Some were tearful, others gestured angrily and still others brandished notes reflecting their research.
But for over six hours, with few exceptions, the speakers at a public hearing on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick to lead the Baltimore Police Department said with one voice yesterday:
The selection process has been terribly flawed.
Crime and bloodshed has become unbearable.
Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald is not the man for the job.
“Our children’s lives are at stake. Mothers are hurting, fathers are hurting. I will not let the city of Baltimore continue to sweep my son’s name under the rug,” said Greta Willis, recounting the death of her 14-year-old son Kevin Cooper, who she said was killed by city police in 2006.
Fitzgerald will not be any more likely to hold officers accountable for misconduct than previous police chiefs have, said Tawanda Jones, a mainstay in the city’s activist community since the in-custody death of her brother Tyrone West in 2013.
“Bringing somebody like him from out of town is utterly ridiculous,” Jones said, to applause.
Although speaker after speaker delivered variations of the same blunt message, it remains unclear what action the City Council will take or when they will take it.
Council members have until January 28 to vote on Fitzgerald. If they don’t, he is automatically approved.
Some elected officials, like Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, still seem to be wrestling with the need to know more information.
“I’m like a lot of people who came here today and a lot of the people who have written,” Clarke said. “I have a lot of questions, and I need more personal time to take the measure of the man.”
Opposed: 48 of 51 Speakers
Pugh had promised community involvement in the six-month search for the next police commissioner, but that never happened.
Yesterday’s unusual forum on a Saturday was the first opportunity for residents to directly address officials about the nominee Pugh and her advisors selected behind closed doors.
And not only criticized, the selection process has been marked by confusion.
The latest example: the public meetings Fitzgerald was supposed to attend in East and West Baltimore were canceled after Pugh announced that Fitzgerald’s son had a medical emergency. The initial announcement also said that yesterday’s Council hearing had been canceled.
Committee Chair Robert Stokes Jr. stated several times yesterday that Fitzgerald had been invited to the hearing and had agreed to come until his son’s medical problems arose.
Stokes said 51 people spoke yesterday and only three were in support of Fitzgerald.
The crowd at the start of the hearing filled the Council chambers, but quickly thinned as the day wore on.
“This place should be standing room only,” said Fells Point business owner Beth Hawks. “This room tells you how people don’t believe in this.”
Still, Hawks had come to join the chorus against Fitzgerald and argue that city leaders should keep Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle on board.
Her other recommendation: bring back former Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale.
Mark Conn also said he favored an insider for commissioner, expressing a favorable opinion of Pugh’s previous pick, Darryl De Sousa, who resigned last May after he admitted failing to file federal income tax returns.
“The last time the murder rate was under 200 was in 2011 when we had a homegrown commissioner,” said Conn, a 40-year city resident.
Others stressed the need for a new commissioner who would curtail the violent acts by police themselves.
Tawanda Jones referenced a 2017 incident in which Fort Worth officers were caught on tape throwing a woman to the ground and arresting her.
“For me to see a video of a lady named Jacqueline who basically was abused, her family, her child, and the way he [Fitzgerald] handled that, and he supported the officer involved,” Jone said. “And that was justifiable? When is enough enough?”
Indeed, most of the speakers came to the hearing prepared with information about Fitzgerald, his history, and the current state of the Baltimore Police Department.
Several said they had read all of the 200-plus-page report released after Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other members visited Texas last month.
Activist Kim Trueheart said she had gone online, looking for a video of Fitzgerald interacting with the public at community meetings and found none.
“I have lost five cousins to gun violence,” she told Council members. “I promised you that there would not be a sixth. But that can only happen if you do your job.”
A parade of prominent locals joined citizens to share concerns both about Fitzgerald and the selection process: Baltimore NAACP President Kobi Little, former prosecutor and former state’s attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah, and lawyer J. Wyndal Gordon, who represented the family of Korryn Gaines.
Representing a national organization was Monique L. Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Dixon said her group had made a formal request to Pugh – withdraw Fitzgerald as a candidate.
Stokes: “It’s not good”
Council members took heat from some speakers who reminded them of their prior confirmation of De Sousa, which was was widely perceived as a rubber stamp.
“Don’t do it again,” activist Megan Kenny told members repeatedly.
Appearing anxious to dodge those accusations this time, several Council members greeted as many attendees as they could find during hearing breaks.
“What I heard was that the community is not very in support of Mr. Fitzgerald,” said Stokes. “It’s not good. It’s not good. Just listen to the community testimony. It’s not good.”
Stokes demurred, however, when asked how he would vote.
“I definitely heard from the community and I’m going to take everything they said in,” he said. “It’s just not good right now for Mr. Fitzgerald.”
Mayoral spokesman James Bentley said he was “pretty sure she probably watched,” but that the mayor would have no comment on the hearing.
“Her thoughts right now are with the commissioner-designate’s family as they deal with their son’s medical emergency.”
“Rotted to the Core”
Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the Public Safety Committee, has been a frequent critic of the mayor and the selection process.
During the hearing, he tweeted out copies of letters that Council members had sent to Pugh asking to see Fitzgerald’s entire background file. He said those letters were ignored.
Scott said what he heard yesterday wasn’t new to him.
“That this has been a very flawed process that the administration put forth,” he said. “And they put the citizenry and the Council in the position where they feel as though they don’t, one, have enough information to make a determination and, two, that the process itself has rotted this to the core.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen released his own statement shortly after the conclusion of the meeting.
“What I heard today speaks to a clear and overwhelming distrust of this nominee and the process,” he wrote. Cohen also quoted a comment he said he received from a police officer who asked to remain anonymous:
“I do not need someone who is going to come here to ‘clear corners.’ I need someone who is going to have officers walk post. I need someone who is going to have an actual goal for community policing, fixing attrition and overtime abuse. I need someone with a plan. Joel Fitzgerald is not that person.”