Rick Fitzgerald – the former Fresno Police Officer who was fired last Friday for his previous ties to the Proud Boys – alleged that Police Chief Paco Balderrama expedited his termination over public relations concerns before an internal affairs investigation into his conduct could be completed.
Fitzgerald was placed on administrative leave on March 14 after allegations surfaced on social media connecting Fitzgerald to the group. The Fresno Police Department opened an internal investigation into Fitzgerald.
A couple weeks after the internal affairs investigation started, Fitzgerald’s legal counsel with the Fresno Police Officers’ Association met with Balderrama.
That meeting made something clear to Fitzgerald: His future with the department – which he has nearly two decades of experience with – was already decided well before the investigation concluded.
“My lawyer had a meeting with the chief within that time, and the chief had told him that there’s no way that they’re going to keep me because of optics,” Fitzgerald told The Sun. “And he also admitted that in looking around or talking to people he only had heard good things about me, but I guess that didn’t matter.”
The only time Fitzgerald talked to someone with the department in an official capacity was when he received the phone call regarding his release.
He had been scheduled to meet with the officer conducting the internal affairs investigation on Monday, but he was fired before it took place, leaving him without an opportunity to plead his case.
During his month-long leave, Fitzgerald had his FPOA lawyer approach Balderrama about the possibility of taking a medical retirement and leaving quietly.
“I basically told my lawyer, I said, ‘Look, this is unfair. I’m not even part of these guys anymore. I broke no laws while I was there. But they’re acting like I’m running around burning crosses, or whatever the hell they think those guys do.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m going to fight this. I’m a very vocal person, and the minute that I start talking I’m going to talk to everybody and make sure they understand what exactly is happening, because it’s not fair,’” Fitzgerald said.
“So I said, ‘When you talk to the chief, just let him know that I’ll go quietly, just give me a medical retirement because I have more than enough paperwork to accomplish that, and I won’t be that voice.’ And the chief said, ‘Well if he’s got a case for it, then let him file for it.’ And then of course on Friday before I could even do that, they said, ‘You’re terminated.’”
Now, Fitzgerald is looking to take legal action against the City of Fresno, likely in the form of a wrongful termination suit. He has not hired an attorney to pursue litigation yet, but he said there are many lawyers who seem very interested in taking on the case.
“I don’t want to say any names, but there are people who want to talk to me,” Fitzgerald said. “And there are people who are watching how this is playing out, and they’re just like, ‘What are these guys doing?’
“We have guys who have literally killed people in the department – Dylan Noble comes to mind – and they got due process and retained their jobs. I would like to think that used to being part of a group that a part of America hates, but not everybody, is not as bad as actually killing somebody. The imbalance of punishment is just insane to me.”
Fitzgerald said that he was given no explanation for being placed on leave initially, and when the department fired him, he was told it was for reasons including abuse of authority, conduct unbecoming, discretion, and for one incidence of alleged robbery in Sacramento during a protest last November.
That alleged robbery gave Balderrama the ability to execute an emergency termination.
Fitzgerald gave his account of the incident:
“This girl comes into this fray that’s getting ready to start, and you can see the flag that’s kind of by my head. So I grab the flag and push it down. She starts doing something with it. I don’t know if she’s trying to hit me or not, so I grab the flag. So we go back and forth for like two seconds, and then I let go. And then another guy grabs the flag and pulls it from her.
“So what they’re saying is I stole the flag from her and that is probably why they had to fire me, because they have a stipulation that if you are caught committing a crime, they can do the emergency termination. So they’re basically saying that I stole this girl’s flag and the Sacramento PD’s investigating you, but I’m like, ‘There’s a video showing I didn’t, so either you’re woefully ignorant or you’re just horrible investigators.’”
Fitzgerald maintained that he had no black marks on his record during his 18 years with the police force. He underwent a couple internal investigations due to traffic collisions, and he had a pair of other investigations into claims that were not sustained.
Although Dyer was the police chief for the majority of Fitzgerald’s career, he said he did not have much interaction with the current mayor.
Fitzgerald wrote a post on Facebook a few years ago – when Dyer was initially looking for his replacement – voicing his complaints about the former chief staying on and receiving a paycheck instead of bringing a new chief in.
Dyer’s secretary reached out and set up a coffee meeting between Dyer and Fitzgerald to give them a chance to connect.
“We went and had coffee, and I basically said, ‘Look, the way you’re running the department’s horrible. It just is. The way you do special units is no good. The morale is at an all-time low.’ And he was like, ‘Well, morale’s not really my problem.’ I was like, ‘You know you set the tone, right? That’s you, not us. We basically react on you.’ So he didn’t get anything from that,” Fitzgerald said.
Ultimately, Fitzgerald sees his termination as a failure by Balderrama and Dyer, and he is disappointed that he was not given fair treatment.
“I think at the bare minimum you at least have to let the process play out,” Fitzgerald said. “And the fact that they tried to make this of such an emergent nature that they had to get rid of me now like I’m some kind of danger – it’s all political. And I feel like it’s just Jerry wanting to make himself look good.”
Will Fitzgerald be able to get a job with a new law enforcement agency?
“I’ll be lucky to get a job in anything again, because all people have to do is Google my name, and the lies just start popping up,” Fitzgerald said. “So it’s very unfortunate.”
Given the situation, Fitzgerald is not even sure if he wants to pursue further law enforcement work.
“I’m kind of torn. I really liked what I did, and I loved having the ability to help people – legitimately and sincerely take their problems upon my shoulders and do what I could to make it better for them,” Fitzgerald said. “And not having the ability to do that anymore is really unfortunate.”