Fort Worth manager says police chief exercised bad judgment, so city fired him

Former Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald made a series of bad calls that could no longer be overlooked and was fired for the good of the city and the police department, according to City Manager David Cooke.

But “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Cooke told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday, concerned the incident that occurred in Washington, D.C., between Fitzgerald and Austin Sgt. Todd Harrison, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

The confrontation took place May 12 after an awards banquet and dinner as part of National Police Week. Fitzgerald has said he approached Harrison to discuss a news release from the state law enforcement union earlier this month.

Cooke said the event was “the wrong place, wrong time to do that.”

Fitzgerald’s membership had been suspended because he failed to follow protocol by not joining the Fort Worth Police Officers Association before joining the state organization, according to state union officials. Fitzgerald has denied acting inappropriately during the event.

“When you are police chief of Fort Worth, you are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Cooke said.

Stephen Kennedy, Fitzgerald’s attorney, declined comment for this story. Kennedy said Monday that he planned to file a formal letter with the city’s attorney to seek an administrative appeal.

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City officials have a long list of reasons why Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald was terminated on Monday, but all of them relate back to a conclusion that chief has made several bad judgment calls in the past. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Bad optics

Jay Chapa, Fort Worth assistant city manager, said Fitzgerald admitted that he instigated the incident. Cooke said the fact that the incident occurred at all was more evidence of Fitzgerald’s bad judgment.

“You chose to address a personal matter at a national event where the focus should have been on our fallen officers and the officers being honored for their heroism,” Chapa wrote in Fitzgerald’s termination letter. “While you perceived that you did not act in an inappropriate manner, your conduct escalated rather than de-escalated, the conflict between you and the state police union. Your decision to address the issue at that time and in that venue provided the opportunity for those with whom you are in conflict to legitimately raise concerns and criticize your actions.”

Michelle Jotz, chairman of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Managers and Supervisors Association, wrote the Fort Worth mayor and City Council and then emailed a letter that expressed her concern about Fitzgerald’s actions during the incident.

The letter, dated May 20, characterized Fitzgerald’s behavior as “completely inappropriate and unprofessional.”

Jotz said she felt an obligation to make sure city officials were aware of this behavior.

“I think what was most embarrassing was not just the behavior itself but that it was in front of the widow of an officer,” Jotz said.

When she previously met Fitzgerald, Jotz said, he had been very pleasant. Not this time.

“The look on his face was pure rage,” Jotz said. “He was livid about something.”

Cooke said he could not answer why Fitzgerald’s lack of good judgment was not exposed during the hiring process less than five years ago. The process that brought Fitzgerald to Fort Worth was thorough and involved a number of interviews, Cooke said.

The decision to terminate Fitzgerald came Friday and Fitzgerald was notified on Monday, Cooke said.

When asked if Fitzgerald’s claim that racism played a role in his downfall had any merit, Cooke said that assertion was ridiculous and did not deserve an answer.

Fitzgerald made some positive moves, both for the department and the city, such as re-installing the beat system, requiring de-escalation training for all officers and the establishment of youth outreach programs, the city officials said.

Lacking team-building skills

On Monday, Kennedy said he believes Fitzgerald was fired because he was going to blow the whistle on violations of the Criminal Justice Information Systems Act.

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division is a federally maintained centralized database that law enforcement agencies use to share data and information.

The chief could have dealt with his complaints about the city’s compliance with CJIS a lot more effectively, Cooke said.

“How about picking up the phone and calling the IT guy,” Cooke said.

The city has a plan to deal with this issue, Cooke said, but Fitzgerald’s failure to work with city departments to resolve the problem further eroded the city’s confidence in his judgment and highlighted his failure to build relationships with other department directors and employees.

“Your failure to coordinate an effort with all involved to address the concerns raised by the CJIS auditor created more problems and added unnecessary stress and drama,” the termination letter stated.

The letter also said that Fitzgerald’s attempt to absolve himself and his department of any potential responsibility is “not how a leader should implement problem solving strategies in a team situation.”

Also, city officials did not appreciate Fitzgerald speaking to reporters about cases that were pending in the courts without properly informing city staff about his decision. That decision was described in the letter and by Cooke as another example of bad judgment on the former chief’s part.

“Our lawyers should have probably known about it,” Cooke said about a recent TV interview.

City officials concluded that Fitzgerald agreed to discuss pending litigation to improve his image and failed to consider how that decision would impact the city, Fitzgerald’s termination letter stated.

“Not only was the interview a surprise to your superiors, you commented on matters involving issues that are currently being litigated by the City around decisions that you made,” the letter stated. “It never occurred to you that your interview would lead to additional media inquiries to our elected officials, management and others.”

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.