Fitzger­ald says he’ll make long-term com­mit­ment to city

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It’s re­mained un­clear Sat­ur­day pre­cisely when Fitzger­ald would start in Bal­ti­more. His nom­i­na­tion will have to be up­held by the City Coun­cil. But in seek­ing to be­come chief in the fourth city in the past five years, Fitzger­ald said he’s com­mit­ted to Bal­ti­more for the long term.

“All I want is sta­bil­ity and be­ing able to see this through,” he said. “I am will­ing to stay and be there for a long pe­riod of time.”

Fitzger­ald, 47, gave his first in­ter­view by phone Sat­ur­day since be­ing named as com­mis­sioner Fri­day. He was in Fort Worth giv­ing out Thanks­giv­ing tur­keys with re­tired NBA play­ers. In the span of half an hour, he re­peat­edly stressed the im­por­tance of re­pair­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the po­lice and the com­mu­nity and said he’s the man for the task.

It’s a theme Fitzger­ald has em­pha­sized through­out his ca­reer, lead­ing a string of ever-larger po­lice de­part­ments over the last decade. In that time he has won ad­mir­ers who gushed about his suc­cesses in in­ter­views Sat­ur­day and de­trac­tors who were equally as harsh in their crit­i­cism of his fail­ings.

Jerry Wy­att is a city coun­cil­man with a three-decade po­lit­i­cal ca­reer in Mis­souri City, the Hous­ton sub­urb where Fitzger­ald first be­came a po­lice chief in 2009. Wy­att said Fitzger­ald quickly got to grips with the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of lead­er­ship, in­creas­ing of­fi­cers’ vis­i­bil­ity in the com­mu­nity and driv­ing down crime to the point that Mis­souri City gained a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the safest places in the coun­try.

“Y’all go­ing to get a good po­lice chief,” Wy­att said. “I love me some Joel. That’s how much I think about him.”

Michael Bell, a pas­tor who was on the com­mit­tee that in­ter­viewed Fitzger­ald for the Fort Worth job, said he started out as a promis­ing leader in Fort Worth. But, Bell said, Fitzger­ald bun­gled han­dling of a high-pro­file ar­rest in­volv­ing a white of­fi­cer and a black woman and un­der­mined ef­forts to re­pair ties be­tween mi­nor­ity res­i­dents and the po­lice.

“Joel Fitzger­ald was a dis­as­ter for our com­mu­nity,” he said.

Fitzger­ald was raised by his grand­par­ents in West Philadel­phia, an area that he said isn’t too dis­sim­i­lar from some of Bal­ti­more’s neigh­bor­hoods. He joined the city’s po­lice depart­ment in 1992 and earned an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from Vil­lanova Univer­sity in 1996. Much of his early ca­reer was spent in drug en­force­ment, ex­pe­ri­ence Fitzger­ald said should help him re­late to reg­u­lar of­fi­cers in Bal­ti­more.

The work brought a brush with con­tro­versy. In 2007, when Fitzger­ald was a lieu­tenant, he was in­volved in a raid on a house that turned up drugs and led to the ar­rest of a man and his par­ents, as well as an ef­fort to seize their home. The charges against the par­ents were dropped, and the man’s mother sued Fitzger­ald and other of­fi­cers on his team, al­leg­ing false ar­rest and ma­li­cious pros­e­cu­tion. A Philadel­phia judge ruled in fa­vor of the of­fi­cers, and an ap­peals court up­held the de­ci­sion.

Fitzger­ald de­clined to dis­cuss the specifics of the case but said that all po­lice of­fi­cers face episodes in their ca­reers that are called into dis­pute.

“I don’t see that as be­ing any mark on the char­ac­ter of the po­lice of­fi­cer,” he said.

The woman who brought the case de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

Fitzger­ald be­gan seek­ing po­lice chief jobs as early as 2005, ac­cord­ing to news ac­counts, when he was re­ported to be in the run­ning for a post in Bay City, Michi­gan. He failed to se­cure two other chief jobs be­fore land­ing the Mis­souri City post in 2009.

Wy­att said that he ex­pected that Mis­souri City would be a step­ping stone for Fitzger­ald. When Fitzger­ald left for Al­len­town in 2013, Wy­att said he was glad to know that Fitzger­ald had put peo­ple in place who could build on his suc­cesses. “We all hated to see him leave, but we also un­der­stand when a per­son is try­ing to build their ca­reer,” Wy­att said.

Fitzger­ald ar­rived in Fort Worth in 2015 and has had a tur­bu­lent ten­ure there, com­ing un­der pres­sure from ac­tivists on the one side and rank-and­file of­fi­cers on the other.

When a white of­fi­cer named Wil­liam Martin ar­rested a black woman called Jac­que­line Craig and her two daugh­ters in a drama cap­tured on the of­fi­cer’s body cam­era, the chief was caught in the mid­dle. Fitzger­ald dis­ci­plined the of­fi­cer but too lightly for the ac­tivists, while also pun­ish­ing a pair of se­nior com­man­ders af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the leak­ing of the cam­era footage.

Fitzger­ald ac­knowl­edged that there were some di­vi­sions in the city, but said on the whole his re­la­tion­ships with res­i­dents and his own of­fi­cers — who are rep­re­sented by an as­so­ci­a­tion but not a union — were both strong.

“We’re never ever go­ing to make ev­ery­one happy,” he said.

Bell, a se­nior pas­tor at Greater St. Stephen First Church-Bap­tist, said at first he was ex­cited to have an African-Amer­i­can man lead­ing the po­lice depart­ment at a time Joel Fitzger­ald, po­lice com­mis­sioner se­lec­tion of racial strife in a city where black and His­panic res­i­dents form the ma­jor­ity.

“He in­ter­viewed well,” Bell re­called. “Joel was able to smile at the right time. He seems to be able to an­swer the ques­tions that were asked.”

And Bell said Fitzger­ald em­braced a so-called 3E plan — “eq­uity, equal­ity, every­body” — that Bell and other re­li­gious lead­ers de­vel­oped to fos­ter bet­ter re­la­tions be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­nity.

But Bell faulted Fitzger­ald’s han­dling of the of­fi­cer.

“He ap­peared at a press con­fer­ence and he char­ac­ter­ized Wil­liam Martin’s be­hav­ior as rude, not racist,” Bell said. “That was prob­lem­atic. That was a red flag.”

Bell’s im­pres­sion of Fitzger­ald de­te­ri­o­rated from there. Af­ter learn­ing that Fitzger­ald would be de­part­ing, he said, “We’re glad to see him go. Bye.”

Bal­ti­more will be the big­gest depart­ment that Fitzger­ald has run, and the city has far more se­ri­ous crime prob­lems than the oth­ers in which he’s worked. But he said the vi­o­lence can be turned around with the right ap­proach. Fort Worth had 70 homi­cides last year com­pared to Bal­ti­more’s 342, and Fitzger­ald said, “It’s not be­cause every­body’s an­gels.”

City lead­ers and the fed­eral judge over­see­ing civil rights re­forms in Bal­ti­more say that po­lice who are fair and re­spect­ful will be bet­ter at solv­ing crimes — a view Fitzger­ald echoed. Build­ing com­mu­nity re­la­tion­ships will lead to tips from res­i­dents, Fitzger­ald said, and he wants of­fi­cers out meet­ing peo­ple in per­son to gain their con­fi­dence.

“A great deal of good­will needs to be re-es­tab­lished,” he said. “I’m go­ing to ded­i­cate my­self to that.”

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