BALTIMORE (AP) - Baltimore’s next police leader faces formidable challenges: Reduce the highest homicide rate of any large U.S. city, rebuild trust between officers and deeply skeptical residents, and win the confidence of a demoralized department racked by corruption scandals and feuding factions.
That’s all while making sure sweeping reforms encompassing fundamental aspects of police work finally take root in Baltimore, where U.S. Justice Department investigators found the police force routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens for years.
“It will certainly be one of the more difficult jobs any police chief has faced anywhere,” said David Harris, who researches police behavior and law enforcement as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “These are the kinds of problems that would be very difficult and deep for any commissioner.”
Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald is willing to try. After roughly three years leading that department, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh last week hand-picked the 47-year-old Philadelphia native to be the city’s fourth police leader this year alone. She’s confident he’s the best candidate to lead the department “into a new era of credibility, accountability and trust.”
The commissioner-nominee - touted as a proven police “reformer” by the mayor’s office - faces multiple hearings over the next couple of months before the Baltimore City Council expects to vote on his nomination in late January.
But City Hall’s decision to keep the selection process secretive since May hasn’t started him off on the best foot.
Not only were citizens denied basic information about the candidates, even Baltimore’s police union and the City Council were shut out. Nobody outside of Pugh’s City Hall even knew who made up the selection committee.
Mike Mancuso, the newly elected leader of the union that represents Baltimore police officers, said the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge only learned of Fitzgerald’s nomination last week through local media.
“We were not asked to be a part of the search for this important position and as a result know only as much about Chief Fitzgerald as can be found via a web search,” Mancuso said.
Although City Hall had the right to keep the selection process private, many observers found their decision baffling considering that the city is already struggling to comply with a court-enforced consent decree demanding more transparency, among a slew of other police reforms.
“To say that the public has lost faith I think is a gross understatement. We are in a crisis. And yet we operate as if everything is fine and dandy. And it’s not,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.
In coming days, Baltimore officials will fan out to spots across the country where Fitzgerald has worked to conduct their own vetting.
Police union leaders plan to travel to Fort Worth, Allentown and Philadelphia to meet with counterparts to do their “own due diligence.” City Council members will soon head to Texas to interview people there to get a better sense of the man the mayor has picked to lead the country’s eighth largest municipal force.
Law enforcement experts say one thing is certain: Fitzgerald will have to work very quickly to unify the force under his guidance.
“He’s going to have to overcome the strain by rallying behind promises he can keep,” said Katie Zafft, a University of Maryland criminologist.
Among other things, Zafft believes Fitzgerald will need to convince officers he’s committed to their well-being by developing more robust benefit and promotion structures and rewarding officers who are rebuilding community trust. He also needs transparency in how officers will be held accountable for bad actions, she said.
If approved, he also has to convince large swaths of Baltimore to trust their sworn protectors to conduct themselves professionally and effectively tackle the city’s violent crime scourge. The 342 homicides last year in Baltimore yielded a homicide rate of 56 per 100,000 people, well above that of any other big American city. The city of roughly 612,000 people is on pace to notch more than 300 killings this year.
“The common ground between officers and the community is the need for violence reduction. No one wants to see this level of violence and building bridges under this shared goal is the best way to achieve what everyone wants: a safer community,” Zafft said.
Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, wants Fitzgerald to deliver a complete crime-reduction strategy along with a full-throated backing of police reform.
“The way this police department is constituted culturally is broken,” Scott said in a phone interview. “I want to clearly hear that he understands the structure of the department absolutely needs to change.”
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