BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s mayor announced Friday she has chosen a Texas police chief as her nominee to lead the city’s troubled force, seeking to rein in a soaring pace of violent crime and boost public trust in a tattered department where instability has become the norm.
In an op-ed published late Friday afternoon on The Baltimore Sun’s website, Mayor Catherine Pugh said she believed Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald is “best suited to lead the way forward.” She wrote that he has led a large police department and is “well versed on training and community engagement.”
“Joel Fitzgerald is the person, in my view, to now lead Baltimore’s police department into a new era of credibility, accountability and trust,” she wrote. “I hope that you will give him the full and fair hearing he deserves as he works to earn your confidence as he has earned mine.”
The mayor’s spokesman confirmed that she expects Fitzgerald will start working as acting commissioner after Thanksgiving, taking over the responsibilities of interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, whose predecessor was federally charged in May with willfully failing to file tax returns for three years.
Fitzgerald, 47, will need to be confirmed by the Baltimore City Council to become permanent commissioner.
Recent years have been deeply tumultuous for Baltimore’s police department, the eighth largest municipal police department in the United States. Fitzgerald would be the city’s fourth police leader this year alone.
Baltimore is struggling to implement a federal consent decree mandating sweeping reforms after U.S. investigators detailed longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing and excessive force. As commissioner, Fitzgerald would be a key player in making sure reforms encompassing some of the most fundamental aspects of police work — use of force, searches and arrests — finally take root in Baltimore.
Confidence in Baltimore’s sworn protectors has badly deteriorated over many years. However, it might have hit rock bottom earlier this year after admissions by corrupt detectives on an out-of-control unit revealed that members resold seized narcotics, conducted brazen robberies and falsified evidence.
There’s been a worrying march of killings since 2015, when a 25-year-old man’s death in police custody triggered massive protests and riots. In 2017, the 342 homicides notched last year in Baltimore yielded a punishing homicide rate of 56 per 100,000 people, well above that of any other big American city.
In recent days, some local Fort Worth community leaders have cast doubt on Fitzgerald as a true police reformer as speculation built that he would soon be departing for Baltimore.
“He was ineffective in bridging the gap between the police and the community,” said Michael Bell, pastor at Greater St. Stephen First Church in Fort Worth.
Bell criticized Fitzgerald’s handling of the fallout from a police encounter in 2016, in which a video showed a Fort Worth officer wrestle a woman to the ground before arresting her and her daughter. The video sparked outrage and garnered national attention. The incident came after Craig complained that a man had physically confronted her 7-year-old son for allegedly littering.
There were calls for the officer to be fired, but Fitzgerald instead decided to suspend the officer for 10 days. Fort Worth and Arlington pastors asserted the arrests were racist. The African-American police chief, instead, said the officer was rude and stated: “There’s a difference between rude and racism.”
Manny Ramirez, president of Fort Worth’s police union, praised Fitzgerald’s tenure and said the chief clearly advanced the department’s relationship with the community. Ramirez described the aftermath of the woman’s arrest as a no-win scenario for Fitzgerald. “That’s kind of the burden that comes with being a chief,” he said.
James Burch, a leader of the Washington-based Police Foundation nonprofit, said he doesn’t see the overall challenges facing the next Baltimore commissioner as “entirely different from some other large urban agencies.”
“Commissioners in other large cities have also faced challenging environments that compound crime concerns with issues like crumbling infrastructure, understaffing, low morale, etc,” Burch said in an email.
For her part, Pugh believes Fitzgerald has shown himself to be a proven reformer who can motivate officers to “adapt to new approaches and new technologies.” She said he understands that use-of-force policies must be clearly understood by rank and file, among other things.
“In each of his leadership positions, commissioner-designate Fitzgerald has established a reputation as a reformer and ‘disrupter’ of the status quo,” she wrote.
Fitzgerald could not immediately be contacted for comment on Pugh’s announcement. Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said in a statement Friday that Fitzgerald has not yet submitted a formal resignation letter.