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Fort Worth's New Top Cop Pledges Inclusion, Engagement

Christopher Connelly/KERA
Joel Fitzgerald will be Fort Worth's next police chief. He'll also be the city's first African-American to hold the post.

Fort Worth’s new top cop made his first public appearance in Texas since taking the job. Standing in front of City Hall, he made it clear that he wants to change the police department.

It should be inclusive, he said, engaged in the community and not seen as an occupying force – a phrase he used three separate times. But he struck a careful balance in his debut speech; he also praised city leaders for their vision and the police force for their professionalism.

“I don’t think people know how far ahead of the game we are right now, and now it’s time to step on the gas pedal and move forward as a total community,” he said. He said he felt “well-positioned” to make change thanks to the work of outing Interim Police Chief Rhonda Robinson.

Fitzgerald has been chief in Allentown, Pennsylvania for nearly two years. In Fort Worth, he’ll command a growing department with more than 2000 employees. It’s also a department that’s faced turmoil: In the last year, four black officers have sued the department and retired Chief Jeff Halstead for racial discrimination. The department’s also weathered tensions with Latino and African-American communities.

“There are so many things that need to be done, and so many obstacles,” Fitzgerald said. “But the overwhelming sentiment is going to be that we’re here as a participative type of environment, and that’s going to be what I pledge to do.”

Rev. Kyev Tatum from the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference listened to what Fitzgerald had to say. Tatum says he’s impressed by Fitzgerald’s talk, but he’s waiting to see results.

‘’Like with any new relationship, you’re excited about the possibilities but you still have to go through with the relationship,” Tatum said. “Here in Fort Worth, the relationship between the black community and the police department has been strained and stained.”

The selection of Joel Fitzgerald is historic; the city has never had a black police chief before. But it’s not a first for Fitzgerald: He was the first African-American police chief in Missouri City, Texas, and again in Allentown.

Fort Worth City Council is expected to vote later today to approve Fitzgerald’s appointment. He's scheduled to start in October.