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Fort Worth Makes History, Names Its First Black Police Chief

Christopher Connelly
Allentown, Pa., Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald will start in Fort Worth on Oct. 19. He's shown earlier this month at a public forum for the finalists in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth has chosen a new police chief: Joel Fitzgerald, who's spent the last two years as top cop in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He'll be Fort Worth's first African-American chief. That's a description he's used to. 

"It’s been huge in every police chief responsibility and job that I’ve had – I was the first African-American police chief in Missouri City, Texas; I was the first African-American police chief in Allentown," he told KERA by phone from Pennsylvania.

Fitzgerald turned down Wichita, Kansas, for the Fort Worth job.

“When this position was first posted, I’d like to think I was the first to apply,” he says. “It has a tremendous reputation. And although it has a tremendous reputation, there’s always room to improve.”

One of those areas for improvement may well be inside the department. In the last year, four African-American officers have sued the force, alleging racial discrimination in the top ranks. Fitzgerald said interim Chief Rhonda Robertson has been working to mend fences.

It’s about inclusion, he says.

“Getting people down at the table and talking about the issues that the organization has and working through them collectively – and I can facilitate that,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald takes the reins after the retirement of Jeffrey Halstead. The former chief says the job is tougher now than ever. Social media means a chief has to be ready to react and communicate if there is tension. Also, he says, the growth of the city’s police force has not kept pace with the influx of new residents.

“At some point there has to be a definitive staffing plan so that you don’t have a calls for service delay – meaning it’s taking too long for police to get to emergencies across the city,” he says.

Bob Ray Sanders, a former KERA reporter who just retired as a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram says Fitzgerald's hiring is a significant milestone in the city's racial history.

“We’re slow,” Sanders says. “There was a time that we were trying to select a superintendent and the president of the school board said the city wasn’t ready for one. We’ve heard that in times past. We’ve heard it with the police chief.”

Sanders says Fitzgerald’s commitment to diversity and inclusion impressed him at a community forum he moderated earlier this month. That’ll be important since the city’s minority communities have had tense interactions in the past few years that have shaken trust.

Fitzgerald says that he knows community buy-in is a requirement for doing good police work.

“That’s the biggest test is building that confidence and the sense of procedural justice in the community is when we need it. When you have to ask for it, it’s too late.”

Fort Worth city manager David Cooke made the announcement in a statement: “Chief Fitzgerald’s more than 20 years of experience, combined with his strong leadership skills and his personal commitment to community engagement and involvement, make him the best choice to lead the Fort Worth Police Department in this new era of community policing.”

In Allentown, Fitzgerald told his staff about the news this afternoon. He's been chief there since December 2013. Before that, he spent four years running the department in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. He previously was an officer in Philadelphia.

On Tuesday night, the Fort Worth City Council will consider a resolution appointing Fitzgerald. He's expected to start work on Oct. 19.

'Do away with the good old boy system,' pastor says

KERA recently reported on the six police chief finalists.

When Fitzgerald gets started, he'll have some internal fence-mending to do. It’s been the better part of a year since Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead stepped down. 

Credit City of Fort Worth
Joel Fitzgerald has been named the new Fort Worth police chief.

Along with the lawsuits, various groups called for Halstead’s resignation.

Pastor Talben Pope of Bridging the Gap ministries said the next chief needs to fix systemic problems.

“I think we need to do away with the good old boy program. You know, my buddies and promoting my friends, and start really going in the ranks and looking at those who have worked hard and who really deserves a promotion,” Pope said.

Fort Worth over Wichita

The Morning Call in Pennsylvania reports:

Fitzgerald's exit has been anticipated for more than a month after the disclosure that he was a finalist for two chief positions — in Fort Worth and Wichita, Kansas. ... The Fort Worth position will be a significant promotion for Fitzgerald, who commands a staff of just over 200 police officers in Allentown. Fort Worth has nearly 800,000 residents and a police department with more than 1,800 employees. Fort Worth's previous police chief made $170,384 annually. ...  Fitzgerald was one of two finalists for the chief position in Wichita and would have overseen a department of 800 employees. He declined the city's offer saying he was focused on the position in Fort Worth, according to Wichita officials.