Crime

Fort Worth police chief consistently misses key disciplinary hearings, attorney says

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke talks about Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald

Fort Worth city manager David Cooke talks about Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald withdrawing his name from consideration for the Baltimore’s police commissioner job, citing support from Fort Worth residents and colleagues and a family medical emergency.
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Fort Worth city manager David Cooke talks about Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald withdrawing his name from consideration for the Baltimore’s police commissioner job, citing support from Fort Worth residents and colleagues and a family medical emergency.

An attorney representing a fired Fort Worth police officer says Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald has a pattern of missing appeal hearings for disciplined officers.

The attorney, Terry Daffron, leveled the criticism against Fitzgerald when he missed a hearing for a client of Daffron’s on Thursday. Daffron said the chief’s absences cost the taxpayers money and that he missed Thursday’s hearing because he knew Daffron intended to question accomplishments Fitzgerald has listed on his résumé.

A continuance in Thursday’s hearing was granted after Assistant Police Chief Ed Kraus briefly testified that Fitzgerald could not attend because of complications from a recent surgery. A police spokesman later told the Star-Telegram in an email that Fitzgerald had planned to be back to work in time for the hearing, but his recovery is taking longer than expected.

The spokesman said Kraus is acting police chief while Fitzgerald is out of the office and that Kraus had recommended the same discipline in the case as Fitzgerald imposed.

“The City and Acting Chief Kraus were prepared to proceed with the hearing this morning,” the spokesman said Thursday afternoon. “It was the attorney for the suspended officer who requested the continuance in this case.”

Daffron, an attorney with the Combined Law Enforcement Association, asked Kraus during the hearing if he was aware of Fitzgerald’s repeated absences from hearings.

Assistant City Attorney Christopher Austria objected to the question’s relevance.

“It is relevant,” Daffron responded. “He’s exhibiting a pattern of conduct where he is resetting hearings at the last minute due to his sudden unavailability. This isn’t the first one. He’s got a pattern of conduct since last year of avoiding hearings.”

Austria said it would be more proper if Fitzgerald were available to answer those questions himself.

“If we could get Chief Fitzgerald to come to a hearing, we would ask him these questions,” Daffron responded.

The police spokesman said in his email to the Star-Telegram that Daffron has been responsible for a number of hearing delays.

“Continuances are frustrating for both sides in an arbitration, but they are not rare,” he said. “For example, in the past two years, the attorney for this officer has requested a continuance in at least six different cases for a variety of reasons.”

On Friday, Daffron said she has not asked for any continuances in the case and has documentation.

City records show Fitzgerald has testified in two hearings since January 2018 — an April 18, 2018, hearing and a hearing on Dec. 3, 2018.

After Thursday’s hearing, Daffron expressed frustration regarding the chief’s absence, saying at least seven appeals have been reset or moved at either the city’s request or “because the chief was suddenly not available the day before.”

Daffron said the chief is an important witness in such hearings.

“He’s the one that issued the discipline, and he’s the only one that can testify what was going on in his mind, what his thought process was, what he looked at, and what his justification is,” Daffron said.

Daffron said Fitzgerald’s testimony is especially crucial in her client Jason Gipson’s hearing because his termination involved allegations of untruthfulness.

Gipson, a detective, was fired in late June for allegedly swapping difficult cases for easier ones and then trying to cover it up once he was caught, according to a disciplinary letter signed by Fitzgerald. The letter also accuses Gipson of lying in a memo to supervisors, of lying to internal affairs investigators and of asking another detective to lie for him if interviewed by investigators.

“We need him (Fitzgerald) to testify as to what his reasoning was behind that, especially in light of the fact that on his recent application to Baltimore, he seemed to have overstated or been untruthful regarding programs he implemented or his accomplishments as a chief,” Daffron said. “I think his actions could be viewed as hypocritical.”

Fitzgerald was a finalist for the police commissioner’s post in Baltimore when he came under criticism for overstating his accomplishments on his résumé. In January, he withdrew his name from consideration for the Baltimore job.

Daffron said she had submitted Fitzgerald’s résumé among the exhibits she intended to introduce during Gipson’s appeal hearing.

“They knew in advance that his résumé was going to be an issue,” Daffron said. “I believe that is why he is avoiding (the hearing).”

Daffron said she believes Fitzgerald has avoided earlier hearings because he was still in the running for the Baltimore job.

“I believe that this has been a consistent pattern of avoidance since April of last year, especially once he put in for the Baltimore job because he didn’t want there to be any negative press that could affect his opportunity to get that job,” she said.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Manny Ramirez, president of the Police Officers Association, also expressed frustration by the repeated delays in the appeal hearings.

“It kind of stifles the whole process whenever we have a key witness that doesn’t show up,” Ramirez said. “It really is affecting our member’s due process rights to a fair arbitration hearing to appeal.”

Daffron said delays like Thursday’s are also costly to taxpayers.

“The hearing examiner still bills for their full time, their travel time, their hotel. Everything. We have costs for renting rooms,” Daffron said. “Every delay costs the city and the union several thousands of dollars.”

Thursday’s bill was $4,132.99, to be split by the city and police officers association.

“It’s a burden on the taxpayer and it’s a burden on the citizen,” Ramirez said. “These things should be conducted quickly. If the officer was wrong, they’re wrong. If the chief was wrong, they’re wrong. The only way you can figure that out is through the appeals process.”

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