Bud Kennedy

He’s new, but chief stirs old memories

Officers look on as new Fort Worth police Chief Joel Fitzgerald speaks to the media Monday.
Officers look on as new Fort Worth police Chief Joel Fitzgerald speaks to the media Monday. Special to the Star-Telegram

The most expensive snowman in Fort Worth history melted six years ago.

But the icy chill he left between white and African-American police officers didn’t blow over until this week.

Some of the same officers who were mistreated for complaining about a racist snowman helped others welcome new Chief Joel Fitzgerald, amazingly the first African-American chief in a department that has been desegregated for 62 years.

Or maybe that’s not so amazing, considering that as recently as 2010, three traffic division sergeants built a snowman outside a police station on Martin Luther King Freeway and decorated him with a police cap, a banana — and a noose.

The incident and aftermath resulted in an outside investigation, a lawsuit and, in part, a new chief. Shortly after the report, Chief Jeff Halstead announced a retirement that was widely unlamented.

On Monday, both current and retired African-American officers gathered to see Fitzgerald speak at the north door of City Hall, facing the old police station side door across the street where trailblazers Travis Bell and Charles Wright first emerged as officers in 1953.

(Earlier, five African-American “special officers” had been commissioned from 1896 to about 1920.)

The late Constable Lonnell Cooper, as a young man the first local African-American in the U.S. Marines, followed Bell and Wright onto the force in 1953 and spared no emotion in a 1987 Star-Telegram interview.

Some white officers “beat and tortured people and used racial slurs,” said Cooper, who was allowed to patrol Evans Avenue only on foot and had to use pay phones to call for backup officers, who arrived slowly, if ever.

“We had no blacks on City Council,” Cooper said. “We had no one to report abuses to. It was like it is now in South Africa.”

As Fitzgerald talked Monday about community policing and “rebuilding trust,” retired 28-year officer Naymond James and other graying retirees in the crowd smiled proudly.

When James started in 1975, African-American officers were still in the low numbers.

“I was No. 21,” he said.

“Can you imagine what hell was like? We were still confined to black neighborhoods. There were things we couldn’t do. … Think about those earlier guys like Lonnell. There were no women officers then. They were the first police who were in any way different.”

Retired 25-year officer Luther Perry said those early officers “went to school here — they knew the community.”

“That was real ‘community policing,’ ” he said. “When you live in the same neighborhood you’re policing, it gives you a whole different mindset.”

As other retirees came up to chat with James, they gave their numbers: “I was No. 24.” “No. 27.” “No. 13.”

But the new chief never mentioned race in his speech. Finally, when a reporter asked, Fitzgerald said only: “I consider myself very fortunate to be a ‘first’ in three different cities. Hopefully I will not be the last.”

It took Fort Worth too long.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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