Joel Fitzgerald, police chief of this small Rust Belt city, had work to do and ground to cover just after he was hired in 2013 — so he sought out residents to help.
Their job, Fitzgerald told eight volunteers, was to take note where street signs were missing so they could be replaced. That way, someone could easily relay their location in an emergency, said Daniel Blount, a minister who volunteered.
That kind of community-based project may become commonplace in Fort Worth after Fitzgerald, 44, is sworn in as police chief on Oct. 20.
The picture that formed during two days of interviews in Allentown is one of a chief well-liked for his work with grassroots groups. Few had criticism for Fitzgerald.
In this city of around 119,000 north of Philadelphia, he draws praise for being hands-on and easy to relate to in an increasingly diverse city that has been hampered by a weakened economy and, more recently, an FBI investigation involving the mayor.
He put cops on bicycles in neighborhoods. He restarted the city’s ride-along program. He helped start a youth basketball league, where officers coached kids. He established a Youth Police Academy. By this year, the academy expanded from one week to two.
“He understood that the best way to be a policeman was to be out among the people,” said Sania Owens, a longtime Allentown resident, “not riding around playing Clint Eastwood, saying, ‘Make my day.’ ”
None of that is to say his stay in Allentown was perfect. He was chief just 21 months, and in the past year eight lawsuits were filed against the Allentown department involving officer misconduct, the Allentown Morning Call reported.
One incident involving an officer wrestling a street singer to the ground was caught on video. It went viral, leading to public protests.
Another issue involved Fitzgerald’s 23-year-old son, was mired in a nine-month legal battle after he was accused of pointing a gun at two undercover county detectives.
Christopher Fitzgerald’s attorney called the accusation and ensuing trial a “farce,” and the younger Fitzgerald was acquitted in June.
By then, Allentown councilman Daryl Hendricks said, a rift had grown between the chief and Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin.
“Sometimes, relationships might be hard to repair,” said Dan Bosket, the former president of the Allentown NAACP chapter.
Though Fitzgerald isn’t involved in any way, Allentown has been hit with uncertainty when it comes to Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who hired him.
In July, the FBI raided Allentown City Hall, as Pawlowski was implicated in a bribery scandal involving an Allentown business owner. The business owner pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a public official earlier this month, according to the Morning Call. Pawlowski, who is also planning a run for U.S. Senate, has yet to be charged with a crime. The investigation is ongoing.
Pawlowski in an interview called Fitzgerald “innovative and creative,” and said he supported Fitzgerald’s approach to policing.
The controversy, which involves a Pawlowski confidant providing the FBI with information, leaves “a lot of question marks [in Allentown],” said Hendricks, and it may have given Fitzgerald another reason to pursue other jobs.
Hendricks, a 36-year veteran of the Allentown police department who retired as a captain in 2013, said he urged the mayor to hire the next chief from within. Still, he complimented Fitzgerald for openness and community involvement, and said crime rates continued to drop on his watch.
But he criticized Fitzgerald’s spending. In 2014, the city topped $2 million in police overtime pay for only the second time in a decade, according to the Morning Call.
“I think that was a little excessive, to be honest,” Hendricks said.
The city is in the unique position of recovery and growth, he said.
In the last two years, Hamilton Street downtown has added a stretch of new restaurants and retail anchored by the PPL Center, an 11,500-seat hockey arena.
Twenty-five percent of the over-budget overtime pay was for patrolling the area around the arena, where the Philadelphia Flyers minor league team plays. Some if it was worth it, Hendricks said, because the city wanted to encourage more citizens to take advantage of the revitalized area.
“One of the problems is we’ve had the perception of crime downtown,” Hendricks said. “Not the reality, but perception is reality. We had to overcome that, and I think to a great part, we have.”
At the same time Allentown is still recovering from a rapidly changing economy, which for decades was powered by manufacturing. The Bethlehem Steel plant, which once employed 31,000 people in a neighboring city, closed 20 years ago, and Mack Trucks moved its corporate headquarters out of Allentown in 2009.
The city has had to lean more on the retail industry, but do so “conservatively,” Hendricks said.
A tighter city budget — or at least the intention of one, according to Hendricks — was the result.
Fitzgerald made an impact in areas that didn’t require hefty spending.
He arrived in a diverse city as the department’s first African-American police chief. According to 2010 Census data, 42.8 percent of the city was Hispanic and 12.5 percent was black. Those percentages in 2000 were 24.4 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
In that setting, Fitzgerald “brought groups together,” Blount said.
His presence helped as much as anything.
“I think he did one hell of an excellent job,” said David Keshl, the president of the Mountainville 30 community watch. “He was 1,000 percent for [us].”
When Keshl’s group last had a “neighborhood walk,” Fitzgerald and his coworkers walked the streets beside them, looking for broken windows, city code violations and other areas that needed improvement.
Bonnie Wachter of the 8th Ward Neighborhood Group and Dennis Pearson of the Rittersville Neighborhood Association agreed with Keshl: Fitzgerald or another officer were at nearly all of their monthly crime watch meetings.
“Like a big teddy bear, he was very approachable,” said Wachter, who lives in the same home her parents bought in 1963.
The first time Fitzgerald met with the Allentown school board, he promised to get the department engaged with the city’s youth. At the time, board member Ce-Ce Gerlach nodded, but waited.
“Everyone says that, because why wouldn’t they?” she said. “He actually did it. We always talk about we need to grow our own, but we’ve never done anything with it. He was one of the first to come in and say, ‘I see their talents and skills, let’s tap into that.’”
Allentown Det. Pedro Cruz was particularly struck by how Fitzgerald’s approach to teenagers.
The chief, Cruz said, wanted his officers to isolate the situation from the crime. If two kids get into a fight at school, is it best to arrest them on the spot?
“Early on, he brought in the idea that that’s not always the solution,” Cruz said, “so find other means.”
Cruz, an Allentown native, is the department’s community liaison. He helped organize the Cops Meet Block basketball league. It was Blount’s idea, and when Fitzgerald heard it, he wanted to do it.
“We just harp on the fact that [police] are not our enemies, they’re our friends,” Blount said.
Owens, 74, said Fitzgerald was just as engaged with the senior community. He first met Fitzgerald during a senior citizen event.
In an interview last Sunday, Owens sat on a couch Blount’s home and tried to explain what it meant that Fitzgerald was leaving.
“I’m taking it as a personal loss,” he said. “It’s kind of a sad day for me, because this [interview] almost confirms that he’s gone.”
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