With the ouster of Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald last week, attention is turning to what the city should look for in its next police chief.
City leaders say they aren’t rushing to fill the spot, and that they’re confident Interim Chief Ed Kraus, who was sworn in Tuesday, will lead the nearly department and its nearly 1,700 sworn officers, in the meantime. Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa oversees the police department, and says he’s happy with the leadership team at Fort Worth PD, and that crime is down.
“First quarter crime stats came in and we’re lower than last year, overall,” Chapa said. “I think the department’s doing great, regardless of how folks were looking at the angst with the police chief in different areas.”
Before he was fired, Fitzgerald had rocky relationships with city leadership, with rank and file members of his department, and, at times, with leaders from the city’s black communities.
Chapa says the next chief will need to be a stronger collaborator, and have an open mind. He’ll be looking for someone who is a leader, “but leads by example and leads by inclusion and by taking others’ ideas [seriously], and is going to work well within the city organization, not just the police department.”
Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association President Manny Ramirez says morale is up with Fitzgerald out. The appointment of Kraus, a 26-year veteran of the force, was seen as a positive sign among many in the department, he said.
The union leader credited Fitzgerald with successes, like improving the department’s technology, but said many officers weren’t sure that Fitzgerald had their back. He says he’s looking for the next chief to be transparent, egalitarian and willing to give officers the tools and the latitude to do their jobs.
“The number one goal of any police officer,” Ramirez said, “is to make the city safer than it was yesterday. And I think we want a chief that encourages that, and a chief that allows that to happen.”
Mayor Betsy Price echoed that, saying she wants someone who’ll empower the city’s police officers.
“The top priority is can they get their force engaged: Develop their trust, develop the community trust, and be out making solid decisions and working with their force and working with the neighbors,” Price said.
Beyond city hall and outside the police department, Fitzgerald’s firing has spurred plenty of conversation. .
“When I found out he was fired, I started making phone calls,” said Dante Williams, who runs the nonprofit Community Frontline that, as part of its mission, tries to promote dialogue between police and communities of color.
Williams says he heard a lot of frustration about the way Fitzgerald was firing, that it was abrupt -- rude, even -- though totally not unexpected. He says Fitzgerald carried a lot of hope for people when he was hired as the city’s first black police chief in 2015.
“There was an expectation that he was really going to be about how policing affected the black community,” Williams said. “And I would say since he’s been let go, got fired, I think it’s been evident that the black community hasn’t really come out and spoken on his behalf, and I think that tells some of the story.”
Another part of the story is a larger frustration: Williams says all the talk about improving policing and reducing racial disparities doesn’t seem to have changed much on the ground. He wants the next chief to be independent enough to hold the department and themselves accountable, especially to the communities that see the most police interactions.
“We need someone that’s going to be in that position that’s going to be more visible, more accessible to the common, everyday person,” Williams said.
Pastor Michael Bell of Greater St. Stephens First Church, who was part of a committee that signed off on Fitzgerald, says he thought Fitzgerald was going to be that kind of police chief. But Bell grew frustrated with Fitzgerald’s handling of controversial use of force incidents. Bell says part of the blame lies with Fitzgerald, and part of it lies with larger political challenges in the city.
“He didn’t have the dexterity to have the skillset to navigate the minefield that is Fort Worth politics,” Bell said.
The politics, Bell says, were both internal to the police force and within city hall. He cites a 2014 investigation -- from before Fitzgerald arrived -- that found discrimination against black officers within the mostly white department, and he points to the city’s race and culture task force that described a “systemic, structural and institutional racism” in the city.
For the next chief, Bell says, “I hope against hope for someone who’s fair, someone who’s a friend to justice not a stranger to justice, someone who has integrity, someone who’s not so hard-wired to the system in Fort Worth that they can’t say no.”
Both Bell and Williams expressed skepticism that their wishes would be met.
Whenever the next chief is hired, it’s clear that they’ll face a lot of expectations, from community leaders, from police officers and from city officials.