Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald called a press conference Thursday, Sept. 29, to issue an apology in the wake of a scathing county Office of Human Rights report that details accusations of racism and harassment by the sheriff.
“I want to apologize to you all for the atmosphere that has been created last week or so for the accusations that had been directed at me during my time as sheriff,” Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement. He did not apologize for, or address any, specific actions detailed in the report.
Terming the Human Rights report “an opinion” that was “humbling, hurtful and disappointing to all involved,” he said it has caused him to reflect on what is important to his family and the community, as well as the civilian and sworn staff in his office.
Fitzgerald defended his tenure, noting that African-Americans fill 19 of his office’s 69 current staff positions, with 14 of those 19 positions hired during his 10 years as sheriff.
“I believe this closely represents [more] diversity than ever before,” he said, adding that his promotion of Lt. Matt Ware made Ware the first African-American commander in the county’s history.
Fitzgerald said he is “shifting the challenge that faces our office, [so] that my leadership has a way to make things better by moving forward, so that the community can see my heart.”
Fitzgerald engaged MJT Television to arrange the press conference. Based in Washington, D.C., MJT Television is a public relations firm that specializes in creating and delivering messages to minority audiences. MJT Television counts Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, California Sen. Barbara Boxer and the late Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, and other high profile political and entertainment figures among its clients.
Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, was among the demonstrators who gathered outside the sheriff’s press conference at the sheriff’s office on Bendix Road, Columbia.
“Obviously, we will have to assess his apology,” Howell said. “This is a very, very serious situation.”
Howell, long active in the Civil Rights Movement, said the African-American community has different expectations than it used to.
“Nowadays, we want to see the white community take the lead to fight discrimination and racism,” he said. “Well, we’ve got the white community. We’ve got three county executives who say he must resign. I think that’s a major breakthrough. All of these people [demonstrating] with Black Lives Matter placards, they’re all white. I was the only black person out here a while ago.”
Howell said he invited Fitzgerald to a past breakfast of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha “to try and create an environment where he could socialize and understand that the watermelon stuff and the fried chicken stuff is not the best way to go, being a very significant job, but he had to [decline] and then this popped up. You can’t say people aren’t allowed to say ‘I made a mistake,’ and there are some things he can do, but I don’t think he’s in that kind of a mode or that he has that kind of personality.”
Fitzgerald did not take questions from news media attending the press conference and did not address widespread calls for his resignation.