After an approximately 38-year career in law enforcement, Keego Harbor Police Chief John Fitzgerald is set to retire.

After an approximately 38-year career in law enforcement, Keego Harbor Police Chief John Fitzgerald is set to retire.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Keego police chief set to retire

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published May 16, 2024


KEEGO HARBOR — Keego Harbor Police Chief John Fitzgerald recently reflected on avoiding having to make a tough call approximately four decades ago.

After playing football at Grand Valley State University, Fitzgerald recalls getting a phone call one morning when he was in the police academy.

An average, mundane phone call this was not, as on the other end of the phone was “one of the player personnel people from the Detroit Lions.”

The call was in regard to a potential try-out with the Lions.

For as fantastic of an opportunity as that might seem like, Fitzgerald said that he was torn.

“I wanted to play pro football, but I also wanted to be a police officer,” Fitzgerald said. “If I left to go try out and I didn’t make the team, I’d have to wait a whole nother year to go to the police academy again. And then, talking with the Lions, they really didn’t need a 225-pound defensive lineman. … That solved the problem right there — I had lost weight since the season had been over.”

Not being quite as big as what the Lions were looking for helped allow Fitzgerald to continue to focus on the career path he was in the midst of pursuing.

The exploration of that career path began during his time at Grand Valley State, as according to Fitzgerald, a friend suggested that he take a criminal justice class.

He took his friend up on that suggestion, with that decision eventually leading to a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and the opportunity to be a part of Grand Valley State’s police academy.

“And then I did an internship with the Kentwood Police Department, over by Grand Rapids, and when I got into that internship, I was like, ‘This is it. This is exactly what I wanna do.’ And I knew it from there on out: That was the career I wanted to have.”

Fitzgerald’s aspiration came to fruition, as he has spent approximately 38 years in law enforcement.

Despite the satisfaction that has come from his career choice, Fitzgerald recently decided that the time has come to retire, which he is set to do June 3.

“I’ve been trying to do it for the last six months, but I still love my job so much I couldn’t walk down the hall and do it,” Fitzgerald said. “But the deadline was coming up for my wife retiring too, so just about three weeks ago is when I made that decision. … When you’re in a career that you love as much as I do, it’s hard to walk away. I think I feel right about it now.”

Fitzgerald said that he began his career working as a police officer for the city of Hillsdale in 1985. After spending approximately two years there, he accepted a position with the Southfield Police Department, where he worked for approximately 29 years.

After serving in a variety of roles, he was the deputy chief when he left that department. He said that he “had to go” due to the way the retirement system was set up there.

After taking some time off, Fitzgerald said, a fellow Southfield Police Department retiree, Joe George, who at that time was the chief of the Orchard Lake Police Department, called him to let him know that the chief’s position was going to become available at the Keego Harbor Police Department.

Fitzgerald took his shot at it and began in that role in January 2018.

He said that it has been a “great job.”

“The guys I work with have been a bunch of great officers,” Fitzgerald said. “Every chief’s job has its challenges, and a small department has a different set of challenges (than) a larger department like Southfield, so you just have to adapt and overcome. … We have some part-time positions here, and a lot of the officers that take part-time positions are still looking for full-time work, so they come and they go, and you have to keep working to replace those spots.”

Despite Keego not having as high of a pay scale as larger departments, working in a small city can have other advantages.

“It’s a small community, so you get to know a lot of the people around here,” Fitzgerald said. “You can stop in the businesses and say hi, and drive down the streets and talk to someone raking their leaves or cutting their grass or shoveling their driveway and get a chance to know some of the citizens face-to-face.”

Keego City Councilman Joel Ross said that police officers in Keego are “neighborhood-friendly” and look out for the residents.

Ross thinks that attribute is a reflection of their chief. He recalled a role that Fitzgerald played prior to Roosevelt Elementary School being closed approximately two years ago.

“He’s a gentle giant,” Ross said. “He’s an imposing figure … but he is accessible, and I know he (spent) a lot of time when Roosevelt had kids coming and going – the chief was there supervising their safe arrival to school or return home.”

According to Fitzgerald, it is not yet known who will take over his position.

From Ross’ perspective, whoever that is has a tough act to follow.

“It’s going to be tough to find someone to fill (the) chief’s shoes,” Ross said. “I’ve enjoyed many conversations with him – everything from city business to things on a more personal level, and I really hope that our next chief meets the standard that Chief Fitzgerald has set for the city.”

Robert Barnes has been a detective with the Keego Police Department during Fitzgerald’s entire tenure with the city. He has observed a chief who is smart about police work, fair, and respected by the community.

For Barnes, one of the things that stood out about Fitzgerald is that he didn’t immediately try to impose his will upon his arrival.

“He didn’t come in and cause chaos and stress everybody out,” Barnes said. “Every jurisdiction has its own personality, its own thing going on, but Keego not only has that, it has its own culture going on. So he observed that and molded to it and kept everything nice and steady and un-chaotic, and for the most part, drama-free.”

Barnes called the decision to hire Fitzgerald a good one.

Along with Rob Kalman, John Fletcher is the only member of Keego’s City Council who held that position when Fitzgerald was hired.

He said that Fitzgerald was a stand-out candidate who turned out to be a fantastic chief.

“He’s changed the perception of our Police Department,” Fletcher said. “He’s totally transformed it so it is a community-based police department that patrols the neighborhoods, and community policing is the top priority, so that’s made all the difference in the world. Ticket writing was put secondary to patrolling the neighborhoods and just having friendly relations with the community as a whole. I think that’s the biggest impact that John made and has made, and you could see it in the interviewing process, that he understood that’s what we needed.”

Fletcher also added that,  “He’s the type of man I would want as my neighbor. I just don’t think we could’ve ever found a better person for the job.”

Kalman recalled some of the characteristics that helped set Fitzgerald apart.

“When he first came to Keego Harbor and the selection committee identified three candidates for the City Council to review, our city manager was in the process of narrowing her decision and asked for some input, and he stood out in his leadership and his knowledge of police work and his demeanor – clearly it showed us that he was the right person for the job at the time. I like that he’s community-minded; I like that I’d see him driving around Keego Harbor … to talk to members of the community, to see what was going on in the city.”

Fitzgerald graduated from Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School. He has been married for nearly 30 years and has two daughters.

He thanked his wife and children for the support that they have given him over the years.

“They were able to tolerate and stand by me as I worked the midnights and I worked the weekends and worked the holidays,” Fitzgerald said. “To have them support me all the way through, I’m really thankful for them.”

Traveling and playing golf are among the activities that Fitzgerald would like to partake in during retirement.

Fitzgerald described the department that he is set to retire from as “pretty solid,” with officers who “care about their community that they’re working for.”

“I hope that I left it better than I found it,” Fitzgerald said. “I thank everybody for their support and their encouragement and the fact that I got to be here and serve the community.”

Fitzgerald further reflected on the tough call that he didn’t have to make about whether or not to try out for the Lions and his friend’s suggestion that he take a criminal justice class.

“God has a plan for us and, hopefully, we follow His plan,” he said. “I think it worked out for me.”