Three months after Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald pulled out of the running for a job in Baltimore, city leaders are searching for signs of his commitment to Fort Worth.
Mayor Betsy Price and City Manager David Cooke have said they want to see the chief outside of police headquarters, in the community as a face of leadership in the city. Fitzgerald has not answered questions from the Star-Telegram regarding his commitment.
“He’s got to reconnect with his troops, and he’s got to reconnect with with the community,” Price told the Star-Telegram editorial board, adding that she wanted to see him directly engaging the public. “I’m one who thinks everyone ought to be in the community all the time.”
Questions about the chief’s leadership surfaced during his candidacy for Baltimore police commissioner. A delegation from Baltimore sent to vet Fitzgerald heard conflicting reports about his handling of race relations in Fort Worth. The Baltimore Sun and the Star-Telegram revealed he exaggerated achievements on his résumé, and the national NAACP Legal Defense Fund called for him to drop out of the Baltimore job for fear he lacked the experience to handle the city’s embattled department.
Fitzgerald removed his name from consideration for Baltimore in January, citing a medical emergency involving his son.
Price said faith in the chief, both from the community and officers, was shaken when he tried to leave. Now Fitzgerald must reconnect with Fort Worth, and that effort was what she called “a work in progress.”
“I think he has the potential to be an excellent police chief,” Price said. “I just think he’s got to rebuild this. He’s got decide if he wants to rebuild this and if he’s willing to do the work.”
Deborah Peoples, who is challenging Price for mayor, said she met with Fitzgerald and believes he needs to decide if he’s willing to stay in Fort Worth even if he’s dissatisfied with his salary or other issues.
“He’s got to do some homework to mend those fences,” she said. “He’s got to be in it 100 percent. Policing is one of those things where you have be 100 percent.”
In Fort Worth, the city manager has the power to hire and fire department heads, including the chief of police.
The chief will have to show a renewed commitment to three groups, Cooke, the city manager, said: the residents of Fort Worth, police officers and other city employees, including the assistant city manager who oversees the chief.
“The idea is, people want to know if he is going to be a good teammate for the community,” Cooke said. “They want to see him out, visible in their communities.”
A strong effort to spend time with rank and file officers, engage the public and show fellow city employees he is willing to work with them will be crucial to proving a commitment to the city, Cooke said.
Fitzgerald’s candidacy in Baltimore made many question who would lead the department if he were to leave. The chief will have to show he can do it again, Cooke said.
“I think it’s just human nature,” Cooke said. “When you hear someone is going to move on you wonder why, but what we do as human beings is start moving on ourselves.”
After Fitzgerald returned from leave dealing with his son’s illness, he and his supervisor, assistant city manager Jay Chapa, began working on a path forward, Cooke said.
The Star-Telegram has requested an interview with Fitzgerald four times in the past three weeks to discuss several public safety topics, including his commitment to Fort Worth.
Each time, a police spokesman said the chief was unavailable. At first, he was on medical leave. But after Fitzgerald was seen April 2 at a City Council meeting, the Star-Telegram made another request for an interview.
This time, a public information officer sent a statement April 4 identical to the one issued in January after Fitzgerald dropped out of the running for the Baltimore job. On Monday a spokesman said Fitzgerald, who had been in and out of the office following a surgery, wouldn’t be available the rest of the week because of training.
“I reflected upon the tremendous outpouring of heartfelt support I received here over the last few months,” the January statement read. “Our community communicated this to me, even before this medical emergency occurred, but it was reinforced then after knowing there was a possibility I could leave. Their support never wavered, and may have intensified.”
The public information officer also suggested reporters follow the chief’s twitter account, @fwpdchieffitz.
On Thursday Fitzgerald told Star-Telegram media partner WFAA Channel 8 he would “like to stay here for the rest of my career.”
“I made the mistake already of, you know, entertaining something else,” he said. “I’m happy here. I just want the same commitment, you know, that I’m willing to give.”
Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the way Fitzgerald’s application to Baltimore played out publicly “rocked the system,” and as he gets back into the swing of leading the department, a tangible commitment of solid leadership is needed from both the chief and city leaders.
“The troops didn’t know who would be in charge, and that went on for months,” Ramirez said. “We need a clear mission and a clear path. We just want to make sure we’re on the same page with our leaders.”
Leading up to Fitzgerald’s Baltimore application, friction grew between him and city leadership regarding his salary, according to emails obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open records request.
The emails show that Fitzgerald repeatedly requested a raise from roughly $217,000 to $255,000 — above scheduled performance-based increases. The city manager’s office rejected the request based on a survey of salaries in similarly sized cities nationwide and other departments in Dallas-Fort Worth.
City documents from September show Fitzgerald’s salary is comparable to the pay of chiefs in similarly sized cities. Charlotte, N.C., a slightly smaller city than Fort Worth, paid its chief a base salary of just under $213,000 while Columbus, Ohio, a slightly larger city, paid less than $189,000. In Texas, the Austin chief earned $228,000 and Dallas paid a little more than $229,000, according to the city’s salary survey.
“As I previously conveyed to you, there are no plans to provide you with a pay increase outside of the regular merit based performance review process based on your end of year evaluation and no plans to make changes to your original employment offer letter,” assistant city manager Jay Chapa said in a Sept. 20 email to Fitzgerald. “As we discussed, chasing market based salaries is not typically a good practice when looking at an individual or individual positions and depending on perspective can end with significantly different salary ranges.”
In his email, Chapa said he would be open to a merit-based raise outside the regular review process if a series of unspecified goals are developed and achieved.
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, an east Fort Worth activist and pastor, said it should be clear to city leaders that Fitzgerald has been valued. Though he originally was skeptical of Fitzgerald, Tatum now says critics should “back off the chief.”
Tatum, who said he sits on a police policy advisory committee, said he believed Fitzgerald had made strides in department transparency, community relations and holding officers accused of wrongdoing accountable. Fitzgerald has been more willing to open police records to the committee and make policy changes than previous chiefs, he said.
“He as made a real commitment to changing policing in Fort Worth,” Tatum said. “Does he get it right all the time? Do any of us get it right all the time? Absolutely not, but he needs freedom to make changes.”