Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald has been fired after a culmination of problems including a heated confrontation in Washington, D.C. and failed attempt to get a job in Baltimore, city officials announced on Monday.
City Manager David Cooke said he determined a change in leadership was necessary for the citizens of Fort Worth and the men and women of the Fort Worth Police Department.
“As the city manager for the city of Fort Worth, it is my responsibility to make decisions and recommendations in the best interest of this community,” Cooke said Monday at a 3:30 p.m. press conference. “Today, I’ve made the decision to remove Joel Fitzgerald as the chief of police for the Fort Worth Police Department.”
Executive Assistant Chief Edwin Kraus has been designated as interim chief of police.
Fitzgerald said he was notified Monday afternoon by Cooke and had no advanced warning.
He declined to say what Cooke told him in their conversation, but said the reason given was “nothing that is in any way valid.”
“I”m not going to get into it,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just going to make sure I get an attorney involved and just do things the right way.”
Stephen Kennedy, a Dallas-based attorney, said he will represent Fitzgerald and has plans to file a formal letter with the city’s attorney to seek an administrative appeal. Kennedy is also representing a recently fired IT manager is his lawsuit against the city.
“Chief Fitzgerald had scheduled an appointment with the FBI (Monday) at approximately 3 PM to report more city violations of the Criminal Justice Information Systems Act,” Kennedy said. “It is no coincidence that the City decided to terminate him one day after his department celebrated a major arrest in a criminal case.”
Kennedy said he believes the city needed to silence Fitzgerald because he was going to blow the whistle on the violations.
“By terminating him early in the afternoon, they did so,” Kennedy said. “This was a bad idea.”
Cooke said conversations had been happening last week about firing the chief, and that Fitzgerald was given an opportunity to resign and he didn’t. Cooke said he assumes every employee has a chance to appeal.
Cooke said Fitzgerald didn’t have a contract and will not qualify for severance because he was fired with cause.
No timeline has been announced for a permanent chief to be named.
Fitzgerald’s firing comes weeks after he was kicked out of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and days after he had a heated encounter with the state union’s president in Washington, D.C. The firing also comes months after Fitzgerald withdrew from consideration to become a top police commissioner in the Baltimore Police Department.
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.
However, the letter was never sent to the city manager’s office or the human relations department. Instead, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Fitzgerald sent the letter from his work email to a private email account, which was found after a records request from the Star-Telegram.
Confrontation in D.C.
Last week, Mayor Betsy Price had asked city management to look into an encounter between Fitzgerald and the president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.
Cooke said the issue of what happened in Washington was part of why he decided to fire Fitzgerald, but that it was a combination of many factors.
The confrontation took place May 12 following an awards banquet and dinner as part of National Police Week.
Fitzgerald has said he had approached Todd Harrison to have a “civil” discussion about a news release from the state law enforcement union earlier this month that he deemed “libelous.”
Fitzgerald denied acting inappropriate during the confrontation as alleged by Harrison and Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.
Asked if Cooke had referenced the confrontation when he fired the chief, Fitzgerald said, “I can tell you that witnesses weren’t contacted.”
“They were there with numerous troops of theirs that obviously saw things differently, but the city did not contact them,” Fitzgerald said.
Ramirez said he was not surprised to hear that the incident in Washington was cited among reasons the chief was fired.
“I would imagine it would be,” Ramirez said. “When you’re a chief of police and you represent an entire department, that’s just inappropriate in any case.”
Based on what people who witnessed the incident in Washington told Cooke, he said: “There was an incident, nobody disputes that, regardless of how heated it got ... the issue is it was an incident that involved the police chief dealing with an issue that really was a personal issue with the head of the State Association of CLEAT. Our conversations with the chief at different times has been, ‘You are always the chief of police. You are always representing the City of Fort Worth.’ That was probably not the right time to take on that issue.”
The Baltimore job
Price announced in October that Fitzgerald had been interviewed for an open police commissioner job in Baltimore.
Asked if Fitzgerald attempting to leave for the Baltimore job was also a factor in his firing, Cooke said, “There were some issues before then that we talked about during performance evaluations.”
He declined to talk in detail about the evaluations.
After the newspaper report, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh postponed community meetings with Fitzgerald, according to the newspaper, citing a family medical emergency for the chief — his son was undergoing brain surgeries.
In January, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called for the mayor to withdraw her nomination of Fitzgerald.
He withdrew his name from consideration for the job days later.
In a statement, Price said: “I am in full support of our city manager’s decision to terminate Joel Fitzgerald as chief of police. These decisions are never made lightly, and I am confident we have reached the right conclusion for both our citizens and our police officers. Our citizens deserve a police chief who is committed to building relationships in all communities, by furthering trust and transparency. Our police officers, who risk their lives daily for our community, deserve a leader who will be present, active, and engaged.”
Fitzgerald was sworn in as Fort Worth chief in October 2015. He previously served as police chief in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Kraus, the new interim chief, began his career with the Fort Worth Police Department in 1992, according to a city news release. He has served as an officer, detective and sergeant in several units in the Patrol Bureau. His command experience includes assignments as a Neighborhood Policing District lieutenant, a Patrol Division captain, commander of the Training Division, and deputy chief over the Investigative and Support Command. Most recently, Kraus oversaw the Patrol Bureau.
Ramirez credited Fitzgerald with some changes that were good for Fort Worth.
“I would like to thank him for everything he’s done for Fort Worth. We look forward to the new leadership and whatever that brings,” he said.
Fitzgerald said “I meant it” when he previously withdrew his name from consideration for the Baltimore job and stated he wanted to remain Fort Worth chief.
In addition to contacting an attorney, his only other immediate plans are to “just be with my family.”