In a 20-minute speech Tuesday, new Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald touted the importance of community policing. It was clear that the 44-year-old, most recently police chief in Allentown, Pa., is serious about that approach.
Now, it will be a matter of how his version translates to a bigger city and department. Fitzgerald was sworn in as Fort Worth’s first African-American police chief and its 27th overall during a change-of-command ceremony Tuesday at the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex.
He replaced interim Police Chief Rhonda Robertson, who filled the role vacated by former Police Chief Jeff Halstead in January. City Manager David Cooke announced Fitzgerald’s hiring last month.
“We are the first step and the most visible face of the city of Fort Worth,” Fitzgerald told a room of around 200 police officers, council members and city personnel. “Embrace it. Solve problems as you go from call to call. Notice I say ‘solve’ problems. If we’re able to do that, we relieve that workload later to have more disposable time to prevent crimes.”
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Now in town full time, Fitzgerald will continue the process of familiarizing himself with a department of more than 1,500 officers and a city of around 800,000 people. Fitzgerald has big-city experience, with 17 years in the Philadelphia Police Department. Allentown, a city of 119,000, and Missouri City, the Houston suburb where he was chief from 2009 to 2013, are much smaller.
In Allentown, he commanded 220 officers, helped start a youth basketball league where officers served as coaches, and he and his officers regularly attended neighborhood watch meetings. He drew praise there from grassroots groups.
I have to work through and with everybody in this room to make Fort Worth the safest city that it can be.
New Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald
On Tuesday, Fitzgerald’s message centered on fostering a “collective process.” He recalled a saying he once heard from Houston Police Chief Charles McLelland Jr.: “I was a much better police chief when I was a police officer.” Fitzgerald — who aims to reserve time each day to go out on patrol — wants officers with creative ideas to approach him.
“Listening is the key at this level, because I can’t do it all,” he said. “I have to work through and with everybody in this room to make Fort Worth the safest city that it can be.”
Fitzgerald and the process used to select him fit what the city was looking for, Cooke said. He pointed to the transparency of the search and the community forum held last month with the six finalists.
We believe he knows what a partnership with the community looks like.
City Manager David Cooke on new Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald
“Public safety is the same thing — [residents] want to be engaged, they want to be a partner, and Joel is the right guy for that,” Cooke said. “We believe he knows what a partnership with the community looks like.”
Fitzgerald acknowledged recent strife within the department. Seven current and former black officers have sued Halstead and the department in the last year.
“We have to heal on the inside,” he said. “Because if we can’t get along internally, how are we expected to provide the type of service to citizens that we need to provide? We’re charged with doing a whole lot more than just responding to calls.”
Robertson, in a short speech, gave Fitzgerald one piece of advice for maintaining chemistry among officers: Don’t change the department’s 103-year-old badge, which features a panther atop a shield.
“No worries,” Fitzgerald replied with a laugh.