the city council, Fitzgerald would be Baltimore’s fourth police commissioner since 2015.