After a year-long investigation which uncovered instances of shocking racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and crass abuses of power, Howard County, Maryland sheriff James Fitzgerald has agreed to turn in his badge and step down.
Fitzgerald, who is in the midst of his third term as Howard County sheriff, will end his tenure on October 15, despite having vociferously declared his intention to stay on the job since damning allegations against him were made public in late September.
In a 48-page report from the Howard County Office of Human Rights, obtained by the Washington Post, Fitzgerald was alleged to have:
- Exclaimed “there’s no watermelon for you” to a black person while at a buffet.
- Sarcastically asked his black deputy “are you getting the chicken special?” at a department meal.
- Told an employee that, “African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done”
- Referred to black people by using the n-word.
- Called a former county executive, “little Kenny Jew-boy.”
- Made crude comments about womens’ breasts.
- Discriminated against a former officer who failed to back Fitzgerald in his 2014 re-election efforts.
It was that last allegation which prompted the OHR investigation. The officer who lodged the complaint, Charles Gable, resigned in February, according to Baltimore Sun. As a condition of Fitzgerald’s resignation, Gable will reportedly be reinstated within the sheriff’s office, and given nearly $60,000 in back pay.
Given the nature of the allegations against him, Fitzgerald’s resignation may have seemed like an inevitability. However, in the days following the OHR’s report, the sheriff had been adamant in his refusal to step down.
“I can say that the report was humbling, hurtful and disappointing for all involved,” Fitzgerald said in a September 29 press conference, during which he vowed to stay on the job. “It has caused me to reflect on what is important to my family, our community and the men and women, the deputies, that serve for the office of sheriff in Howard County.”
Fitzgerald’s insistence on staying prompted outrage across Howard County and Maryland at large. The local NAACP called his alleged actions “unfathomable,” and added that “the citizens of Howard County deserve a Sheriff Department that reflects an environment of inclusion and professionalism.”
According to WBAL, the sheriff’s office also was the site of protests, with people calling for Fitzgerald to resign. As the Sun notes, the Howard County Sheriff is, in fact, a state office, and short of impeachment, there were no real means for legislators to remove Fitzgerald from his position—something County Council chairperson Calvin Ball acknowledged in a statement on Tuesday announcing Fitzgerald’s resignation.
“I appreciate the call for impeachment; however, this can be a lengthy process. Therefore, I began engaging in discussions with Mr. Fitzgerald, following the release of the Human Rights report, to discuss the voluntary conciliatory process, as outlined in our Howard County Code,” Ball explained. “I spoke with him about the pain of our community and how we needed to turn the page on this chapter of prejudice. The intent of actions and words is irrelevant in the face of such a horrendous impact.”
Fitzgerald’s impending departure—and the circumstances which lead to his stepping down—are a painful moment for a community with a reputation for tolerance and acceptance; Howard County is the home to the city of Colombia, a community created in the early 1960s by businessman and activist James Rouse as a model suburban utopia, flush with diversity and prosperity.
For Ball, however, Fitzgerald’s resignation is an opportunity.
“I hope we can see this moment as a beginning and not an end,” he explained in his statement. “We will have a new sheriff and we will still have so many issues within and around our community. This episode should show us that we cannot simply assume we are and will be No. 1. We cannot rest on our laurels.”
“Elected officials, community leaders, and everyday citizens must be ready and willing to struggle to achieve more to engage our diversity and have the difficult conversations.”