By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
The process of confirming a new police chief in Baltimore used to be routine; a perfunctory hearing followed by a vote that inevitably put the legislative stamp of approval on the current mayor’s pick, but not anymore.
Several record-breaking years of violent crime, a department struggling under a federal consent decree and a revolving door in the commissioner’s office appears to have irrevocably changed the rules of engagement.
The Baltimore City Council’s new stance may be embodied in a recently released report by Council President Bernard “Jack” Young. The report documented in painstaking detail interactions between a council delegation and residents of Ft. Worth, Tex., technically still the employer of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick, Joel Fitzgerald.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh introduces Ft. Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald to Baltimore. Fitzgerald is Pugh’s pick to be Baltimore’s next police commissioner and the City Council will hold hearings this week as part of his confirmation process. (Photo credit: Sean Yoes)
The 214-page document recounts conversations with Ft. Worth councilmembers, the police union, and activist groups that provided an unvarnished array of opinions on Fitzgerald’s qualifications. It is a process of vetting that Councilman Brandon Scott said was well worth the roughly $5,000 spent to send him and several colleagues to Texas.
“You can’t replace the ability to physically be in the room to not only hear people’s voices, but to see their eyes and emotions and body language when they are talking about something serious,” Scott told the AFRO.
Central to that report is the controversial arrest of Jacqueline Craig, an African-American woman who was put in handcuffs after she called police to report a neighbor who manhandled her seven-year old son.
The officer’s body camera shows him escalating the conflict when he appears to upbraid Craig for allowing her son to litter on a neighbor’s lawn. Eventually, Ft. Worth officer William Martin handcuffs Craig and her two teen daughters and charged them with resisting arrest.
A video of the incident went viral and charges against the Craig family were dismissed. However, Fitzgerald ignored calls from the community to fire Martin, instead suspending him for ten days.
It’s a move that left Scott with reservations about Fitzgerald.
“What I need to see is someone who is a proven crime fighter, who has the ability and the wherewithal to be on the same level of importance with reform and restructuring,” Scott said.
“And as of yet, I haven’t seen that.”
The mayor announced her pick of Fitzgerald in late November.
Fitzgerald served as police chief for the city of Ft. Worth, Texas, the 12th largest city in the country since 2015. There he managed a department of roughly 2000 officers with a budget of $300 million.
Baltimore, by comparison is the 30h largest city in country but has a police force with roughly 2500 officers and a budget of $500 million.
Meanwhile, Ft. Worth had 70 homicides in 2017, roughly one-fifth of Baltimore’s record 2017 total of 343.
The recent reluctance of city officials to fully release Fitzgerald’s background check to council members has prompted some to pushed back. Including Councilman Zeke Cohen who expressed frustration about the lack of complete disclosure.
“Baltimore is a tough town and anyone who wants to lead the police department needs to understand that our city is at a moment where people are demanding transparency and engagement,” Councilman Zeke Cohen said in a statement posted on his campaign website.
As for the report, the feedback from residents offered a variety of perspectives on Fitzgerald’s tenure in Ft. Worth.
“The chief wants to leave because he’s made a mess of things here. He’s angered the majority of the African American community because he has not dealt with African American issues,” Pastor B.R. Daniels, Jr told the delegation.
“The injustice on the part of police officers for African Americans, he has not handled it in a proper way.”
But, Fitzgerald’s current boss, Ft. Worth Mayor Betsy Price said he steered the department through a difficult transition to community based, more racially sensitive policing.
‘I think he’s done an excellent job. I hate to see him go. He stepped in at a time that was really difficult.”
The council will hold a hearing January 5 for public comment during which residents can speak directly to legislators. On January 7, Fitzgerald will face questioning from the council.