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Viral Arrest Video Tests Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald

Christopher Connelly
Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald

A viral video of a white Fort Worth police officer forcefully arresting a black woman and her daughters in December has put a spotlight on the city's police chief, Joel Fitzgerald. As the investigation is beginning to wrap up, many are waiting to see how he handles the fallout.

The video showed the officer pulling his Taser and wrestling Jacqueline Craig and one of her daughters to the ground after Craig had called the police for help. She said her neighbor had assaulted her 7-year-old son. Before he arrested Craig, he questioned her parenting, which led to a heated exchange.

Back when Fitzgerald arrived in the fall of 2015, during his first public appearance in Fort Worth after being named police chief, he laid out a progressive policing philosophy. Surrounded by city leadership, police brass, and leaders from across Fort Worth’s diverse communities, he talked about building stronger bonds between the department and residents.

“Sometimes it’s more than being the occupying force. Sometimes it’s involving ourselves in the fabric of the community,” Fitzgerald said. "And that’s one thing that I promise in my time here is that we engage the community members actively, that we listen. And we build an inclusive Fort Worth Police Department.”

More than a year later, that viral arrest video, which has caused tension and protests, may be the biggest test yet for the city’s first African-American police chief.

Pastors want officer fired, but praise the chief

At a press conference just after Christmas, a group of black Fort Worth faith leaders demanded the officer from the video fired and prosecuted. They wanted more action to build trust with the community.

Still, Rev. B. R. Daniels, Jr., of First Greater New Hope Baptist Church had praise for the chief.

“I do want to applaud our chief, Chief Joel Fitzgerald, who has an open door policy, who has been willing to come to our communities and our churches, and who has gone back and has diligently fought to make our concerns manifest,” Daniels said.

Video of the December incident

(Warning: Video may not be suitable for all viewers.)

Chief: Officer was rude, not racist

Fitzgerald declined an interview request, but has publicly pledged transparency during the investigation. He said he was disturbed by what he saw in the video. But it was the chief’s answer to a question about whether the video showed an officer being racist that grabbed headlines.

“What I can say is that I noticed in the video that the officer was rude. And, you know, there’s a difference between rude and racism,” Fitzgerald said as he addressed reporters alongside elected officials.

Many of the pastors say that misses the bigger picture. Rev. Kyev Tatum is part of that group of faith leaders, called the Circle of Clergy for Change.

“When you defend an officer’s behavior that is indefensible, and say it was rude and not racist on national TV, when those of us who are feeling the impact of this institutional racism, then that tells me that you’re disingenuous no matter what the color of your skin,” Tatum said.

Department rocked by internal discord

When Fitzgerald arrived in Fort Worth, he inherited a department that had been rocked by internal discord. African-American officers had sued alleging racial discrimination. That came on top of high-profile events including the Taser death of a mentally ill black man. Tatum says that's why he can't view the arrest of Jacqueline Craig as an isolated case.

“Once you’ve had all of these incidents, the sensitivity is so great it’s like having an arm that’s been sick. You don’t have to hit it hard for it to hurt,” Tatum said. “You can barely touch it.”

Tatum said the Fort Worth Police Department has failed to fully implement a 2014 plan to address those problems. Tatum said the Craig video tests Chief Fitzgerald.

“He hasn’t failed the test, but the jury is still out,” Tatum said. “It’s not the incident. It’s not the reaction to the incident. It’s what you do after the reaction to the incident. And that’s where we are.”

'What exactly is the credibility index'

Alex del Carmen, who leads Tarleton State University’s criminal justice program and trains officers and police chiefs, said the perception among those being policed that they will get fair treatment is crucial for effective policing in any city.

“If I were chief, I would want to know what exactly is the credibility index of the people in the community toward the Fort Worth Police Department,” del Carmen said. “It’s not whether or not they like the officers, and it’s not whether or not people support law enforcement community. We know that people here in Texas do. But what’s important is the credibility.”

Del Carmen points to a track record of progressive policing efforts in Fort Worth, including a Justice Department program designed to build trust between communities of color and law enforcement agencies. He said, after the viral video, Fitzgerald has to ensure those efforts are making a meaningful difference on the ground.

Viral video an opportunity for Fitzgerald

“Throughout the nation, what we’ve found is that there are times when police agencies may say all the right things at the top level, but at the same time the rank and file don’t seem to represent whatever the top-ranking officer says,” del Carmen said. “In other words, it doesn’t trickle down to the extent that the actual officers are doing that.”

Del Carmen said this viral video offers an opportunity for Fitzgerald. He could help make Fort Worth a national model for how to respond to these kinds of racially charged incidents, and for overcoming long-standing grievances between police and communities of color.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.