Looking back at 2015: Officer found unique way to reach youth

By David Talley | Published Saturday, December 26, 2015

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Hot Rod

HOT ROD – Wise County Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Fitzgerald’s modified police cruiser can cover a quarter mile drag strip in roughly 11 seconds. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

“Driving force: deputy uses racing to bond with speedsters,” published Jan. 7

This was the first feature I wrote this year, and in the context of national events straining the relationship between law enforcement and citizens later in 2015, it may be one of my more impactful.

David Talley

David Talley

Nationally, Gallup reports that public trust in law enforcement is around 52 percent, marking a historic low. It’s significantly higher in smaller counties, like Wise, and lower in more urban areas, like the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Wise County Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Fitzgerald is a member of a Metroplex chapter of Beat the Heat, a national program formed to curb street racing by moving it to a controlled track and giving potential street racers a chance to race against (and relate to) law enforcement officials.

Fitzgerald’s wife, Alida, said she and her husband have been able to interact with thousands of kids across North Texas through the program. She summarized it as a chance to build better relationships with the community.

“You hear about these parents who tell their kids, ‘I’ll take you to the police, and they’ll put you in jail if you don’t behave.’ That’s not what officers want to portray. This program gives officers a way to portray themselves as what they really are – real people.”

The philosophy is pretty simple: meeting law enforcement officials in a friendly setting outside their job reaffirms them as the good guys and encouraging kids to race legally keeps them safe and out of other potentially dangerous and illegal situations.

Fitzgerald said getting teens interested in racing, a sport he knows firsthand occupies a lot of time, is a good way to keep them on the right side of the law.

“In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, street racing is a huge problem,” he said, “so a lot of us focus on that, with the intent that if we can get people interested in the racing program that will, in turn, keep them off drugs and away from criminal activity.”

Alida even took up racing, hoping to appeal to a growing number of female racers. Local tracks offer free admission for high school students on certain nights as an incentive.

Wise County’s local law enforcement officials already do a great deal of good for this community. At the fatal wrecks I’ve covered for the Messenger, the Department of Public Safety troopers exude courtesy and professionalism. Local police departments always seem to make headlines for innovative crime fighting techniques, and recently the police and sheriff’s department’s Santa Cops and Santa’s Deputies toy drives have made big differences in the lives of those who don’t have much this Christmas.

There’s no doubt there are some great people behind the badge in this county, but Gary Fitzgerald doesn’t just work Wise County.

His commitment to make a difference in North Texas is why his story has true impact.

David Talley is a Messenger reporter.

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