It’s been the better part of a year since Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead stepped down. Now, the city is about to hire a new top cop, and the job won’t likely prove easy.
When the new Fort Worth police chief gets started, he or she will have some internal fence-mending to do.
In the last year, four black officers have filed lawsuits against the department and former chief alleging racial discrimination. Similar charges came out of the Latino officers' association.
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.
The six finalists for the job appeared at a public forum last week. There, the diverse group of candidates focused on shoring up the relationship between Fort Worth’s diverse communities and the police department that serves them. That makes sense given protests in North Texas and across the country over police treatment of communities of color.
City Council member Sal Espino acknowledged both internal and external tensions, and said communication skills are a top priority for the next chief.
“We were looking for a police chief that knows how to speak consistently with a message of diversity, inclusion, professionalism, respect and trust to every community in Fort Worth,” Espino said.
“You can’t hope to build trust in a community when you need it. You have to get it well beforehand,” Joel Fitzgerald, chief of police in Allentown, Penn., told the crowd.
Anne Kirkpatrick knows that well. Before she became a police trainer for the FBI, Kirkpatrick led the Spokane, Wash., police department, taking the reins at a time of turmoil. She said it took years to rebuild trust.
“One event can totally erode relationships. When we talk about trust, we’re actually talking about legitimacy,” Kirkpatrick said. “Are our police departments viewed as legitimate?”
San Antonio Assistant Police Chief Jose Banales sees a fairly straightforward prescription for officers.
"By listening, by being able to explain your actions, provide them with some certain level of equity and then leave them with their dignity," Banales said.
Two of Fort Worth’s assistant police chiefs are in the running. Abdul Pridgen said he wants to build on successful community policing strategies, like getting the top brass out to walk the streets and meet residents.
“That’s how they get to know who you are, identify you as a person, and that’s how you build respect, rapport, and understanding,” which he said leads to better crime fighting because “when you have wonderful relationships, that helps you solve crime.”
“You’ve got a personal individual who you can call, who you can talk to, who you can reach out to in order to discuss the problems, find the solutions, find people who can help you with those solutions,” said Kenneth Dean, the other local in the mix.
The sixth candidate, Kevin Munden, retired from the Houston Police Department, where he was an executive assistant chief. He pointed to a huge Labor Day rally in downtown Fort Worth showing solidarity with the police department.
“I see what’s happening across the country, and it’s disturbing,” Munden said. “I see what’s happening in Fort Worth. You guys have a rally to support your police officers while everyone else is denigrating their police officers.”
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke will have final say over who to hire. He has yet to announce a timeline for the decision. He said the forum was a chance for “the community can hear directly from the six candidates and the six candidates get to connect to the community, but it’s only a beginning point at that stage.”
Both Fitzgerald and Pridgen are black, and could become the city’s first African-American police chief. Kirkpatrick is bidding to be the city’s first permanent female police chief.