New RTD police chief says more visibility will deter drugs, crime

Joel Fitzgerald Sr. is fresh both to metro Denver and to transit policing, but the newly sworn-in chief for the Regional Transportation District’s small force said Tuesday that restoring a sense of safety and security on the system already stands out as his top priority.

“My unscientific survey that I’ve done in my few days here, in plain clothes walking around and talking to people, is that there’s an overwhelming need for us to step up the safety and security of RTD,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only our physical infrastructure but the buses, trains and light rail systems. They want to see us. … And my emphasis will be visibility, (and in) interactions we’ll be firm, but we’ll be fair.”

Later, he added: “Mere presence helps — mere presence deters crimes from happening,” whether it’s an armed officer on the lookout for drug use and other crime, an outreach staffer helping a person having a mental health episode or an employee simply checking fares.

Fitzgerald, 51, whose new title is chief of police and emergency management, is a Philadelphia native who started his career with that city’s police department three decades ago. His experience includes leading four city police departments, most recently in Waterloo, Iowa, and he has master’s and doctorate degrees in business administration.

During Tuesday morning’s ceremony at Union Station, he set a goal of winning statewide accreditation for the first time for RTD’s police division, which the agency’s leader says will be elevated soon to a full department.

His history includes controversy surrounding his 2019 exit as police chief in Fort Worth, Texas. He was fired after four years, with a city official publicly questioning his judgment and leadership, including his behavior in a confrontation with a state union official at a conference.

Fitzgerald has an active whistleblower lawsuit against the city. He has contended that he was targeted for investigating the practices of the city’s information technology department, which involved access to a sensitive federal law enforcement database, according to news reports. He has said he introduced a witness to the FBI the same day he was fired.

“All I can say is that it’s progressing through court,” he said Tuesday about his case, noting that a Texas Supreme Court ruling last year allowed it to proceed to trial, which is still pending.

But, Fitzgerald added, “I will tell you this: The one thing that I expect out of every police officer is to demonstrate integrity, even when no one’s looking. And as the chief of police, you can count on me doing the right thing when no one’s looking — and that was evident in Fort Worth.”

He earlier led the police departments in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Missouri City, a suburb of Houston. He was nominated in 2018 to be Baltimore’s police commissioner but withdrew from consideration, citing a family illness. After his termination in Fort Worth, he briefly joined the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and then was appointed police chief in Waterloo in May 2020.

Fitzgerald’s wife, Pauline, is a homicide investigator in the Tarrant County, Texas, district attorney’s office, and one of his children is a police officer in Philadelphia. He said his wife is hoping to find a job in law enforcement in Colorado.

Debra Johnson, RTD’s CEO and general manager, said Fitzgerald was one of five finalists interviewed by her and an advisory panel that included people from policing backgrounds. His salary will be $250,000 a year, the agency said.

RTD’s police force numbers about 20 officers now, with several positions vacant. Previous plans have set a goal of expanding it to 70 or even 100 officers in coming years, with the agency relying less on hundreds of contracted security officers and moonlighting cops from area departments.

Fitzgerald said those plans may evolve as he eases into the new job.

Johnson noted during the ceremony that RTD’s police force coordinates with police agencies across its 2,300-square-mile service area, which overlaps with eight counties and 40 cities.

“All of this to say Chief Fitzgerald will certainly be busy in his new role as the third chief of police in the agency’s history,” she said.

Union Station and its underground bus concourse have been the site of more than 1,000 arrests and citations since last fall, though warmer summer weather has reduced problems there. Johnson, the CEO, has been a frequent fixture at news conferences called to address the Union Station challenges.

Asked by a reporter after the event about her short-term priority for Fitzgerald, she quipped: “My priority (is) he needs to become the face of this issue, and not me.”

Fitzgerald succeeds Robert Grado, who stepped down in March. Interim chief Steve Martingano, who confirmed he applied for the permanent job, will return to serving as deputy chief.

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