The Fort Worth Police Officers Association president on Wednesday said morale under Chief Joel Fitzgerald is at an all-time low.
Sgt. Rick Van Houten, speaking at a news conference at the association’s office, also said an officer’s recent firing for shooting a man who had held a barbecue fork was politically motivated by the fallout from an unrelated, viral arrest incident in December that drew widespread criticism of the department.
Both incidents involved white officers and black citizens.
“This particular chief has been here almost two years — at this point, the learning curve is over,” Van Houten said. “Almost two years into it, the morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it.”
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Van Houten stopped short of calling for a vote of no-confidence against Chief Joel Fitzgerald. He said no-confidence votes are an “outdated concept” and would only lead to more division.
A statement from the Police Department said it “respects the right of the Association to hold press conferences” but declined to comment further.
The city issued a statement, saying “we respectfully disagree” with the association’s comments.
Most of the news conference centered on Fitzgerald’s decision to fire officer Courtney Johnson last month.
Johnson had been charged in the non-fatal shooting of Craigory Adams, who was holding a barbecue fork. Johnson has said he thought Adams was holding a knife. Johnson’s charge of aggravated assault by a public servant was dropped after a mistrial in May.
Several weeks later, Fitzgerald fired Johnson, calling the officer’s actions “careless.”
Johnson, who is appealing his firing, spoke at the news conference Wednesday, saying the shooting was an accident. Johnson, who is white, also denied that he made a racial slur toward Adams, who is black, as Adams alleged at trial.
“I am not, nor have I ever been a racist,” Johnson read from a prepared statement.
Still, Van Houten said he believes Johnson’s firing was “significantly influenced” by the fallout from the viral arrest of Jacqueline Craig, who is black. The arresting officer William Martin, who is white, was suspended for 10 days in the incident, but many of Craig’s supporters have called for Martin’s firing.
On the day same day Johnson was fired, Mayor Betsy Price and the City Council named a four-person task force on race and culture aimed at addressing fallout from Craig’s arrest.
“Do you think there’s a coincidence there?” Van Houten said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Van Houten and Johnson’s appeal attorney, Terry Daffron, also emphasized that the department should provide more shotgun training for officers. Johnson was using a shotgun when the Craig incident happened.
Daffron said officers receive only three to five hours of training with a shotgun at the police academy.
“Your skills start to deteriorate if you are not handling a weapon on a weekly basis,” Daffron said.
The city’s statement Wednesday said the shooting of Adams “was incredibly unfortunate, but it was not a result of training inadequacies.”
Last month, the officers association’s board sent a letter to its members that detailed a litany of grievances against Fitzgerald, including Johnson’s firing.
“It is unnerving to know you could be the next officer thrown under the bus for political expedience,” the letter stated.
Fitzgerald has declined to comment on the letter.