Fort Worth

Fort Worth police chief wrote a letter accusing city of discrimination. He never sent it

Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s relationship with city administrators had become so strained in late 2018 that he drafted a letter accusing his supervisors of discrimination, alleging negative evaluations were the product of racial bias.

In the letter dated Dec. 24, Fitzgerald said he received two “negatively worded” performance evaluations days after he told the city manager and assistant city manager about audit findings from the Texas Department of Public Safety regarding the city’s compliance with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

The document was addressed to the employee and labor relations division of the human resources department and Fitzgerald’s supervisor, assistant city manager Jay Chapa. City manager David Cooke was CC’d. Fitzgerald, who is black, wrote that he was requesting an investigation, alleging “ongoing discriminatory practices and violations” of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

However, the letter was never sent to the city manager’s office or the human relations department, Chapa said. Instead, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve Fitzgerald sent the the letter from his work email to a private email account, redacted in city records.

A police spokesman did not return a request seeking comment from Fitzgerald. On Monday, the department said he would be unavailable all week because of mandatory training.

Chapa said he and Cooke became aware of the letter after the Star-Telegram requested documents related to Fitzgerald’s performance evaluations and salary in January. The paper received the draft letter and evaluations late Monday. Fitzgerald had not voiced concern about discrimination to administrators, Chapa said Tuesday.

“He has not requested an investigation,” Chapa said, adding that he would not speculate about why Fitzgerald drafted the letter.

In the letter, Fitzgerald said the discrimination was related to him voicing concern over the city’s failure to comply with standards set by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division. He said the issues “posed serious threats to our continued access to critical criminal justice information.”

The division is a federally maintained centralized database that law enforcement agencies use to share data and information. The compliance issue could cost the city more than $1 million to fix, according to the chief’s letter, in which he indicated he tried to resolve the problems “various” times with the city’s information technology department.

Chapa said the issue had been well known for years and was part of an ongoing effort to streamline city information technology services.

The bulk of the unsent letter pertained to two “negatively worded” performance evaluations.

Fitzgerald received the two evaluations on Dec. 24, 2018, four days after he said he informed city officials of the DPS audit findings. The evaluations were not signed but were dated December 2017 and June 2018.

The evaluations, while largely positive, said Fitzgerald needed to improve his communication skills.

A comment written in one of the evaluations said, “There are times when there is a defensive edge with internal interactions, when the strategic direction is to work collaboratively.”

In his letter, Fitzgerald said the criticism was “an example of a false, harassing, and highly prejudicial standard imposed upon people of color who communicate effectively and directly.”

He said he was told by a supervisor to “not get so angry” during disagreements.

Fitzgerald was asked to sign the evaluations when he was the top candidate for the police commissioner’s job in Baltimore. In his letter, Fitzgerald complained he was met with “inappropriate pressure” to take a leave of absence or to resign immediately after he was announced as the Baltimore mayor’s pick for the top police job. He also accused the city of withholding pay for performance benefits.

Chapa said he met three times with Fitzgerald during his Baltimore candidacy. At the time, Fitzgerald was traveling to Baltimore frequently, Chapa said, so he and Cooke suggested Fitzgerald take some personal time.

Fitzgerald withdrew from the Baltimore job in January, citing a family medical emergency involving his son.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Betsy Price said the mayor had not been aware of the chief’s evaluations, so she would defer comment to the city manager’s office. In Fort Worth, the city managers supervise department heads.

The evaluations, dated Dec. 6, 2017, and June 4, 2018, were done by assistant city manager Valarie Washington, who at the time oversaw the police chief.

Fitzgerald said in his letter this was the first time since he joined the department as chief in October 2015 that he received copies of his performance evaluations.

Fitzgerald scored mostly three-star and four-star rankings on a four-star scale in both evaluations, including for problem solving, team building and continuous learning. In 2017 Washington gave Fitzgerald four stars for communication.

But in 2018, she lowered the grade, giving Fitzgerald a two- and three-star ranking. She noted his organized manner, but said communication with other city staff was made difficult by an “aggressive position,” and she suggested Fitzgerald work with police public information officers to bridge communication gaps.

“Work to make sure the tone is appropriate ...” she wrote. “Do no let emotions overrule the message.”

She gave him four stars for team building in 2018.

“I am impressed the the command staff you have put together,” Washington wrote. “You are taking a very deliberate approach to be leaders within the police department.”

But there were other downward trends, with more two-star rankings in 2018 than in 2017. The evaluation said Fitzgerald had issues with overspending, and Washington cautioned that the police department not work “in a silo.”

In September, according to city records, Fitzgerald requested a raise above performance-based increases, from roughly $217,000 to $255,000. After Chapa denied the request, citing police chief pay in similarly sized cities, Fitzgerald requested a meeting with Cooke, the city manager, but one was not scheduled promptly, according to emails obtained in a records request.

“I guess no response is a response. I’ll gauge my value ...” Fitzgerald wrote to Chapa on Sept. 27.

Weeks later, news broke that Fitzgerald was a candidate for the job in Baltimore.

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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 lranker@star-telegram.com.
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