Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald had been on the job just 14 months before facing his first big controversy. The video-recorded actions of a white police officer against a black woman and her children pushed the department – and Fitzgerald – into an international spotlight. In the view of many, the glare exposed racially motivated ugliness.
More than three months later, both Fitzgerald and the officer, William Martin, still have their jobs. But does the police chief in the nation’s 16th largest city have the confidence of the community after letting the cop keep his job?
Rev. Kyev Tatum, an activist who over the years has counseled several of Fort Worth’s police chiefs and city officials about race relations, feels that Fitzgerald’s characterization of Martin’s actions as “rude” but not racist, and his decision to suspend rather than fire him, was “one of the worst responses that I have seen in my 25 years of doing community organizing.”
Fitzgerald, Tatum said, is “wounded, most definitely.”
No one, Tatum continued, knows “how the community is going to respond to him.”
When Tatum and I spoke a couple of weeks ago, he said that a lot would depend on whether Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson took the matter involving Martin’s dealings with Jacqueline Craig and two of her daughters to the grand jury.
“The attorneys [representing Craig] are holding out hope that [Wilson will] do the right thing,” Tatum said. “But those of us who have been doing this a long time, we’re not holding our breath.”
Just four days later, the district attorney’s office provided a written statement to the Fort Worth Weekly, and it wasn’t what Tatum and some others had hoped: “It is our opinion based on the facts that no felonies took place related to this incident.”
So no grand jury, no indictment, no prosecution, and, in the opinion of some, no justice. Will that equate to no faith in the chief?
The incident in which Martin clashed with Craig and her kids occurred four days before Christmas last year. Martin responded to the Rock Gardens neighborhood after Craig phoned for help, claiming that a neighbor had assaulted her 7-year-old son. The neighbor, Itamar Vardi, claimed that the boy had littered on his property.
Within seconds of Martin’s arrival, dialogue between him and Craig went downhill. As an agitated Craig detailed her version of events, Martin inexplicably interjected, “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?”
It got worse. When Craig replied that she didn’t know whether her son had littered and that, regardless, it didn’t give Vardi the right to put his hands on her son, Martin asked another bizarre question: “Why not?”
Things escalated further, with Martin telling Craig, “If you keep yelling at me, you’re going to piss me off, and I’m going to take you to jail.” When Craig’s 15-year-old daughter, Jacques Craig, stepped between the two, Martin wrestled Jacqueline Craig to the ground, pressed a stun gun against her back, and handcuffed her. He also cuffed the 15-year-old, as well as Craig’s 19-year-old daughter, Brea Hymond, who had been screaming expletives while video-recording the confrontation on a cell phone. (The scuffle was also recorded on Martin’s bodycam, and that footage was later leaked, along with information that he had once been found to have violated department policy by Tasing a black teenager to stop a foot chase.) Craig’s daughters were taken into custody, accused of interference with public duty, resisting arrest, and failing to provide identification.
Footage of the incident showed that Martin appeared to push Hymond’s arms above her head from behind while she was handcuffed and to use his foot to push the 15-year-old into the police car. Fitzgerald determined that the officer had violated department policy on several counts in his handling of the incident. Martin acknowledged rudeness, but he disputed an allegation of having used excessive force. Fitzgerald proposed a seven-day suspension, which would have kept Martin on track for promotion to corporal (a move that did not endear the chief to many in the African-American community), but it would have meant that the officer could not appeal the decision. By not appealing the suspension and by challenging the excessive force claim, Martin could have seen the allegation used against him had the case gone to the grand jury. He opted to pass up the promotion and take a 10-day suspension, which allowed him to appeal.
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney representing the Craigs, said there is “a lot of anger” in the community against the DA. He and others had not only wanted felony charges brought against Martin but also a charge against Vardi more substantial than the Class C misdemeanor citation he was issued, to which he has pleaded not guilty. DA Wilson didn’t come through on that, either. In her statement, she says the municipal charge against Vardi is “an appropriate decision.”
The case may still make it into a courtroom. Merritt said his clients will be suing “everybody involved” –– the city, the police department, Vardi, and Martin. He noted that, although charges were dropped against Craig and her daughters, the arrests are still on their records, and, because of that, Hymond has had a tough time landing a job. The young woman committed no crime, he said, since there is nothing illegal about video-recording a police officer.
“This case,” Merritt said, “is not over.”
I received no response from Fitzgerald to my request for an interview. Among those who did talk to me was attorney and activist Kim T. Cole, who said that she and Dominique Alexander – both with the Next Generation Action Network, a multicultural nonprofit that lobbies for social change and equality –– met with Fitzgerald and Mayor Betsy Price in January and will likely meet with them again. The two officials, Cole said, appeared “very interested” in suggestions that she and Alexander presented that were based in part on the Campaign Zero agenda. Campaign Zero is an organization that advocates for police accountability and improving interactions between officers and communities. For Cole, a citizens review board and community-based policing are top priorities. As far as Fitzgerald letting Martin keep his job, Cole said the chief was hindered by “laws, rules, policies, and regulations.”
Under the circumstances, she continued, “I think that he did the best that he could do. The masses don’t understand the law. I would venture to say that very few have reviewed the Fort Worth Police Department’s policies with regard to sanctioning or punishing an officer. [Members of the public] were asking for things that weren’t even possible. The likelihood of [Martin] being convicted of a criminal act would be virtually none. There are very few cases where officers have been charged, even in deaths of unarmed individuals.”
Merritt and Tatum disagree with Cole’s view that Fitzgerald’s hands were tied.
“That’s a lie,” Merritt said. “Chief Fitzgerald wasn’t hindered. If everything happened by the book, then the book needs to be thrown out.”
Though Merritt doesn’t excuse Fitzgerald’s actions – or lack thereof – he feels that the real fault may lie with groups such as police officers associations that are “committed to keeping bad officers on the job.”
A bill filed during the current legislative session by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) would, if passed, bring reforms to police disciplinary processes. HB 2044 includes new provisions on police discipline, racial profiling, use of force, and data collection. Alexander said that in late March members of Next Generation Action Network testified at the Capitol in favor of the legislation. Alexander said it features “a laundry list of things that definitely would help” in cases like Craig’s, and would “reform the Civil Service Commission,” an agency that affords protections and special benefits to civil service employees.
The bill requires departments to create a “disciplinary matrix” with established punishments for various types of misconduct. It’s designed to create an equitable system for meting out punishments and to prevent disciplinary measures from being overturned in arbitration.
Alexander agrees with Cole that Martin, who is represented by a lawyer with the powerful Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, would have gotten his job back if Fitzgerald had fired him. In Rev. Tatum’s opinion, Martin should have been let go anyway.
“It would have sent the right message,” Tatum said. “The rules that allow them to get their jobs back should be repealed. It’s a perfect example that we need new rules.”
Though Merritt had held out hope that the grand jury would get the case, Cole didn’t see it happening.
“I understand that people want Officer Martin charged,” she said. “However, the grand jury or the DA is not going to indict or try a case where there really isn’t much likelihood of success. That’s a waste of taxpayer money. Law enforcement officers have really, really broad latitude when it comes to apprehending offenders. I can’t say I agree with it, but that’s how the court interprets an officer’s discretion.”
As for different law enforcement and citizens groups that are angry at Fitzgerald, Cole views it this way: “If everybody’s upset, I would say he did the right thing.”
Despite her feelings of how the case would have gone if charges had been filed against Martin, Cole sees a double standard at play. “If Miss Craig had done to her child what Officer Martin did to her child, or what the neighbor [allegedly] did to her child, she would have been charged with a crime,” she said.
Cole, Tatum, Alexander, and Griffin feel that the racially charged hot potato put Fort Worth’s black police chief in a no-win situation. In the views of Cole and Tatum, Fitzgerald himself may be in the crosshairs of a racial undercurrent that may still exist within the department four years after racial tensions were highlighted by an investigative report compiled for Fort Worth police by Coleman & Associates Consultants.
“The Police Officers Association has been against him from Day 1,” said Tatum, who feels that Fitzgerald “wants to make changes but has been hindered in doing so.”
Tatum still believes Fitzgerald also deserves some blame. The chief has “offended” a number of groups, Tatum said, including “Code Blue, the Police Officers Association, the Black Police Officers Association, Unity in the Community, and Faith and Community Leaders United.”
Fitzgerald, Tatum said, “has to reach out” instead of worrying about who leaked Martin’s bodycam video and personnel records. Two high-ranking administrators – Assistant Chief Abdul Pridgen and Deputy Chief Vance Keyes – have been temporarily stripped of their duties in connection with that investigation.
Fitzgerald “needs to show contrition,” Tatum added. “We still have a mama with some kids who hasn’t been made whole.”
Tatum said he doesn’t question that Fitzgerald is a good man. “I’m just thinking that the chief may be in over his head,” he said. “The city’s a mess. Now, granted, it was in a mess before Chief Fitzgerald got here, and it’s going to be a mess once he decides to leave. But this city has to come to grips with the excessive use of force by police against the [African-American] community. It’s setting itself up for a serious powder keg to explode.”