Fort Worth

Fort Worth police chief focuses on son’s surgeries; leaders say his future can wait

Voicing support for Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, whose son faces a serious illness, Fort Worth leaders Monday said they would give him time to focus on his family before addressing questions about his commitment to the city.

Fitzgerald withdrew his name from consideration for Baltimore police commissioner Monday morning. The decision came as Fitzgerald’s 13-year-old son faces a second brain surgery this week and after calls from the NAACP for the Baltimore mayor to withdraw her nomination of Fitzgerald. Reports last week found discrepancies in part of Fitzgerald’s résumé though the former mayor of Missouri City, Texas, spoke highly of Fitzgerald’s service there.

Describing Fitzgerald’s selection process in Baltimore as “awkward” Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said the city had been patient through his application to Baltimore and would now give him time with his family.

“When the time is right, Jay Chapa, the assistant city manger, and I will sit down and make sure the commitment is there,” Cooke said. “I think that’s purely through action.”

Fitzgerald’s son underwent brain surgery Friday and was scheduled for a second surgery Tuesday. The Rev. Kyev Tatum, president Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said a group of Fort Worth pastors voiced support of Fitzgerald and held a prayer for him Monday morning.

“So we can pray for each other not prey on each other,” Tatum said.

Fitzgerald has been unavailable for interviews, but said in a statement sent through the police department that support he had received from the Fort Worth community helped spur him to withdrawal his name for the Baltimore position.

“I will now focus on my child’s next bout of brain surgery, and being home with family, my Fort Worth Police Department family … and this awesome community,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

News that Fitzgerald may leave had created uncertainty both in the community in and the police force.

Tatum said he believed Fitzgerald had growing support in Fort Worth and that the chief’s community-based policing system had gained trust and confidence from many residents.

“We know how much progress we’ve made under his leadership,” Tatum said, adding that his possible departure had been unsettling. “We know what we had, we didn’t know what we were going to get.”

Manny Ramirez, president of the police officers association, said the department would “wrap our arms around” Fitzgerald as his family goes through a tough time. News the department’s top officer might depart created uncertainty, he said, but a clear vision going forward would resolve that.

“Our city deserves commitment, our department deserves commitment,” he said.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who described the situation with Fitzgerald as “unconventional,” and city council members who spoke to the Star-Telegram said they would address Fitzgerald’s commitment to Fort Worth at an unspecified time later.

“First and foremost, our attention and prayers are with Chief Fitzgerald, his son and family,” Price said in a written statement. “As mayor, I believe this community and our police department deserve a fully committed chief of police, as Chief Fitzgerald has shown in the past.”

Though the city council has direct oversight of a few top positions, including the city manager, the chief of police doesn’t report to the council. The position is hired through the city manager and is overseen by his office.

For that reason, councilwoman Gyna Bivens said she would defer to the city manager about questions regarding Fitzgerald’s position and résumé.

“We need to be accountable and that accountability will come through the city manager,” Bivens said.

Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said the city’s focus should be on helping the chief as he and his family deal with their son’s medical emergency.

“I would ask that we keep his family in our prayers,” she said. “When they move through this trying season of their life we can talk about how we move forward.”

Councilwoman Ann Zadeh agreed.

“As a mother I have a lot of concern for him as a father taking care of his son,” she said. “That’s where he needs to focus now.”

Councilman Brian Byrd said he would continue to support Fitzgerald and that the chief’s withdrawal from the Baltimore job “removed uncertainty about where he’s planning to be.”

“I’m looking forward to working with the chief in the new year,” he said.

Last week both The Baltimore Sun and the Star-Telegram found Fitzgerald overstated some of his accomplishments in Allentown and Fort Worth in the résumé he submitted to Baltimore, including the reduction of the crime rate and the extent of body camera programs under his tenure.

Asked about those discrepancies, Byrd said Fitzgerald’s work here has been satisfactory.

“I’m pleased with the response we’ve had in District 3,” he said. The Las Vegas Trail neighborhood in District 3 has been the focus of city efforts to reduce crime. “I want to see more of the same all over the city.”

Bivens said differences between the local crime report on federal data could come down to timing and how crime is categorized.

“I focus on my district where we did have a reduction in crime. Now it seems to be trickling back up,” she said. “I think it’s pretty fluid and depends on that moment in time.”

Fitzgerald, in his résumé, described “steep decreases” in Fort Worth’s crime rate, but that assessment appears to be rosier than what federal data show.

Overall crime dropped 5.5 percent and the rate for serious offenses fell 8 percent from 2015 to 2017, the most recent year data is available, according to Fort Worth crime reports. But FBI data show that decline was fueled largely in decreases in thefts and burglaries. Crime rate data from 2016 and 2017, the two full years of Fitzgerald’s tenure, show overall violent crime rose about 6 percent, the homicide rate was up 9 percent and aggravated assaults increased almost 8 percent. Data for 2018 has not been released.

Cooke said that he hadn’t reviewed the résumé Fitzgerald submitted to Baltimore to know if information was inaccurate. When Fitzgerald was hired in Fort Worth in October 2015, he was “completely vetted” and went through a lengthy community input process, Cooke said.

“We picked the right police chief. We had the right process,” Cooke said.

Former Missouri City mayor Allen Owen last week called Fitzgerald an an outstanding individual” and that he remained in high regard among Missouri City officers and leaders. Owen couldn’t recall being contacted by Fort Worth officials ahead of his hiring here.

Fitzgerald would have been Baltimore’s fourth police commissioner in the past year, and the fifth in the past four years. Owen said he believed Fitzgerald applied to be closer to his family in Philadelphia.

Star-Telegram reporter Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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