This newspaper’s Editorial Board has been privileged to meet with a great number of newsmakers over the years.
Just recently we met with Sibulele Sibaca, a South African who, at 16, became one of 2 million AIDS orphans, and who today is an articulate global ambassador for the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and poverty. Prior to the May 4 local elections, we met with nearly every candidate for Fort Worth mayor and council, Arlington mayor and Tarrant Regional Water District. We’ve met with innumerable community representatives about myriad subjects. We’ve sat down with candidates for the highest offices in the state and nation.
Inexplicably, every one of those occasions was infinitely easier to arrange than a meeting with this city’s own former chief of police.
A full month ago the Editorial Board became increasingly concerned about Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s relationship with the community — following the revelation that he’d written a letter last December, which he never sent, saying he was disparaged in performance evaluations because he’s black.
But it took three weeks to schedule the meeting — and he was fired Monday before the Tuesday meeting could take place.
The strange odyssey in trying to obtain an audience with Fitzgerald speaks to the frayed relationships the chief had within and without his department — a fact cited by City Manager David Cooke in announcing Fitzgerald’s firing.
Fitzgerald’s handling of racially charged arrests of black women in 2016 and 2017 earned him criticism that has yet to completely dissipate. He was, for a time last year, expected to leave for the chief’s position in Baltimore, resulting in further frays in his ties here. More recently, Chief Fitzgerald was kicked out of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas earlier this month for not having joined the Fort Worth Police Officers Association as required.
Then, in what may have been the coup de grace, Fitzgerald is said to have initiated a heated confrontation with the state union’s president during a National Police Week gathering in Washington, D.C., May 13.
That incident was a high-profile embarrassment for a community proud of its ability for disparate folks to get along. As Cooke notes, our chief of police must realize he represents the city at all times, places and circumstances. He or she must do so with dignity and calm. Fitzgerald did not.
In the end, Fitzgerald lost the support — or failed to even seek it — of many inside and out of city government. His impending departure hung in the air even before news of it leaked prior to Monday’s press conference.
As Cooke noted in his press conference, being chief of police of such a large department and such a diverse, demanding community is not an easy task. Fitzgerald made it more difficult still, by seeming not to care about either personal or public relations. And one’s tenure in a job is likely pretty finite once penning the kinds of frustrations with one’s employers as Fitzgerald did in his December 2018 letter.
He seemed the right pick when hired in 2015, and we had hoped, prior to these latest incidents, that his relationship with the community could be repaired. That would have required more effort than he was apparently willing to produce.
Fitzgerald’s tenure has roiled the department and the city. Interim Chief Ed Kraus, and the eventual permanent replacement, will have bridge building at the top of the to-do list.