“Such ideology, behavior and affiliations have no place in law enforcement and will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Fresno Police Department,” Balderrama said in a statement, without specifying exactly why Fitzgerald was ousted. “Public trust and accountability are paramount in our ability to fairly police this community.”
Police departments around the country are moving to root out officers with extremist ties, spurred by a pro-Trump mob’s rioting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Off-duty officers are charged in the insurrection. So are affiliates of the Proud Boys — a group that recently got a terrorist designation from the Canadian government and has a reputation for fomenting violence at political protests.
Fitzgerald says he has been unfairly smeared after nearly two decades of good work on the police force. He said he rejects violence and racism. He also maintained he “never saw any sign of any kind of racism” during his year or so with the Proud Boys, though he said someone was once expelled from a chat after posting something “Nazi-related.”
“If you have an organization, you do get some guys that are dummies and they’re going to do what they want to do,” he said.
He told The Washington Post and other news outlets that he left the Proud Boys after the November rally, dismayed at other members’ actions. In a YouTube video from earlier this year, however, Fitzgerald encouraged people to join all kinds of far-right groups.
“I don’t care if it’s Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Patriot Prayer, Sons of ’76, get involved,” he urged in a video preserved by the Fresno Bee, wearing sunglasses and a “Sheepdog” cap. “We’re gonna be facing some dark times with Biden and Kamala-lalla up there doing God knows what.”
He went on to promote his own small organization, the Sons of ’76, as a group of “gentleman combatants” — a phrase he told The Post was purely metaphorical.
“Because we’re gentleman until it’s time to not be gentlemen, and then we gotta throw down and do what we gotta do when the time comes,” Fitzgerald said in the video.
The Fresno Police said they launched an internal affairs investigation in mid-March, within hours of seeing allegations that Fitzgerald was affiliated with the Proud Boys. With a public uproar brewing, prosecutors in Fresno County said they would review cases involving the officer.
“I will not tolerate any City of Fresno employee belonging to organizations that promote views of supremacy, racism, or criminal conduct,” Mayor Jerry Dyer said in a statement at the time.
People had spotted Fitzgerald at dueling protests over a local theater’s sale to a church. The Proud Boys were there, though Fitzgerald said he did not join them — he wore his Sons of ’76 gear.
Threading pictures on Twitter, someone found clips from another demonstration, a pro-Trump rally in downtown Sacramento in late November. Fitzgerald went wearing a “Sheepdog” tag and the Proud Boys’ customary yellow and black kilt.
Video from the event captures Fitzgerald briefly grabbing and pulling a woman’s flag, which bore slogans such as “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “LOVE IS LOVE.” The officer lets go within a few seconds, shortly before another man rips the flag from the woman’s hands.
Fitzgerald said in an interview that he just did not want to get hit by the flagpole.
Soon several people — including a man in a “Proud Boy” hat — punch and shove the woman, in a moment also filmed by the Sacramento Bee. The Bee reported at the time that police declared an unlawful assembly as the rally and counterprotest became a “brawl.”
“I don’t hit girls,” Fitzgerald told The Post, calling others’ behavior at that rally “very distasteful.”
Founded in 2016 by a former co-founder of Vice magazine, the Proud Boys often show up heavily armed to protests, raising fears of violent confrontations. The group’s leaders say they oppose racism, though the Southern Poverty Law Center calls Proud Boys a hate group whose “actions belie their disavowals of bigotry.” Some members joined the infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white-nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists,” the SPLC says.
Fitzgerald said he was set to meet with his department on Monday and discuss the allegations against him for the first time.
Then, he said, on Friday, he got a call: He was fired.
In a statement, the Fresno Police Officers’ Association said it is looking into potential violations of Fitzgerald’s rights. The ex-officer was not given a hearing or the chance to “provide any statement in his own defense,” the union said.
Asked Saturday if he will try to fight the firing, Fitzgerald said he will defer to his lawyer.
Fresno police spokesman Robert Beckwith declined to comment beyond the department’s recent news release and said he could not “confirm any facts of the investigation.” The police chief’s statement cited “legal constraints surrounding personnel matters” that limited the details they could share.
Dyer said in a statement Friday that he is “pleased” Fitzgerald will no longer serve on city police and that “it is clear to me that there were egregious violations of department policy.”
The firing came as law enforcement leaders take hard looks at their officers’ affiliations in the wake of the Capitol riots, trying to balance employees’ rights against key values and the trust of the community.
The push extends to the military, too: In a memo released Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed more screening for extremist behavior among recruits.
National Sheriffs’ Association President David Mahoney told The Post early this year that he believes many law enforcement leaders underestimated the problem of extremism in their ranks.
“We saw the anti-government, anti-equality and racist comments coming out during the Obama administration,” he said. “Shame on us for representing it as freedom of speech and for not recognizing it was chiseling away at our democracy.”