Washington Incident ‘Tipping Point’ For Fitzgerald As Fort Worth Police Chief

Fort Worth officials may not have realized the city charter allows department heads like the police chief to appeal their termination and requires written notice when they chose to fire Joel Fitzgerald as the city’s top cop, City Manager David Cooke said.

He and city executives were concentrated on terminating Fitzgerald on May 20, he said, after a series of issues with Fitzgerald’s performance that included budgeting problems and Fitzgerald’s relationship with the community. The “tipping point” came when Fitzgerald engaged in a heated confrontation with a top Texas state union official at a national event honoring fallen officers.

“I’m not sure we were aware of all those steps at the time,” Cooke said of the city charter.

Dallas attorney Stephen Kennedy, who is representing Fitzgerald in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against the city, has demanded Fitzgerald receive an appeal hearing in front of the city council regarding his termination. Fitzgerald also wants his job back.

Cooke’s statements came during the third day of a hearing in a Dallas courtroom to determine if an injunction preventing Fort Worth from hiring a permanent police chief will continue.

Fitzgerald sought the injunction so he could make a case for indefinitely delaying the hiring of a new chief while his lawsuit is pending. In July, State District Judge Gena Slaughter approved a temporary restraining order that is set to expire this week.

Though the hearing was supposed to be about whether the city could hire a new chief as litigation in Fitzgerald’s case continues, it felt more like Kennedy was trying the entire case. Kennedy has said that to win the injunction, Fitzgerald must show a likelihood his case can succeed on the merits.

Kennedy rarely asked witnesses Wednesday about the ramifications of hiring a new chief. Instead he covered the finer points of Fitzgerald’s grievances, from an audit of the city’s IT department and a possible criminal investigation related to computer security, to how city officials went about writing Fitzgerald’s termination letter.

Fitzgerald has said he believes he was fired unjustly.

Fort Worth officials maintain he was fired after they lost confidence in his leadership. One example, they have said, was Fitzgerald confronting the state union official over an ongoing dispute with his membership to the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas at the Washington event.

“The issue up in Washington felt like the final issue,” Cooke said. “We’ve got to make a change.”

D.C. EVENT

Manny Ramirez testified the heated confrontation took place between Fitzgerald and the president of the state law enforcement association, Austin Sgt. Todd Harrison, following an awards banquet and dinner at a hotel in Washington. The timing of the exchange — during a National Police Week gathering in mid-May — was cited as one of the reasons city officials chose to fire Fitzgerald.

Ramirez, the president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, testified Wednesday he had tried to stop Fitzgerald from confronting Harrison on stage, believing it was inappropriate and unnecessary.

“I don’t think there was anyone more surprised, embarrassed or shocked than me,” he said.

Fitzgerald told the Star-Telegram in May he waited until after the awards ceremony to confront Harrison about a news release that he’d issued the week before 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.”

Ramirez detailed his account of the Washington confrontation, but said he didn’t know if it was a contributing factor to Fitzgerald’s termination. He said he had a good working and personal relationship with Fitzgerald that included frequently texting and occasionally visiting Fitzgerald’s home. He said he didn’t believe it was his job as a union president to be combative with the chief, saying he considered Fitzgerald a friend.

At one point, Ramirez had to quell a union vote of no confidence in Fitzgerald, he testified. Some members were displeased with Fitzgerald’s leadership, Ramirez said. Instead a survey showing low morale in the department was taken, he said.

Morale had taken a turn under Fitzgerald but has rebounded since May when Ed Kraus took over as interim police chief, he said.

Kennedy, Fitzgerald’s attorney, tried to tie morale to the number of shootings police officers have been involved in since Fitzgerald was fired. In October, Atatiana Jefferson became the sixth person killed by Fort Worth police in 2019.

Ramirez said he didn’t believe officer-involved shootings would positively impact police morale, calling them tragedies that upset every officer in the department.

POSSIBLE SETTLEMENT

On the day he was fired, Fitzgerald was offered the option of resigning and would have been given nearly a month to mull over a settlement, Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa testified. Instead he refused to sign the necessary agreement, Chapa said.

He said Fitzgerald was presented with an agreement that would have allowed him to seek counsel and contemplate a settlement, but refused to sign it. That agreement could have been worth $250,000, according to previous testimony.

Chapa said there were several things that led to Fitzgerald’s firing, including a poor relationship with and understanding of the community. Fitzgerald repeatedly pushed back against releasing body camera footage of controversial police interactions, saying the media shouldn’t control the police department, according to Chapa.

CJIS INVESTIGATION

Also Wednesday morning, Assistant Police Chief Julie Swearingin testified Fitzgerald had asked her to attend a meeting with FBI agents the day he was fired. The meeting was regarding possible evidence city employees had destroyed data related to problems with the Criminal Justice Information Services system, or CJIS, a federally maintained computer network designed to share law enforcement information nationwide.

Swearingin said she didn’t prepare for the meeting or have any evidence to share with the FBI. Previously Fitzgerald had told her a city employee had potential knowledge of the destruction of evidence. At the time Swearingin oversaw the internal affairs and special investigations unit.

Swearingin said she lacked evidence of the text conversations with Fitzgerald regarding the employee’s allegations because she routinely deleted text messages.

Like Ramirez, she said she had a strong relationship with Fitzgerald and felt comfortable discussing disagreements with him.

One of those disagreements was over Fitzgerald’s push to hire Oswald Enriquez, a Texas Department of Public Safety auditor who had investigated the city’s CJIS system. Swearingin said she thought it was odd Fitzgerald would push to hire the auditor, but she couldn’t remember if the recruitment came during or after the audit. She questioned the ethics of the move, she said.

Enriquez said he was misled about CJIS when city staff told him security issues with the computer system had been fixed when they had not, according to a deposition.

During a hearing Tuesday, Fitzgerald testified that he believed the city put residents at risk by not acting quickly and decisively enough to fix problems with CJIS.

Officers use the system to quickly access information about wanted felons. Without it officers wouldn’t know if they were stopping someone who was wanted for murder, Fitzgerald said.

The case hinges on whether the city retaliated against Fitzgerald for applying for the police chief position in Baltimore and for investigating city officials in the IT department for misrepresenting facts prior to the CJIS compliance audit.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price testified Monday that she had lost confidence in the chief long before she found out he was going to be fired in May.

According to lawyers representing Fort Worth, it will not matter to Fitzgerald if the city hires a new police chief. If the court rules that Fitzgerald must be reinstated as police chief, whoever is hired as chief would have to step down, attorney Lynn Winter argued for the city. Or the city could pay Fitzgerald additional money damages, Winter said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Thursday morning with closing arguments.

From www.star-telegram.com