Fort Worth’s new police chief started work Monday. Joel Fitzgerald became the city’s first African-American in that job. He’s talked about bringing big changes and a focus on community-oriented policing, a legacy he’s left at the other two cities where he’s served as chief, according to city officials and people who worked with him and speak highly of his abilities.
“Fort Worth owes us one,” says Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Don’t be surprised if we come down there to recruit.”
Fitzgerald only spent a couple years as top cop in Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. In that time, though, Pawlowski says he played a big role in adding to the city’s redevelopment. The downtown core is being revitalized, and decreasing crime has been a big part of that effort.
“We’ve been able to change that perception of a city that’s unsafe to a city that really is coming back and has a real sense of security and safety in its neighborhoods,” he says.
The Allentown Police Department has faced at least eight lawsuits alleging police brutality in the past year. Pawlowski says Fitzgerald handled difficult issues with decisive fairness that earned community praise and maintained morale within the department. Fitzgerald also stepped up cultural literacy trainings, hired the department’s first LGBT community liaison and established a youth academy so kids could see cops in a more positive environment.
“He’s trying to figure what’s going on in the community not just focused on arresting and convicting people,” says Dan Bosket, who ran the local NAACP chapter.
Bosket described Fitzgerald as approachable and earnest – traits that were on display when he gave his first press conference in Fort Worth after taking the job. Interim chief Rhonda Robison introduced him as Doctor Joel Fitzgerald. He has a Ph.D. in business administration.
“I begged Rhonda not to call me that,” Fitzgerald said. He likes “chief” better: It shows he’s just part of the team. “I think that’s very important for the men and women who don the uniform every day and the people that they protect that they know that I’m one of them,” he said.
Fitzgerald’s first chief job came in 2009, in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. Officers there were anxious about the change he was pushing, according to Det. Keith Boyett. The head of the Missouri City Police Officers Association says Fitzgerald demanded a lot of his officers and deputies, but he never failed to provide them the resources needed to meet his expectations. He won people over by keeping communication open.
“He would have quarterly meetings to let them know what direction we were going, why we were going there, what he was hoping to accomplish instead of sending mandates down through the rank and file,” Boyett says.
Fitzgerald would also make it a point to meet rank-and-file officers in person, and not just when it was convenient for him. “You’d see him show up on the night shift, two in the morning, with the guys when they got hit with commercial burglaries,” Boyett says.
Boyett says officers saw Fitzgerald as one of them. He came up as a patrol officer in Philadelphia and came to lead that department’s narcotics division. On top of community policing, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen says Fitzgerald pushed smarter policing: using crime data to deploy officers more effectively, and sharing information with neighboring police forces to solve more crimes.
“When I was in Washington, D.C., this April asking for grants, we were bragging about many of the programs that he brought to Missouri City when he came in ‘09,” Owen said.
Owen says that Fitzgerald won over city leaders with his passion and professionalism. His one defect: He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia Eagles fan.
“But I don’t hold that against him,” Owen is quick to add.