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When Joel Fitzgerald was hired as Fort Worth's police chief 3½ years ago, he was the de facto diversity director.
When Joel Fitzgerald was hired as Fort Worth's police chief 3½ years ago, he was the de facto diversity director.
City of Fort Worth

Fort Worth Wants to Hire a Diversity Director. They Canned the Last One.

The city of Fort Worth is interviewing six finalists for the job of diversity director. The city will pay whoever gets the job between $125,820 and $207,604 a year. I know how they can get this done for free.

Find out why Joel Fitzgerald got fired. I’m serious. All the answers are right there. Doesn’t cost a nickel.

Fitzgerald, former police chief of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Missouri City, Texas, was Fort Worth’s first black chief, serving for 3½ years before being summarily sacked last May. The main reason cited for firing him was that he didn’t fit in. A lot of people would say he should have been fired if he did fit in.

In fact, that was kind of the point. Fitting in was supposed to be the last thing they wanted him to do. Fitzgerald, who holds a doctoral degree, came with high marks for improving police community relations in Missouri City, a Houston suburb of 75,000 that is 42% black, 32% white and 19% Asian.

When Fort Worth hired Fitzgerald 3½ years ago, he was supposed to be the diversity director. How did that work out?

And maybe before they hire some consultant eager to suck down one to two hundred grand a year making them feel better about diversity, the city might take cognizance of the fact that the people doing the hiring here are the ones who just fired Fitzgerald. Now what do they want? A diversity director or a movie director?

Fort Worth is easily the most cowboy of the major Texas cities, a thing it brags about and that we all find charming, if by “we all” I mean all us white folks. Black, Hispanic and gay citizens of Fort Worth have complained for years about a police force that routinely treats constitutional rights like New Year’s resolutions.

Then there is this: After Missouri City, Fitzgerald was the police chief of Allentown, a city of 122,000 where he earned a different kind of distinction. His mayor, Ed Pawlowski, wound up getting sent to federal prison for 15 years last year on 47 federal charges of corruption. But Fitzgerald came out of that particular City Hall squeaky clean.

That really does not happen by accident. Pawlowski was accused of putting Allentown City Hall up for sale. A jury wound up deciding it was true. Staying clean in that kind of rat hole is no easy task for a person operating in a powerful, high-profile position like police chief. He needs to have eyes in the back of his head, a keen sense of smell and the ability not just to say no but to say get the hell out of here.

Fitzgerald was fired by Fort Worth hours before he was to meet with the FBI on a number of issues, one of which was a whistleblower complaint from a city employee who felt he or she had been pressured into giving Mayor Betsy Price’s son-in-law a parking lot contract for the Will Rogers Memorial Center, home of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.

Fitzgerald is suing the city for reinstatement and isn’t giving interviews to reporters while that’s ongoing. But I know from people close to him that he thought the parking lot thing looked and smelled exactly like the kind of issue that just put his former mayor in Allentown in the pen for 15 years. In other words, Fitzgerald is a serious, respected figure in law enforcement, with experience working in a crooked city hall, and he thought this was sufficiently troubling that he needed to tell the FBI about it.

By the way, firing him didn’t stop him from talking to the FBI. He reported the parking contract and a host of other issues to the FBI after he was fired, as he had intended to do before he was fired.

The parking lot matter was not the major source of friction between Fitzgerald and City Hall, however. The local police union and its statewide umbrella group were publicly and vehemently unhappy with Fitzgerald over disciplinary issues within the police department. The city manager was generally and consistently disposed to sympathize with the union and not with Fitzgerald.

I have written before about the immediate ostensible cause for his firing — an allegation that he had embarrassed the city by speaking harshly to a state police union official at a national event in Washington. Several highly credible witnesses present when the alleged incident took place are willing to say it never happened, according to Fitzgerald’s lawyer, Stephen Kennedy.

But give me a break. And, look, I realize I’m still a Yankee no matter how long I live here. I asked my Texas native wife how long she will still consider me a carpetbagger, and she said, if I go first, the rest of my life. Otherwise, the rest of her life. But he spoke harshly? And they fired him for that?

We’re talking about a bunch of cops and ex-cops. Career police officers and the like. I’m trying to think, by Yankee standards, what it would have taken. What if he had punched the guy out onstage? Eh. Not really.

You would need a pattern of behavior. He just won’t stop punching people out onstage, something like that. Every time he gets onstage with somebody, blammo. Fist city. Still might not be enough, if they deserved it. To get straight-up fired, he might have to punch out some children.

But he spoke harshly? Oh, my, Fort Worth must be the Ms. Manners Capital of America. Those people must be doffing their Stetsons and low-bowing from the waist every time they pass on the street. It’s a wonder they can get anything done. Police chief spoke harshly. Gotta let him go. That’s just kind of real hard to believe isn’t it?

What’s easier to believe, begging your pardon, is that it had something to do with the disciplinary issues, some of which had to do with diversity issues. And, by the way, not all of those went the way you might suspect, if your assumption was that Fitzgerald, as the city’s first black chief, consistently sided with black cops against white cops.

Many of the same questions raised by the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson are raised in fired Fort Worth police Chief Joel Fitzgerald's reinstatement lawsuit.EXPAND
Many of the same questions raised by the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson are raised in fired Fort Worth police Chief Joel Fitzgerald's reinstatement lawsuit.
Jim Schutze

One of Fitzgerald’s early battles had to do with two African American deputy chiefs of police whom he demoted for leaking the body cam video in the controversial 2017 arrest of Jacqueline Craig and her two daughters. Craig, who is black, had called police about an assault on her 7-year-old son. The body cam video of their arrest went viral nationally.

Fitzgerald did not feel the white police officer’s actions constituted a firing offense. The officer was given a 10-day suspension. When Fitzgerald demoted the two high-ranking officers for giving misleading answers about the leaked video to police investigators, Craig led a protest movement calling for Fitzgerald to be fired. If there’s a bottom line, I guess it’s that it’s not easy being the chief of police, even when you do it right, maybe especially when you do it right.

The issue of police training in Fort Worth has come back to the fore following the death of 28-year-old Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, shot in her mother’s home Oct. 12 by a white police officer. After that shooting, Kennedy, Fitzgerald’s lawyer, made a public statement claiming the Jefferson death and a series of police shootings preceding it would not have happened if the city had not fired his client.

I don’t know how you prove that, but I do know it’s the central issue anyway, especially given how hokey the public excuses were for firing Fitzgerald. Was he really fired because he was pushing the police force hard on diversity, discipline and training in ways that offended the good ol’ boys? Was he fired over the more old-fashioned stuff like simple contract corruption?

Fitzgerald was given the option of slinking out with some cash in his pocket if he agreed to go quietly, which meant signing a non-disparagement agreement. He told the city to stuff their non-disparagement, because he believed there were underlying issues, things bigger than him that people needed to know about.

So let’s go back to the six-figure diversity director they want to hire. If Fitzgerald was fired for pushing that very issue, how does somebody come in behind him and credibly serve as the diversity director under the very same people who just fired the last guy? How do you keep that job two weeks?

I’d say only you keep the job if you doff the hat, deep-bow from the waist and call everybody you meet your highness. If I wanted to keep that job, I’d call the security guard at the front desk your highness. You don’t know whose daughter-in-law she might be.

Until it’s resolved, the Fitzgerald firing is a barrier standing in the way of Fort Worth’s ability to accomplish anything real on diversity. It won’t work to try to step around or smooth over this mess as if it never happened. All that does is tell the new six-figure diversity guru to keep his or her mouth shut and kiss everybody’s ass.

And the solving of it is free. Well, I mean it doesn’t cost them any new money. They’ve already got a city council. They’ve got a city hall. We already have this thing called free speech, which, by the way, is a right, not a New Year’s resolution.

So they call a meeting. Invite Fitzgerald and his lawyer. Invite their own lawyer, so they don’t get in Dutch. And then they hear it out.

You never know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were able to really work out what happened and what they need to do in the future? They might even find out they don’t even need a diversity director now. That’s $125,820 to $207,604 a year in savings right there.

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