Days after he was kicked out of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald had what some have described as a heated encounter with the state union’s president while at a National Police Week gathering in Washington, D.C.
The confrontation took place Sunday between Fitzgerald and the president of the state association, Austin Sgt. Todd Harrison, following an awards banquet and dinner at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Witnesses described two tense conversations that were poorly timed.
Harrison was not available for an interview Thursday but said in an email to the Star-Telegram that “there was no physical contact in the dispute just inappropriate behavior from a leader in front of a large crowd that was at a event honoring police officers and survivors.”
In a telephone interview late Thursday afternoon, Fitzgerald said he waited until after the awards ceremony to confront Harrison about a news release that he’d issued last week announcing the chief had been kicked out of the state association. Fitzgerald said people were taking pictures on the stage when he approached Harrison to have a “civil” discussion about the news release, which he described as “libelous.”
“I don’t know what people thought they saw but I know what happened and I know what kind of a conversation I had with him,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he was not unprofessional and believes the discussion only drew attention after Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, “interceded and he sort of touched my arm and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t the place for that.’”
“We weren’t loud,” Fitzgerald said. “There was no screaming and hollering ... I wanted to have a conversation with him because I’ve never seen him before, so I don’t know if I’d ever see him again.”
Ramirez said Thursday evening that Fitzgerald had warned him earlier in the night that he planned to confront Harrison. Ramirez said he asked the chief not to do so at the prestigious event where two Fort Worth officers were to be honored.
Ramirez said he was later trying to usher people onto the stage for a photograph when he saw Fitzgerald moving quickly toward Harrison with his eyes fixated on the man.
“I placed myself in his path because I know there’s going to be a confrontation given what he told me earlier in the evening,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it better to prevent any type of contact.”
Ramirez said when he blocked Fitzgerald, he hollered “Todd!” and said, ‘I’m going to talk to you now or I’m going to talk to you in the courtroom.’”
“He kept loudly repeating, ‘You messed up! You messed up!” Ramirez added.
Ramirez estimated there were about 40 people on the stage and 300 people still inside the ballroom when the confrontation occurred.
He said the chief’s actions were inappropriate at a time and venue when the focus should been on honoring Matt Putnam and David Jwanowski — Fort Worth officers who received the National Top Cops Award from the National Association of Police Organizations. The officers had been involved in the take-down of suspected robbers on the night Cpl. Garrett Hull was shot and fatally wounded.
Hull’s widow, Sabrina Hull, was among those present when the confrontation took place.
“I’ve been contacted by law enforcement leaders from around the country that were in attendance that expressed their concerns with our chief’s behavior and his outburst,” Ramirez said. “Everybody that was on that stage, every Fort Worth officer that was on stage, was shocked and embarrassed by what happened.”
Mayor Betsy Price was not at the event but said in an emailed statement Thursday: “I have been made aware of the situation by numerous witnesses.
“I have asked (City Manager) David Cooke and (Assistant City Manager) Jay Chapa to get to the bottom of this. We hold all our officers, including our chief, to a very high standard. There should be no exceptions.”
The state union had announced last week that it was suspending Fitzgerald’s membership. In the release, posted on Twitter and Facebook, Harrison accused Fitzgerald of joining online in an attempt to bypass the union’s requirement that members also belong to the local union.
“Instead of joining his local union, which is constitutionally required, the chief attempted to bypass regular protocol and joined the statewide organization by bank draft,” Harrison had said in the release.
Fitzgerald said his wife, Pauline Fitzgerald, had been the one to sign the couple up last summer for membership with the state association after first clearing it in a conversation with a representative of the union. Fitzgerald is an investigator with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.
He said no one told his wife, nor is it mentioned on the group’s website, that he had to first be a member of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.
“The fact they would report in the press release that the chief was trying to side-step some kind of membership process is ridiculous.” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he confronted Harrison to ask him to issue a retraction of the news release.
Councilman Cary Moon, who had flown to D.C. with a group of officers, described the brief encounter as “hot and heavy” but said there was no physical contact between Harrison and Fitzgerald though the pair leaned toward each other.
Later, the Fort Worth group gathered around a bar in a hospitality room. A second conversation, which Moon described as calmer, took place there for about 15 minutes between Harrison, the chief, and Pauline Fitzgerald.
“I would say it wasn’t the best time, but I think they talked through and should be able to move forward,” Moon said.
Fitzgerald said during that conversation, Harrison at some point turned and hit Pauline Fitzgerald in the breast and quickly apologized.
“Had we been just these stark, raving lunatics, we would have reacted to that poorly,” Fitzgerald said. “The conversation was a conversation. We agreed to disagree on what he put in his press release. It ended with him saying he would meet with me here in Fort Worth. I’m waiting to see if he will meet with me.”
Moon said he worried the confrontation would distract from an otherwise positive weekend honoring Fort Worth officers.
“It was a good night for Fort Worth and a good night for the family of Garret Hull,” Moon said.